"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A time to live, a time to die

The Death of Arthur, by John Mulcaster Carrick 1862
"I may not be able to save her, but I can bear witness to her fate as a friend, and I can stand nearby when she meets her darkest hour."
~Mage Corey, from High Maga

A couple years back I had a very interesting experience while doing a beta read for my good friend and fellow author Terri-Lynne DeFino. 

In the original version of the manuscript she sent me, one of the major characters faded into the background during the last third of the book. This situation didn't sit right with me. 

On the one hand, the story was very well constructed up to the last page; lots of tension, uncertainty, and conflict all around. Terri had tight character arcs for everyone -- except this particular individual. He had played a crucial role in the first part of the book, but by the end it was like reading about a ghost, a person unseen and without any power over the events at hand.

Then it hit me:  I felt like I was reading about a ghost because this character was a ghost. Terri had passed through a crucial moment in the story when he should have died, but did not. 

When I brought this to Terri's attention, she knew immediately that I was right. In fact, she confessed that for several reasons she had conscientiously resisted the instinct to 'kill' him in precisely the same place that I identified as his moment to die. 

Terri went on to 'fix' this part of the manuscript before the book went to press, making the character's story much more fulfilling, moving, and heroic.  More worthy of the extraordinary person he is. (In case you're curious, her wonderful novel is now available as A Time Never Lived, another great title from Hadley Rille Books.)

When Terri and I first had this discussion, I was not new to killing characters.  I had sent a fair share to their deaths in Eolyn. As for High Maga, it is a veritable blood bath by comparison to my first novel, as many of you will soon find out.

Letting my characters die time and again hasn't been easy for me, but I've done it, for the most part because I've recognized how important those deaths are for plot, tension, and story building.

Sure, we all wish Romeo and Juliet had lived, but would their
story be nearly as compelling if it were written any other way?
But in reading Terri's manuscript, I gained a new perspective on this age old aspect of the craft. I learned that in order to truly respect a character, we must allow him or her to meet their destiny, especially when that destiny is death. 

If we force a character to live past their moment, we condemn them to being a ghost in our fictitious worlds, to becoming personalities without form or reason; the types of characters our readers tend to get annoyed by and may even come to hate.

If we allow them to die in their moment, we give greater meaning to their life.  Everything they desired, fought for, did or failed to do stands out in sharp relief against the impact of their absence.  The reader comes to appreciate the character more, to remember them better, and to say long after they finish reading the book, "If only he  (or she) hadn't died. . ."

All of this has come back to me in recent days, because in the writing of Daughter of Aithne, I've had to let another character die. Who, how, or why  is irrelevant at the moment (after all, this particular death may be edited out again by the time the novel hits press).  What matters is the impulse it gave me to share these thoughts with you.

Like Mage Corey in the war-torn world of High Maga, we as authors cannot always save our characters.  But that's okay, because sometimes what's more important is to bear witness to their fates; to stand close by when they meet their darkest hour.

I have a fun post up this week on Heroines of Fantasy about The White Queen, and how the incomparable Philippa Gregory has inspired me as an author.  Stop by to read and share your thoughts when you have a chance.
Also, my Orangeberry Book Tour will continue next week on August 19th with a guest post on the Quality Reads UK Book Club.  Please stop by to say hi, and by all means, share the link with your friends!

I hope you are in for a great weekend.