Thursday, December 15, 2005

Avoiding Red Shirts

I suppose next to being a doctor, being a writer is as close to playing God as humanly possible. Who else has the power to give life - and take life away - merely on the turn of a thought? Sure, they're only fictional people, but the feeling of power is still there to a minute degree.

The bringing life part is easy. People pop into my head a heck of a lot faster than the normal nine-month gestation time it takes to create a real human. If given the chance and free time, I have no doubt I could populate entire cities of characters. Sure, some would be more interesting than others, but that's the fun part.

It's the death part that gets a little hairy. I'm not talking about killing off random innocent victims so your homocide detective can go on the trail of a serial killer or sending a jumbo jet full of passengers into the ocean so the ex-CIA investigator has a reason to come out of her pre-mature retirement.

I'm talking about the killing of characters with names and faces within the context of the story. Characters you've introduced to the readers and maybe even gone so far as to make them care.

I once wrote a story in which I killed off one of the main protagonists. Actually, she was the heroine (and I'm sure you've guessed this wasn't a romance in the strictest definition). From the moment she was conceived in my mind, I knew her fate. I knew she wasn't going to live, I knew how she was going to die, and I knew what effect it would have on the hero. In my brain, it was fait accompli, and I couldn't imagine the story ending any other way.

I did get some grief from readers about my heroine's sad end. Some didn't understand why she had to die. The hero of the story was destined to be with a different woman, and although my heroine wasn't necessary for his HEA, there seemed to be no reason she couldn't go on to live the rest of her life without him, off screen. Heartbroken, perhaps, because the hero had chosen another, but alive to possibly find love again.

True, this was a viable option. I could have let her live. Except, her death meant more to the story than simply doing away with the extra woman. In fact, I forced my hero to decide between her and his true love before she died. I didn't want to give him the easy-out of going back to his sweetheart simply because he no longer had any choices.

But the heroine's death served to put the hero's decision and his relationship with her into sharp contrast. By acknowledging the depth of his sorrow over losing her, he was able to understand how much she'd meant to him and to come to terms with his feelings. He was able to put their brief relationship into the context of his entire life. And he was able to put his past to rest. Yes, he had many regrets, her death being the largest. But never would he have to wonder "what if" or "where is she now?" His time with her was brief yet powerful, and once he chose to leave her, it was almost as if the idea of her was taken away from him. Her death acted as a concrete manifestation of the end of that part of his life and the impossibility for him to ever to return to it.

So, sometimes the death of a character comes easily. Sometimes, when you read a story or watch a movie, from the beginning you know in your heart that there is no other way. Titanic provides the perfect example. As much as you adored Jack Dawson and wanted him and Rose to live happily ever after, it felt inevitable that one of them wouldn't make it. Their story played as a small tragedy inside the framework of a massive tragedy. Just as the beauty and magnificence of the Titanic was too good to last (don't tease the gods by claiming you are their equal), so was the improbable romance between the poor boy from the streets and the upper crusty society girl.

I mean, could you imagine the scenario if both Jack and Rose had been rescued? Somehow the romace withers when one thinks on how severe Rose's adjustment would have been by loving (and marrying?) a man so far beneath her accustomed way of living.

Sometimes death is necessary to keep the romance pure. Take Nicholas Spark's A Walk to Remember. We won't debate the quality of the story or Spark's writing abilities because that's a whole entry unto itself. But the death of Jamie, the preacher's daughter, is almost a must. She served the role of angel to hero Landon's bad-boy, forcing him to see the world through new eyes and change his ways so he could make something of himself. She was pure and good (too pure and good, many would say), and the love they shared was something beyong the norm. Taking it to the next step diminishes it. Jamie came into Landon's life, showed him something, then left.

I'm faced now with something a little different than the death of a main character because I'm writing romance, complete with HEAs that necessitate a fully breathing hero and heroine (ignoring my wont to wander into paranormals for a minute). But at least two of my stories require the death of secondary characters.

These are not gratuitous deaths of characters we've only just met before they are whacked in order to show the evilness of the villain, a la the red shirts of Star Trek fame, or to shock readers. These characters need to die in order to propel the plot forward and to give the main characters motivation to act the way they do.

As such, I need to establish some relationship between the soon-to-be-dead and the hero/heroines who will suffer afterward. I need those deaths to mean something, to count within the context of the story.

Yet, it seems like a monumental waste of time an energy to evolve these secondary characters as deeply as I do main characters and villains. Do these people need pasts? Do they need family members beyond the direct scope of the story? Do they need motivation other than what's necessary to create the situation? It just seems so odd to invent people just so they can die.

I suppose it shows mastery of the craft and lots of hard earned experience when a writer can convey the depth of a relationship in such a way that the effects of one person's death on another can be felt without spending oodles of word count on episodes to set up this closeness. A good writer makes us want to cry right alongside of the hero or heroine when his or her loved one is lost.

And I suppose my answer lies right there. If you want the readers to feel the hero or heroine's pain when someone they care about dies, then you have to take the time and make the effort for the reader to care about that person as well. The more important the death is in driving a character in a certain direction, the more time must be spent on the history of the relationship.

Otherwise, meaning it to be so or not, every character who dies becomes nothing more than a red shirt.

1 comment:

meljean brook said...

Sigh. I'm red-shirting a couple of my characters, I think.