On writing

Killing off your characters

So J. K. Rowling intends to kill off a couple of major characters in her Harry Potter series, according to an interview she did with Britain’s Channel 4. In the widely quoted interview, Rowling says that she

… understood an author’s desire to kill off the main character of a successful series. …

“I can completely understand, however, the mentality of an author who thinks ‘Well, I’m going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author-written sequels … so it will end with me, and after I’m dead and gone they won’t be able to bring back the character’.”

Two die in final Potter book, Rowling warns, SMH, 27 June 2006

I don’t pretend to know the reasons behind Rowling’s decision to kill off the two characters she plans to, but this is one subject that both we, and our friends who are readers, are very passionate about, and have been for years €”long before Harry Potter arrived on the scene.

Killing off a character in a story is fine, provided it’s a logical and believable part of the story. But killing off characters simply because you are sick of them, or worse, for some belief that in doing so you ensure no-one else can write about them is not only stupidity, it’s breaking a pact with the readers who have supported you by reading your novels.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the most famous author to do this, when he tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but he is not the only one.

No author appears to be immune. Even some of our own favourite authors have done so. Ivan Southall, author of the Simon Black series, attempted to kill Simon and Alan off in an unpublished novel Simon Black in Arabia. Peter O’Donnell killed off Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin in The Cobra Trap. (I confess, I’m like a lot of Modesty fans. I haven’t read the story. I don’t want to.)

O’Donnell, apparently, was one of those people who did not want others writing about his characters after he dies.

Why bother? Why kill off a character just because you are sick of them?

No-one is forcing you to write. Contracts notwithstanding, you can always stop writing about the characters you have grown to hate and start writing about something else. And if you do have a contract…you knew what you were getting into when you signed that contract. If it’s a long one let’s hope you are well paid for your troubles. You signed, you need to deliver. But if you re-sign again afterwards on a series character you know you can’t keep going with, you need to seriously look at your reasons for doing what you are doing.

A reader who has remained faithful to your characters over a number of novels deserves more than an arrogant kick-in-the-teeth decision of, “I’m sick of this character. I think I’ll kill him/her off.”

Respect your readers. Respect your characters.

Who knows. You may even find there’s another story in them. Robin Hobb did with Fitz and the Fool. She says herself that,

“Many readers probably recall that at the end of Assassin’s Quest I was certain that I had finished writing about Fitz and the Fool. Then I found out I was wrong.”

Robin Hobb, Is Fool’s Fate the last book about Fitz and the Fool?

Look what a few years break did for her. We got the Tawny Man, our favourite Robin Hobb series to date.

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