We’ve all read books or seen movies where we know damned well that the hero will survive and the villain will die a grisly death. After all, that pretty much describes 90% of all books and films. And usually, when the hero does die or the villain does live, it’s expected too. Gladiator had to turn out as it did. Any tale or movie of the life of Julius Caesar us unlikely to throw you an unexpected ending. Angus Donald’s recent ‘The Death of Robin Hood’ might be the most extreme example I can come up with, but it proves the point well. And (at least in literature rather than on screen) Batman’s enemies are always banged up rather than killed. The point is we expect lead characters to survive and villains to die. And usually when that’s not the case, we are led to expect that from the beginning.
Often that’s a thing a writer is comfortable with, because their readers are comfortable with it. And if you’re writing a series (say a run of detective novels) it might give you something of a headache to kill off your detective part way through. On TV this has not always been the case, of course. Taggart without Taggart. From Morse to Lewis. But on the whole it doesn’t work well in book series. Writers don’t like to kill important characters without the readers wanting it.
But sometimes it’s nice to buck the trend. Lord of the Rings threw me my earliest curveball when Boromir took those three arrows to the torso less than a third of the way into the story! Guy Gavriel Kay in ‘A Song for Arbonne’ kills off the character we all spent the book hoping would reconcile with his brother and come back. Darth Vader! Be honest. No one ever wants Darth Vader to die. He’s too cool for that. And on the flip side, James Wilde in his Hereward books actually has Hereward the Wake live through the end of his revolt and go on to whole new adventures where historical record sees him disappear. Go on… kill off the ones they like. You know you want to.
Perhaps the best example of that for me is also Star Wars. Because we all know that Boba Fett is the cool customer, and don’t you just wince at the awful decision of George Lucas’s to drop him in the Sarlacc Pit? And that’s why a novel was written around how he got back out. Because that sat so badly with fans.
But the things is that these deaths, especially when carried out in an arbitrary and off-hand fashion, create an atmosphere of tension and the unexpected. When Boromir dies, we spend the rest of the book on edge, aware that Tolkien could very easily kill off another of our faves. In Angus Donald’s Outlaw series, the Sheriff of Nottingham dies less than half way through the saga! And Little John is gone in the penultimate book! (Sorry for the spoiler there.) So that means that no one is truly safe from Donald’s pen. And that makes the series lively and tense. It adds something. Some writers take it to the level of an art form. I write in the historical genre and I do this often. Gordon Doherty and Anthony Riches are both well known for their body counts of principle characters, too. My latest novel (Insurgency) is the fourth in a series of historical fantasy books. And in the first of that series (Interregnum) I kill off a character so important to the plot part way through that I regularly receive emails from readers who are astonished that I did it.
On a similar note, with crime novels, while it’s fascinating to read about a murder and then follow the investigators through the book working out how it was done, it is often so much more exciting to read them when murders continue to happen throughout the book, perhaps becoming a race against the clock, or a race between criminal and investigator.
Expendables, you see? Throw an unexpected death in from time to time and keep the reader edgy and uncertain. It adds so much to the experience.
Insurgency by S J A Turney
For twenty years, civil war has torn the Empire apart, and the once proud soldiers of the Imperial army now fight as hired hands for greedy lords fighting over the remnants of a more glorious time. Now the Empire is rising again under the benevolent reign of Emperor Kiva the Golden. Meanwhile his younger brother – the gifted warrior Quintillian – has been driven away from the Imperial Palace by an uncontrollable love for the Emperor’s wife Jala. Instead the honourable fighter chooses a life of simplicity as a sword for hire leaving the long legacy of his family behind. But not all ties of loyalty can be escaped and the bonds of family run deep…
Insurgency is published by Canelo, priced at £3.99 as an ebook