Now, sooner or later, we all have to “shuffle off that mortal coil,” heading off to death, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” as Will famously said. And that extends even to literary characters. But the cavalier fate of those poor red shirts, who kept dying unmourned, episode after episode, came vividly back to me after watching a lovely little film titled Stranger than Fiction (StF).
Released in 2006 to generally favourable reviews, StF featured a stellar cast that included Will Ferrell as protagonist Harold Crick, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson. Crick is a lonely, introverted IRS agent who, out of the blue one day, starts hearing a voice in his head, narrating the events of his life in real time as they occur --- and providing one truly terrifying piece of foreshadowing: his impending death. Naturally, at first, he thinks he’s crazy. But as the film progresses, it becomes evident to him (and us) that he is really a fictional character somehow hearing the storyline of his author, Karen Eiffel (played with terrific despair by Emma Thompson as she struggles with writer’s block to type out the narrative). Eventually, Crick and Eiffel meet… which you’ve got to know would be a pretty surreal experience/shock for any writer… and it is. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really explore the metaphysical aspects of this situation at all, Dustin Hoffman’s role aside (he plays a university creative writing professor who ultimately comes to the conclusion that Crick is, indeed, a fictional character hearing his creator’s voice). Hearing our Creator’s Voice. That alone would be a pretty stunning cosmic moment for any of us, but as I said, the film rather glosses over such weighty matters, which is a shame, because exploring them would have made a good film even better, but hey --- as Cinema Sins is so fond of saying on YouTube, no movie is without sin. And in any event, I found the film rather thought-provoking, which I suppose is certainly saying something in these days of vapid, big budget, heavily CGI laden movies that mostly seem to deal with comic book franchises and cardboard cut-out characters. And spawn a host of mostly uninspired, unimaginative sequels featuring same again. But I digress.
Now, as a writer who’s finished my first novel (Gryphon’s Heir) and is hard at work on the sequel (Gryphon’s Awakening) in what will (hopefully) be an epic fantasy series (trilogy at least, maybe more), I’ve already killed my fair share of literary characters. Quite a few have been the equivalent of Star Trek’s red shirts, and I must confess, rather shamefaced, that I killed them off with nary a qualm. “I mean, they were extras, man… you know, static, flat characters who were little more than glorified props!” (Or as Arnie Schwarzenegger’s character said in the film True Lies when questioned by his horrified wife as to whether he had ever killed anyone, “Yeah, but they were all bad people.” Oh, well, that’s all right, then, Arnie.) But in my second book… yeah, that one, the one currently under construction… I do kill off a fairly major character. In rather a grisly fashion, to boot, when I stop to think about it. And she’s not a bad person, so I don’t even have that rather flimsy moral justification to fall back on. She’s just a sweet young woman whose life is saved by my protagonist in book 1 and who kinda-but-not-quite becomes a sorta-but-not quite love interest for him.
I guess, when we’re contemplating murdering a literary character, perhaps we need to ask ourselves several questions:
Is the death gratuitous? In other words, why are you killing this character? Shock value alone is neither sufficient nor in good taste (in spite of what lessons you may have absorbed through watching current television series like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead).
Does the death advance the storyline? In other words, what is going to be gained through this character’s untimely demise? Does our protagonist stand to gain some deep philosophical or practical understanding about Life, the Universe, and Everything In It? If not, why not?
Is there any other way the storyline can be advanced without this death occurring? In other words, does the death have to occur? Is it a Needful Thing?
Now, yeah, I know, I know: it’s a rum old world out there --- both real and imaginary worlds --- and Bad Things Happen. All The Damn Time. Some of those Bad Things seem completely arbitrary, even capricious. (I happen to believe they’re not, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
But I also know I’d hate to have a fair-haired, radiantly beautiful young woman, dressed in a flowing gown, show up on my doorstep one day, gaze soulfully at me and ask with achingly sweet innocence, like Cindy-Lou Who in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, “Santy-Claus! Why? Why did you kill me?”
“Well, my dear, you see, it’s like this…”
Yikes. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly not to be wished. (With apologies to Will.)