Relatively long post ahead. Grab a nice, hot mug of tea and settle in =)
Do you know how to make people care about the characters in your story? It’s a big secret but I’m going to let you in on a conclusion I’ve reached.
The key is, you need to make your audience worried for your character’s safety.
It sounds so simple doesn’t it?
“But Perry, you handsome devil you, why are you bothering to tell us something that everyone already knows?” You might ask.
Well let me tell you, giving your audience a genuine fear that their favorite character won’t make it out of there alive is a damned hard feat.
For starters, if you’ve built up a big emotional investment with the audience and your main character, as an author, you don’t want the ninny to die either. I mean really? Name the last time you’ve written something, or even read/watched something where the main character was ever in genuine danger of getting squished.
When Luke Skywalker fought Vader at the end of Empire Strikes Back, were you at any point worried for the whiny bugger? Hell no. Despite the fact that he was fighting against some mysterious “master” of force powers with a fetish for breathing heavy and and wearing black, you knew that Luke would make it out of there alive. Just like you knew that Han would be saved before the series was over (even though that almost didn’t happen).
In Aladdin, the guy grabs the lamp and oh no, the cave is collapsing. There’s lava and fire and rocks falling in and all sorts of shit and he’s flying out of there desperately on his flying carpet, monkey in tow. Are you, at any point, worried that he’s not going to make it out of there? Hell no. For starters, the movie’s named after him and for seconders, it’s not even halfway into the movie by that point.
I can throw out a million more examples off the top of my head but I’ll spare you as I’m sure that you can think of just as many on your own.
The point is, the vast, vast majority of the time, you really aren’t worried about the safety of the main characters.
Sure, the supporting cast might die, in one brave sacrifice or another, and the very odd time, the main character might buy the farm at the very end where he’s got a chance to make a giant heroic gesture that’s all dramatic and will be mourned by everyone, in great detail and a public setting. But when are you genuinely afraid for the main character during the course of the story?
The authors themselves invest so goddamned much into them that they don’t dare risk them. They might scrape by on the skin of their teeth but they will. Not. Die.
To be sure, there are a lot of ways to jerk at the heartstrings and get you to shell out emotional cash for the main character but threatening to really kill them isn’t one that’s often used.
Which is exactly why, in the hands of an artist, such an act can become so poignant and memorable.
Two in particular stand out for me. George R. R Martin is notorious for one thing really in his Song of Ice and Fire series and that’s making you grow to love a character, and then rubbing them out.
I’m really not kidding.
Time after time in that series, he introduces a character that you don’t really like at the start. They’re too arrogant or cold or distant but I’ll be damned if they don’t grow on you. Brienne, Jaime, Tyrion, all characters I didn’t like at the start when I met them but as time went on they grew on me like you wouldn’t believe. Then I turn a page and they’re dead, mutilated or completely up shit creek without even a boat let alone a paddle.
It’s remarkably effective when done well but I often get an impression of a callous disregard on the part of Mr. Martin, as if they aren’t real living, breathing characters but pawns to be moved around in the game of thrones.
On the other end of that spectrum is Guy Gavriel Kay.
Go and take a gander at his Fionavar Tapestry or The Lions of Al-Rassan.Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here till you’re done.
. . .
Okay, you’re back.
Kay tends to kill off a lot of his characters too during the course of his books, supporting cast, main characters, nobody’s really safe. But with Kay, you get the impression of such…love. It sounds odd but the death of any primary character in Kay’s works comes off as such a sacrifice, each and every one risking their lives for a highly held ideal and spending it gladly in pursuit of it.
Both methods work wonderfully. Martin’s deaths come across as abrupt and brutally real. Like real people meeting real ignoble ends. Not everyone dies a hero and not everyone gets injured diving across the street to save a little kitten about to be run over by a car. People die every day, every minute for a giant host of reasons and Martin reflects that brutal reality so well it’s scary. Just as it scares me a little how much I realize that I care for a given character but didn’t even realize how strongly they’d grown on me until I felt the pang of their loss.
Kay’s approach is the ideal and the dream. People die just as they do in real life but every life is a precious jewel lost forever to the darkness. Sacrificing their lives for a greater good, spending their lives to serve as a shining example of what people are capable of when all hope is lost. Lives spent to protect and defend an ideal, an idea, that of love and life itself.
The deaths that you run across in Kay’s works seem dreamlike. Daydreams about having your life mean something more than you’ve been able to show during the course of it. Defining life with how it ends.
It is an equally effective approach.
Both of these writers have tapped into that…darker well. Where the sheer and overwhelming reality of mortality intrudes into the dream and makes you give a shit.
Go and watch the recent Transformer movies. At what point do you find yourself worried for someone? EVER?
Sam has some tiny robot crawl into his goddamned brain and I’m not worried about him. Hell, Sam and Optimus both die in the second movie and I’m not concerned one bit for them as characters simply because I know, not suspect, but know that they won’t finish the movie with these people dead.
The shock and awe of actually permanently killing a main character that you’ve come to love with no hope of revival is a powerful tool if used right and, by itself, can do more to draw your reader closer to your characters than any lovingly crafted backstory, or tender, revealing moment of weakness or their flaws.
The emotional payoff of having your two lovers reuniting after a tumultuous time is nothing compared to what you’ll get if you kill one of them, preventing that reunion from happening.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I’m definitely not saying to just throw the lives of your characters away for effect. That’s not it at all.
But if you’re at a point where your character might die as a result of their own choices and moral code, don’t just dismiss the moment out of hand in a blind attempt to confer a measure of invulnerability to the person due to their rank of “main character.”
If they might die, consider actually killing them and see what happens from there.
You might surprise yourself.