When the wrong character dies

Killing off a beloved character is a surefire way to grab your reader’s attention and piss him/her off.  Say, you’re slogging along, about 9,000 pages into Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s already been married a couple dozen times, the South has burned and come back as a theme park, Rhett has decided that maybe it’s time to retire to Boca, and then (Jim tells me I have to issue a Spoiler Alert! here) Melanie dies.  Seriously?  Melanie?  If anyone should kick the bucket in that book it’s clearly Ashley, he of the tedious sense of honor and the inability to choose the right woman to obsess over.  You kill Ashley off and Melanie and Scarlett can just get on with their lives—go shopping for a decent outfit for Scarlett to replace the curtain gown, start a book club with the other Confederate widows that includes lots of cocktails, go back to Tara and redecorate, etc.  But, no.  Melanie’s dead and Ashley just goes back to being his ineffectual, wan self.   I guess Melanie’s death was supposed to teach all the major players a lesson and Ms. Mitchell did win a Pulitzer for her epic novel, so who am I to gainsay her.  Still, the choice rankles.

This piece in The Awl about beloved characters who were almost killed off by their authors has me brooding about literary deaths.  I can’t help but muse about who would have gotten the ax if I were the one writing the book.  Given my general feminist tendencies, there would probably be a lot more women still alive at the end of the classics, especially given some authors’ penchant for using death as punishment for rebelliousness in females—for every Sydney Carton and Cyrano de Bergerac dying heroic deaths, there are dozens of Anna Kareninas jumping ignominiously in front of trains, after all.

So, who would you kill off in your favorite books in place of the character who actually dies?  And how would that change the narrative?

P.S.  You guys cracked me up with your responses to my “high concept” blog post last week.  After much cogitating (in a totally subjective and intellectually unrigorous manner) the mug goes to MS because the “what if” posted is both provocative and gives you an immediate idea of what the book/film would be about.  Thank you all for playing along!  (MS, please send your mailing address to miriam@dystel.com.)

12 Responses to When the wrong character dies

  1. …my reply isn’t nice, so I’ll apologize early, but I’d kill off Nicholas Sparks and let all of his characters live. Sorry, Nick, but you repeatedly suck me in, get me all gooey-eyed with the budding brilliant bloom of romance only you can create, and then you bring the hammer down RELENTLESSLY every, single time! Fork you, dude. I’m STILL not over Message in a Bottle!

    Also – (Spoiler Alert!) I’d let Willow live in Jodi Picoult’s HANDLE WITH CARE. I mist up every time I think of that final heartbreaking chapter… WHY, Jodi? WHYYYYYYY?

  2. RamseyH says:

    Ohhhh! This is not a character death, but it’s close. The instance that immediately comes to mind is the end of Memoirs of a Geisha. I was so angry when the Chairman drops in as this magical, happily-ever-after deus ex machina. Clearly Sayuri should have realized her fantasies were silly and that Nobu was the one truly worthy of her love. Grrrr.

  3. Aimee Stwart says:

    Eddard Stark dying in the end of Game of Thrones? That truly sucked. It was important for the story, though.
    And Victoria, I’m with you too. I was so pissed off with Message in a Bottle that I never read any Sparks again. For real, I can hold grudges for ages.

  4. MS says:

    Thank you for the high honor you have bestowed on me in choosing my humble entry as winner of the Pitching Contest. I will treasure the mug, always. I’d like to thank my husband, my third grade teacher, my dog and my agent-to-be, Miriam! 😀

    I’ve always wondered what Jane Eyre would have done if Mr. Rochester had been killed in the fire instead of (only) horribly maimed…but then we never would have gotten to see Timothy Dalton in a high neck waistcoat with one eye all taped shut, would we? lol

    Another character that might have been better off dead was dear, sweet Amelia in Vanity Fair. Annoying creature! It would have been very entertaining to have her dying of…let’s say, cholera, and have Becky show up as her nurse. Rest in peace, little Emmy! 😉

  5. Ryan says:

    I’ve actually had readers e-mail me and message me to let me know they’d come after me if I killed off certain characters in a series. Of course it’s all joking around…to a certain extent.

    The characters I probably would have killed off in a recent novel would be the two main characters in Franzen’s “Freedom.” I wouldn’t have killed off the one he killed off. But the fact that I’m talking about it now, and remembering it, probably says Franzen did the right thing.

  6. Artemesia says:

    Aimee, I totally agree about Ned Stark, but there have been a lot of character deaths in that series I was pretty upset about (I’ve only read the first 4) but the one that bothered me the most was the Hound. I was really starting to like him. Weird, I know. I’m not totally convinced he’s really dead, tho…

    And there are a number of characters from Harry Potter that in my mind still live. Just because there were two Weasley twins didn’t mean it was ok to kill off one of them.

    But Manchee the dog from the Knife of Never Letting Go made me want to throw the book against the wall. I read the rest of the trilogy and loved it, but I will never forgive Patrick Ness for Manchee.

  7. Suilan says:

    In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, I would kill Harry Potter instead of Sirius Black.
    *Spoiler alert*

    Honestly! Sirius had given Harry a magical mirror to contact him if he ever needed to, but Harry forgot about it! Instead, he relied on what creepy Kreacher told him and went headlong into the dumbest “rescue” mission ever, which then got his godfather killed (and not even heroically, Sirius just fell through this stupid veil thing). But the worst thing about it: Harry doesn’t even realize that it was all his own fault and stupidity! Afterwards, he just feels sorry for himself because he lost another family member and isn’t that terribly unfair. Gah!

    It would be fine as written if Ms. Rowling had just left the magical mirrors out.

  8. Clix says:

    It really ticks me off when an author creates a sweet, weak sidekick-type character so that when it’s killed off the reader feels an emotional impact. YES PATRICK NESS I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU. He’s not the only one, though; Philip Pullman did it TWICE. In each case I saw it coming, thought “nah… a good writer wouldn’t rely on sloppy-easy bathos,” and subsequently lost any respect I had for the author.

    In each of those cases I found the main character insufferable as well and would MUCH rather have had him/her snuffed.

    OTOH, the death of Ruby Gillis was masterful.

  9. Miriam says:

    I see you guys are with me in that we readers are a vengeful, angry lot. I agree with you in that it stinks to feel manipulated by an author who uses death as a cheap emotional ploy. And, I haven’t read the GAME OF THRONES books…are they really that good?

  10. Andrea says:

    Not my favourite book, but in The Magician´s Apprentice, Trudi Canavan kills off Lord Dakon just by mentioning his assassination. No explanation, no scene, no one talking about it… And that was the only character I truly cared about! I was really fed up with the book after that.

    In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it almost seemed that J.K. Rowling was enjoying killing off characters. I know about the symbolism, but did Hedwig and Dobby really have to die? There are more symbols than death and a character can “die” in different ways. Hedwig and Dobby´s deaths did not really affect the plot.

    In my own novel project, I was planning to kill off one of the major characters, but my boyfriend vetoed that idea because he likes that character too much… He did have a point though.

  11. When I was in ninth grade, I remember giving a very adamant book report to my English teacher about why Alice should have died (like the movie) instead of Cora in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. I don’t know if I’d still agree, but I was very passionate about that point at that age.

    Since a lot of people are mentioning Harry Potter, I was pretty mad about Tonks, but I felt she kind of got the shaft in general in the last two books.

  12. Clix says:

    So now I’m curious about character deaths we DO like – not in the sense of “he was a jerk and got what was coming to him!” but when it’s a character we’ve grown to love but whose death is written in such a compelling way that it’s perfect for the story and (almost?) makes up for having to say goodbye.

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