Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Insecure Writer: Torture the Hero

My children and I read a lot of the same books and often they recommend those same books to their friends.  My daughter, oldest son and I shared a laugh two days ago when one of their friends complained about one of our favorite books.  They came to a part where a favorite character died. Died horribly.  Died and left behind a mess for the grieving loved ones to deal with as well as dragged the fantasy kingdom into more chaos. I won't give away what book it was, but the author knows how to make his readers scream.

This was something I had to learn to do in my fantasy novels.  If you want to write epic fantasy, people have to die.  The ultimate goal is to have the reader so emotionally invested in the characters, that they fear the good guys might lose.  Everything can't go the way of good in the classic battle of good versus evil.  Sometimes evil wins.  Sometimes heroes make mistakes and pay for them.  If an author can't stand to make their protagonists suffer, they may as well write children's books.
Demon killer from
The Keepers of Sulbreth

I started the first book in my current fantasy series, The Futhark Chronicles, with some important people dying.  Not everyone makes it through the second book either, the third book buries more people and well, you get the idea. 

Even in my romance series, bad things have to happen to good people.  Otherwise you can end the book after the first chapter and type, happily ever after, on about page twenty.

So, do you have a favorite author who knows how to torture their protagonists for great reader entertainment?  Have you ever read a book that was too kind to the hero or heroine? Does the superman in your novel have his kryptonite?


  1. Oh, I just hate getting really attached to a character who I know is going to die! Some authors sneak up on me in that respect and I always appreciate the skill with which they write.

  2. Great post and so true. No attachments to any character for us writers. =) My favorite this year was Joe Abercrombie "Best Served Cold" That one had me on my toes.

  3. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the Hunger Games might have hated her protagonist because the MC suffered waaaay more than she had to! It's super sad but so terribly good! I feel bad too, because I know I'm going to have to kill someone off sooner or later. I just don't know who yet.

  4. Good reminder to stop playing it safe.
    Joss Whedon is brilliant for killing off characters we love.
    Great post.

  5. I used to read a lot of John D. MacDonald. You never knew with his books what was going to happen. Sometimes the hero would arrvie just in time to save his love, sometimes he'd be a few minutes too late. It made all his stories so much more exciting.

  6. Maybe this is why Misery by Stephen King is one of my all time favorite books. The hero is tortured unmercifully!

  7. It can be tough to kill off your babies. :) I haven't actually killed one yet, but I try to make their lives hell.
    Maria V. Snyder's excellent at throwing one torture after another at her heroine.

  8. Anne McCaffrey didn't kill too many of her characters, but when she did, it was effective. IF I ever write another book in my YA series, one of the ten main characters will die. (Yes, I have it outlined. Just don't know if I want to go there again.)

  9. (Spoiler) I killed a main character in my first book. Hated to do it, but the other main character wouldn't have grown and moved forward otherwise.

  10. Good point! I haven't had to do it yet, but I plan to in my next projects.

  11. I know it's coming but I dread it so much! We fall in love with all our characters, don't we?

  12. Interesting point. I hate killing off any of my characters . . . but discovered that one of them was way too weak, and sacrificed him and the whole love interest at the end of the WIP to make the story stronger.

  13. My husband and I discussed this very topic yesterday. He became angry when I told him about my choice to kill off one of my M.C.'s in the 16th century ( I believe he is more attached to my characters than I am). Anywho, FWIW, it wasn't a conscious choice, it just seemed to make sense for the progression of my story.

    In real life, more times than not, bad things happen to good people. It can't all be butterflies and flower gardens. The reader would become bored. There has to be tension in order to keep them turning pages.

    I'm a big Stephen King and Koontz fan. Also, E Weir, Kate Moss, Jeanne Kalogridis, M. Puzo---too many to name. Although their genres differ, the one thing they all have in common is building tension well.

    One example that comes to mind is the Godfather. Think about what Michael Coleone would have been like if Appolonia had not been killed in the car bombing. This tragedy was the catalyst that led him to a life of crime, to become one of the most complex characters in fiction (IMHO).

    You're right, good stories must have lots of ups and downs, i.e., death, sicnkess, etc. However, there has to be a balance. Too many downs and the reader becomes depressed and walks away from the book. Too many ups and the reader says B.S. becomes turned off.

    Also, I think it's important to leave some sort of reward at the end, even if it's a sliver of hope. Sorry this is so long, I find this topic fascinating. Tragedy is the very thing that fuels good fiction.

  14. Once upon a time there was a story...and I won't name it ...whose protagonist discovered at the end of the series that her "superpower" was that everything went just the way she wanted. I did not throw the book. But wanted to. I do like happy endings, but conflict is the foundation of a good story.

  15. Collins made Katniss suffer and lose so much in her life. I read all three of the Hunger Games books just to find out what, if anything, she accomplished in the end!

    It does make for a great story though!!!

    Wowzers, look at all your successes over on the right side!!! Way to go!

  16. ooh, now i'm curious about which book it was.
    I mean, let's get serious here, some of my most favorite books have horrible tragic deaths. Let's look at Where the Redfern Grows. I bawl like a baby every time i read that, but man, without that horrible sadness, we wouldn't have the touching beauty at the end