Reader's Corner: Addressing Mortality in Fiction

I’d been debating back and forth on reading Karin Slaughter’s new book, Genesis, why? Because she killed a major character in Beyond Reach. Both books are apart of the Grant County series that is set in a fictional town outside Atlanta, Georgia. The major characters and story arcs revolved around a pediatrician, her ex-husband/cop and the first female cop on the force. The starring role would go to the population of Grant County who had more than their share of sexual abuse, drug abuse and random violence.

Addressing Mortality in Fiction

typewriterI must say after the Slaughter debacle, I have changed my views about the mortality of fictional characters. I’d prefer not to see a favorite character killed off but if the plot calls for it and this action brings some value to the story and/or series, I can’t argue too much against it. On the other extreme, what about those authors who never kill off characters? I ran across this article dated 2006 where author Benjamin Webb seems to have a problem with killing off characters, period, in his own stories.

Webb, 26, was praised as a “literary wunderkind” by Newsweek in 2003 after his ambitious first novel, a 452-page account of five generations of a Norwegian–American farm family living in Minnesota. Yet it slowly dawned on readers of his even more ambitious 579-page sequel that the penetratingly insightful young writer had no intention of addressing the mortality of his characters.

You know the grandfather character who was something like 84 in 1973?” said Chicago resident Kaya Bishop, who was referring to family patriarch Per Kjellstad. “The book goes to the modern day, and he’s still alive.”

“Why is he still alive?” she added.

Why, indeed. It’s been a long held belief that killing off major characters breaks the trust between the author and reader. But look at it this way, would you want characters (minor or major) to live forever even though you know it’s not realistic? I’m sure most readers would be up in arms if Roarke was killed in J.D. Robb’s bestselling, ongoing In Death series. I don’t know what this says about us as readers who feel as if death has no place in our fiction reading. I know many readers say that they read to escape fiction well so do I but I know I wouldn’t want to still be reading a series that doesn’t change, doesn’t evolve or have characters who seem to live forever. Those kinds of series, stories tend to be stagnate to me.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come to accept Karin Slaughter’s decision. Whether she did the right thing or not, only her fans can answer that. I love her Will Trent series and I am prepared for anything. As long as I am outside of the romance genre, I know there is not a obligated contract to keep everybody alive or to end on a happy note. In the end though, it’s about trust, trust in the author’s vision and direction. If you fully invest yourself in a series and trust the author’s vision, it really doesn’t matter how many people he/she kill off. Some of my favorite authors including Diana Norman have killed off characters that I wasn’t expecting. As gut wrenching as it was, I accepted it. Addressing mortality in fiction isn’t such a bad thing necessarily. It’s not fun but it is realistic and I’ve just learned to accept it and move on. How about you?


About Keishon

Voracious reader of just about everything.
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4 Responses to Reader's Corner: Addressing Mortality in Fiction

  1. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I haven’t read Slaughter, but I might have trouble with a mystery/suspense series killing off one of its protagonists. I’m not that well versed in the genre, and I might have her books pegged wrong, but it seems to me that it’s a bit like breaking the contract with the reader to kill off one of the main recurring sleuths in such a series. Otoh, if he had been a secondary character, maybe not. (That said I think readers weren’t particularly happy when Elizabeth George killed off a secondary character in her mystery series. To some people’s minds this was done to ensure that a main character remained unhappy. Hmmm, I have a lot of opinions about books I haven’t read so should perhaps stop here!)

    I’ll accept mortality in a book, but I admit that if a book is going to put me through the wringer with it, it should be a cut above. So, for example, I’m willing to accept the deaths in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, no matter how painful they are, because I think the series is absolutely stunning. But if it were mediocre I would never have gotten far. Obviously I strive to read non-mediocre books in general, but I probably give more leeway to books that aren’t painful to read.

  2. Tee says:

    I’m exactly where you are, Keison, especially with the Slaughter decision. I’ve always felt that authors can create and destroy (it’s fiction, after all). We can like or hate it; but there it is. So we read them or we don’t; that’s pretty cut and dried too. I also thought I wouldn’t read another book by Slaughter, but changed my mind shortly after. The Will Trent series is proving to be good; but as with you, I think I’m ready for anything. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy what she puts forth and really not worry about future stuff. It’s really out of my hands. If I want that control in my stories, I guess I should turn to writing my own stuff (or not).

  3. Renee says:

    Jorrie: I hadn’t thought of EG’s series! Good one. While the death in George’s Insp. Lynley series was shocking (at least to me,) I didn’t hate it after I read her last book, which dealt with Lynley’s emotional aftermath. It was really powerful. The character was secondary, and an important one, but not key to the to the book. I would have felt cheated and betrayed if it had been either one of the main characters (Lynley or Havers.)

    I haven’t read Slaughter either, but the one that comes to mind for me (and is another killing off of a secondary character) is in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. I was not expecting it till the body was discovered. I was shocked, and couldn’t thing of anything else for a couple of days. However, having heard KH address her decision in interviews, I can see where (rather than being emotionally manipulative-which sometimes happens) she truly felt it was necessary for Rachel and the larger series arc. Though I was still heartbroken. 😛

  4. Avid Reader says:

    I go through a cycle where I can read an emotionally draining book where you have ill-fated lovers or in the Paullina Simons book that I had a hard time reading several years ago, the heroine knowingly goes off into the sunset with the wrong man. Nobody has died but the journey these people take is often is quite eventful and captivating. Slaughter was the first author who killed off a favorite character that I liked and I’m sure she won’t be the last. I agree with others in that if you are going to put me through hell, your book or series better be a cut above the rest.

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