The Art of Mirriam Neal

the parting glass


Yesterday, I Skyped with my spirit doppelganger and, after about an hour and a half, we got around to the reason why we’d called in the first place – I was stuck in Kenna. I wasn’t stuck where I was, but I didn’t have the ending figured out and I find it impossible to write anything beyond the middle of a novel if I don’t know how it turns out in the end. Hannah, as always, is like a stick of dynamite to my roadblock – she shakes lose whatever was in my way, leaving me free to see through it. We discussed how important it is for characters to die with meaning and how we should milk the emotion for all its worth, and then she threw out, “Okay, so ______ should die in front of Kenna, and someone should commit suicide.”

I blinked. Suicide? But I rolled the thought around for a few seconds and came to the conclusion that for a certain character, it would certainly make a striking statement. As for ______ dying in front of Kenna, I immediately agreed, as that had been the plan all along (more or less).

“It’s not a question about who dies, so much as what they die for,” said Hannah.

I nodded. “True. And I’ve never had a problem with killing characters to begin with.”

She began to laugh. “No,” she agreed with a great deal of enthusiasm, “you haven’t.”

“Then again, you’ve never told me not to kill one.”

“That’s because I know you,” she responded.

I’ve always had a bit of a George R. R. Martin complex – I want readers to never feel as though any of my characters are impervious to harm or death. I want them to be worried for the lives of everyone, because that’s what I enjoy. It’s what keeps me hooked on a story. (I once had a conversation with Jenny about this, and it turns out we disagree on the matter; therefore I’d be interested to know your thoughts on ‘character safety’.)

There are many reasons to kill off a character. Reasons like a) there are too many characters and one of them needs to go, b) their death will motivate another character, c) they must die in order for things to come full circle, d) they must die in order to prove that no one is safe, e) they must die in order to prove something about their killer, ad infinitum. The list goes on – but, as Hannah pointed out, it’s not who dies so much as why.

I’ve read a plethora of books where a character will die for no real reason, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth – especially since I usually have the misfortune of adopting said character before said demise. Examples would be Beleg Cuthalion (looking at you, Professor Tolkien),   Finnick Odair (although I suppose I can see where Suzanne Collins was coming from, even if I feel like justice wasn’t served), and Alan a’Dale (although that was a TV show, not a novel).

However, I’ve also read books where the author seemed incapable of killing off any main characters at all, and this became a pattern, until I wasn’t really interested. I was too bored with the knowledge that these characters would survive anything. One shining example of this is Stephanie Meyer.

After all this, you might have drawn the conclusion that I’m a bloodthirsty maniac who enjoys watching my characters bleed out on the floor, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. Not everyone survives. Death is a part of life, and a necessary one – and in my current works-in-progress, there are quite a few characters who won’t survive the last page.

The thing is, none of them die for nothing. Even the villains have a purpose in death, because there is a difference between killing characters simply for killing’s sake, and killing them to make a point. It’s not always an easy job and it takes discernment and thought, but I hold fast to the belief that, for most stories (not all, but most), death isn’t a maybe, it’s a must.

Arnmundur’s voice was like dragonfire. “A hundred years we have avoided death, and now it has found us even here. We cannot stay.”

            “No,” agreed Einar. “We cannot.” Then he gestured for Kenna. “Come. Help me gather the men.”

16 thoughts on “the parting glass”

  1. Such great thoughts. I also like the quote at the end. 😉 Your story sounds really interesting. I think, also, that sometimes characters have to die to send a message, like Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird (or my characters in my WIP). Wonderful post, thanks for sharing!

  2. ALAN. Yes. His death startled me and even if he had to die, the way they did it didn’t see right. It was just… suddenly he was dead. It was so startling that it didn’t even make me feel the way I should have toward him dying.

    And as much as characters dying hurts me when I read it… some of mine are gonna die sooner or later and it has to happen for all the reasons you mentioned above. I like what John Green said that he doesn’t kill his characters, they die because that’s what happens. People die. Characters are people, so they have to die too sometime.

    And it may or may not be fun to watch your readers react to certain characters’ deaths >.>

  3. I’m discerning a character death right now too, though it won’t come up for a long time. It’s mostly figuring out the best way for him to die and since that whole section of the book is still a bit foggy its no wonder I can’t get a clear picture of him dying. But your blog jogged the problem back in my brain and who knows, I may give it some brainstorming today! XD

    I personally have a major G.R.R.M. syndrome as well and actually I’m a total sadist so…yeah I do enjoy causing the characters pain…as well as the reader. 😉

  4. Well, now I’m worried for whoever _____ is. V_V Thank you for that. But this is really stupendous advice. I get really irritated when someone dies for no reason. Until someone analyzed the The Hunger Games, I always thought Prim’s death was meaningless, but now it makes more sense. So it’s always great to have a second opinion and kill with meaning. Can’t wait for more chaptersss! 😀

  5. when this post first popped into my inbox, the title worried me. I was like “NO Mirriam isn’t going to stop blogging is she?!”
    and then I thought, “No, is she going to stop writing Kenna?”

    And now I’m just hoping that you’re not killing someone I like ;P

  6. I know the feeling; I know that my best friend and I have kind of given up on Rick Riordan since he seems incapable of killing anybody for real anymore. I also understand what you mean with Stephanie Meyer, but since it’s such an interesting symbolic portrayal of Christianity I can’t help but love the series anyway. 🙂 Anyway, I think it is really good when writers make me afraid for their characters, because then I get super invested in the story and the consequences are dire. (I haven’t watched your show but I have read Scarlet and Lady Thief by A.C. Gaughen and I am dying of sadness from some of the things that happen in the second book. Poor, poor Robin Hood.) As a writer though, this is one of my weaknesses as a writer because I don’t want to experience the pain my characters will feel as they go through the consequence of the problems I have set up for them, and so it is for my sake rather than theirs that nothing bad happens to them. I really need to woman up about it, but I haven’t, yet.

  7. As long as it makes sense in the story, I’m fine with a character dying. For noble reasons, for selfish reasons, because they made a mistake, because the plot needed them to die, but I will not forgive the killing of the main narrator, or the main character. Nope.

    There seems to be a growing trend of “oh the feels, the feels” and writers of all stripes caving to the reader’s desire to have “feels”. Guess what? I don’t want “feels”. I don’t mind being emotionally invested in a story, but I want to be told a good rip roaring adventure. I want to have a story make me think. I want it to provoke a deeper response than “feels”. For me, “feels” are the shallow cotton candy of books; sweet in the moment but without substance or nourishment in the long run.

    And really, readers don’t want to have “feels” either, even when they say that they do. Fans might on feels, but then fans are fickle and will move from one emotional high to the next. Readers however are the ones that stick with an author through thick and thin, good books and amazing books and just okay books.

    I know this because I’m a reader, not a fan, of Mirriam’s work.

  8. Wow — YES. I totally agree. Everyone dies, and the characters don’t know whether they will or won’t die. They must act accordingly. Even if a character is immortal or something, there has to be something endangering them, physically or emotionally, for them to actually work in the story. It’s boring when a character seems to know their fate.

    And Alan-a-Dale. Thanks for opening the old wound.

  9. I am both saddened and gratified to see so many fellow Alan mourners. WHY BBC?!!?!?

    I belong to the “if it advances the theme or the character arcfs bring out the ax” school. But I don’t tend to go for the shock factor deaths. I don’t know it just feels kind of cheap to me. I mean I guess it’s realistic and who knows maybe I’ll do it someday. But for now -though I have no qualms killing any character that needs to die- I don’t think I’ll be George R. R. Martining it up.

  10. I want to know that NOBODY is safe when I read a book, otherwise it bugs me so much. I know the stakes aren’t ever going to explode. I get comfortable/apathetic about whatever I’m reading. *shrugs* I WANT CHARACTERS TO BE POSSIBLY DYING.

  11. YES TO ALL THE THINGS. I agree with this post 100%!

    Basically, I love when I can’t ever predict an author. I never want to be comfortable when I’m reading. I both don’t want to feel “safe” in that I know there’s no way the author will kill any of the charries, but I also don’t want to get tired of an author killing and killing and killing again. I want to be surprised. I want to be on the edge of my seat and know that any of the characters could die, but also rest in the fact that if they DO it’s for a proper cause. And you, my dear, are the perfect example of this. Your stories never make me feel comfortable and bored. They’re intense and beautiful and unpredictable and always keeping me on the edge of my seat. I’m in a constant state of fear that any character at all may die at any given moment, and it’ll be tragic…and beautiful, just like life. THAT’S the kind of stories I love to read.

    So carry on, m’dear! (Although now I’m somehow both terrified and excited over Kenna. See? I’m a little sadistic myself. It comes with the title of writer.)

    Also Alan’s death was SO unfair and horribly done. I’ll never be able to cope with that. Ever.

  12. The fact that there is a decent risk a character will not survive the chapter /is/ one of the things I find addicting about your books. XD The probability that they WILL survive is enough that I can emotionally invest myself in them, but I certainly can’t assume my emotional investment isn’t going to return and slaughter me at some point.
    And yes. So long as there is a POINT. (Senseless deaths drive me /insane/. Augh.)
    /death isn’t a maybe, it’s a must/ Interesting…I hadn’t thought of it as being that important…but in my last two novels I have certainly noticed how much deeper it drives the story to let a main character die. Which makes me rethink some of the novels I have in planning stages right now…(though I don’t think some of my beta readers have forgiven me yet for the last story… :P)

  13. Owww. Thank you for resurrecting that story idea (ahem, character death) I had buried in the ground to deal with at a later date… *moans* This is going to hurt so bad. But it needs to happen. Oh the turmoil!

    But I’m very happy to see that Kenna is happening again! ^_^ Being the first story of yours that I ever asked to beta, it has a special place in my heart. Except yeah, now I’m dreading/anticipating those heartrending charrie deaths you’re planning. I have my suspicions.

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