A little while ago, I began watching the anime based on Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia* series. Thanks go to Anthony Marchetta for repeatedly expounding upon the merits of this story. His reviews over at Castalia House were what convinced this author to give the show a try (shakes fist at him in mock anger). Recently, this writer happened across a video review of an episode from MHA’s fourth season. Spoiler alert, a hero died in this episode, and the reviewer made mention of this. In particular, he said he was glad that Horikoshi “was not afraid” to kill off a major character in this installment.
His words have remained with this author, reminding her of a question that has plagued her for some time. Why do so many people believe that writers fear to kill off a major character? Do they think we fear reader and/or fan backlash? This can certainly become an issue. R. A. Salvatore received death threats after he killed Chewbacca in the Legends timeline, which was both wrong and unfair. The editors pushed Mr. Salvatore into giving Chewie the axe; if he had had his way, the famous Wookiee would have survived. Threatening Mr. Salvatore with death was already over the top, but attacking him for a decision he made under duress makes it much, much worse.
I do not think this concern is what people consider when they express happiness that an author “found the courage” to remove a character from the narrative, though. As mentioned here, many in the modern literati hold the Realistic position that a story is improbable or childish if every one of the heroes survives to the end. It seems that breaking this taboo is considered by many – whether they are critics, readers, or fellow writers – to be a mark of valor.
This author has never understood that position, for two reasons. First, if the story calls for the demise of a hero, how is following the logic of the tale an act of bravery? To describe such a decision as daring is the equivalent of saying that a chef is bold for cooking a gourmet meal. For the common cook, this may take a great deal of audacity. But for the chef, while this particular delicacy may be difficult, he has enough experience to make it with little trouble as he follows the recipe.
When an author removes a character he ought to do so because the story dictates his/her loss. The writer may not like taking him/her out of the action and wish to keep him/her in the story, as readers tend to do. However, given the direction the tale is going, he recognizes that a hero/heroine has to go in order for the piece to be effective. Thus he does what he knows he must so as to properly tell the story.
Doing this is entirely sensible and “realistic.” Although it is more flexible than a cooking recipe, the fact is that fiction also adheres to a set of established formulae. Each formula has its requirements, which may be twisted, replaced, or altered in order for the writer to make the story his own. More than a few of these fictional “recipes” include room for the demise of one or more characters. Some tales fall flat if a member of the cast does, in fact, expire. Others work wonderfully when one or two are given the axe. And a few only function properly if the majority of the cast dies before the finale.
To believe that following these prescriptions is somehow courageous seems rather disingenuous. While the audience’s feelings must always be a consideration for the author, this does not mean he has to bow to them in matters of writing. In other words, he does not need to keep his cast of characters alive to please them, any more than he has to kill off several members to prove to them that he is a serious artiste. All he absolutely has to do is tell the tale honestly.
Killing off a character simply to prove that one is a “serious” writer is fundamentally dishonest. It is the equivalent of someone at a diner ordering pasta, only to be served Chinese food by the staff. The patron ordered a specific type of meal and expects that order to be fulfilled sincerely. Should the cook add a dash of spice or some other ingredient, then that is acceptable. Trading out the expected food for one which is entirely different to surprise a patron is a good way to lose customers. Any restaurant that had this policy would quickly go out of business.
Secondly, if killing off a character is expected, then isn’t following this pattern to the letter the opposite of fortitude? What if the story/stories that the author writes do not require the demise of any character within? Is he a coward for following the fictional recipe, while adding some personal touches of his own, in order to tell the tale? If so, does that render the hard work he put into his fiction worthless and the joy it brings his readers meaningless?
Breaking all taboos and running headfirst against the formulae that make fiction work is pure madness. To simply kill off characters in order to prove that one is writing “realistic” fiction does not make a writer brave or even smart. If anything, robotically writing characters out of a piece of fiction marks an author as unimaginative and unwilling to take risks. If there is a good reason within one’s WIP to give a hero, heroine, villain, or side character the axe, then a prospective author is justified in taking them out. If there is no logical motive in the formula for removing a character, however, then leaving them alive is not a crime.
Do not be afraid to let your characters live, future writers. You may find doing so is far more rewarding for both you and the audience than killing them off ever could be. In today’s writing climate, it certainly takes more courage than giving them the axe does.
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While you are there, you may want to pick up Monalisa Foster’s latest release. Pretending to Sleep, a tale of life in Communist Romania, is available in both e-book and paperback. Pick it up today!