So, in my trilogy The Godless World, quite a few characters don’t make it through to the end. That’s ‘quite a few’ in the sense of ‘quite a lot’, which when you think about it is an odd little quirk of the English language. Anyway, more than one reader noted the frequency with which significant players in the plot meet with abrupt and terminal misfortune. I’m hardly the first fantasy author to explore that particular territory in recent years, but I’d like to assure people that this kind of thing isn’t always easy for the author. I did give this stuff some thought. In fact, let’s review roughly how it went (note character names have been redacted to keep the dread beast Spoilerage firmly in its cage):
BOOK ONE: Winterbirth
Character A: It’s good to get started, eh? Going to be a big trilogy, I heard, so it should keep us busy for a while.
Character B: Yes indeed. This setting seems a bit chilly, though, don’t you think? Bit wintry? Hope He’s going to write us some fires, or at least warm clothes …
Character C: Gosh, quite a lot of people showing up. How’s anyone supposed to notice me amongst this horde of supporting characters? This guy’s a new writer, apparently. Hope He knows what He’s doing. Oh, look: isn’t that some world-building going on over there?
A: I think you’re right! Looks like He’s trying to smuggle some backstory into the dialogue there. Not too hamfisted, I suppose. Gosh … all sounds rather unpleasant, doesn’t it? Gods abandoning the world, religious strife, terrible battles. I thought this was a fantasy? A bit of light-hearted escapism?
B: Oh dear. I’m starting to feel … oh dear. I think He’s trying to make me ‘realistic’. I’m coming over all morally grey. You don’t suppose this is one of those ‘gritty’ fantasies I’ve heard about, do you? I do hope not …
Author: Shut it you lot. Just fall into line and do as I say. We’ve got a good few hundred thousand words to get through, and it’ll all go a lot more smoothly if you just sit back and let me do the steering. And let’s not throw words like ‘gritty’ around please. Next thing you know it’ll be a movement or something, and the world really doesn’t need a Gritpunk Manifesto. We’re just trying to put something together with a bit of a realistic vibe to it, okay? Let’s leave it at that. Anyway, we’ve finished with the scene-setting now; time for a bit of action. And don’t worry, I have a solution to the large number of supporting characters …
A: Whoa! Look at tha … Ewww!
C: Carnage! That’s outrageous.
B: Good grief. I guess I must be a villain then. I’m still not feeling unremittingly evil, though. Just a bit misguided.
A: On the plus side, we made it through. In fact, I’ve got a feeling I might be quite a major character you know. Don’t I look quite important to you? I certainly seem to be playing quite an important role … Ouch! What’s that? Is that blood? Am I bleeding? [Expires]
C: Oh, that’s a bit harsh.
Author: Had to be done. Drama, you see. Surprise the readers. Great stuff. Plus, killing apparently important characters might make the readers worry that bit more about the survivors. Give everything a sort of ‘No One is Safe’ gloss to it. That’s one theory, anyway.
C: Is it too late to put in a sub-genre transfer request?
BOOK TWO: Bloodheir
C: I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
B: Hang on in there. We do seem to be pretty important. He can’t let everyone die, can He? He’ll have no plot left. And, on the plus-side, the fewer characters there are, the more face-time those of us who are left will be getting.
C: I guess. Can’t help being a bit nervous, though. It’d help if …
Author: Less chatter in the cheap seats, please. I told you, we’re going for a particular vibe here. I mean, have you even read any medieval history? Life was tough back then. People died all the time, even – especially – ones who at the time seemed to be absolutely central to what was going on. Don’t you think it’s interesting to see that reflected in fantasy fiction now and again?
C: Whatever you say. Does it have to be this particular fantasy fiction, though? Couldn’t you leave that to the Gritpunks … sorry, to other authors. I mean, nice gentle consolatory fantasy has something to recommend it, doesn’t it? Orphaned farmboy makes good, gets the girl. That kind of thing.
Author: Sure, if you like that kind of thing. Certainly seems to sell quite well. I just don’t seem to be able to write it. It’s not in my psychological make-up. Sorry. No compromise! Ruthless consistency of worldview and tone! Bring the dark!
C: Now I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.
B: Chin up. We’ve just got to tough it out. Give as good as we get. It’s survival of the fittest clearly, and personally I’m feeling pretty fit right now. Have you seen how many folk I’ve killed so far? I’m going through minor characters like … hang on. Is that a sword that woman’s carrying? Why is she looking at me like that? Wait, wait … urrggle. [Expires]
C: Oh great. That’s just brilliant that is. I think I’m getting an ulcer. Is that what you want?
BOOK THREE: Fall of Thanes
C: Rats. I was hoping this might turn out to be a duology after all.
Author: Relax. We’re in the home stretch now. Everything’ll be just fine.
C: I bet that’s what you said to all the others in the cast list at the back of book one. And look at them now! Half of them are listed under ‘The Dead’.
Author: You’re exaggerating because you’re anxious. That’s okay. I know it’s all been a bit alarming for you, but … look, I’ll come clean. When I sketched out the plot for the whole trilogy I did pencil you in for possible death. Round about now, in fact.
C: La la la. I’m not listening. Look, I’ve got my fingers in my ears. I can’t hear you.
Author: Don’t worry. I’ve changed my mind. Enough’s enough, I think. Other than the drama and surprise thing – which entered the zone of diminshing returns somewhere around the middle of book two, I reckon – the other good reason to kill off a character is if it feels right, you know? Not just plotwise, but emotionally, psychologically. If it brings a properly satisfying sense of closure to that character’s storyline. If it makes instinctive sense in light of what’s gone before. And I no longer think it’s a good fit as an ending for your story arc. These things can change as all this writing stuff goes on. You just don’t seem like someone who needs to die to make sense as a character any more.
C: Quite right! Look at my lovely arc. Perfectly formed. A thing of beauty! It’d be a shame to spoil it now.
Author: Quite so. On the other hand, there’re one or two characters over here … you might want to cover your eyes … Okay, you can look again now.
C: Masterful. Totally realistic and plausible. Makes perfect sense in terms of their story arcs. Not like mine. Wouldn’t work at all for me. Right? Right?
Author: Right. The End. There we are. We’re done now. You made it. And I’m glad.
C: You’re, uh … you’re not thinking about doing any sequels, are you?
Author: Well, there are other stories I could tell here, of course … but no. No plans in that direction.
C: Phew. I mean, I’m sure your uncounted legions of fans will be terribly disappopinted. But still: phew.
And that, gentle reader, was how it went. Traumatic for all concerned. I fully intend that a slightly higher proportion of characters should reach the end of my next book – The Edinburgh Dead – intact. Probably.