Perhaps I am being unfair in blaming J. K. Rowling for starting a trend in killing off important characters we care about, but ever since she iced Sirius Black and Fred Weasley, other authors seem to have jumped on that bandwagon with glee.
Perhaps I should really blame George R. R. Martin (“Game of Thrones” to television buffs); whose slaughter rate in his A Song of Ice and Fire series numbs one beyond shock. Or even Katherine Kurtz, who merrily slaughtered whole families she made us care about, years before.
Or even dear, sentimental Anne McCaffrey who couldn’t resist killing off Brekke’s dragon (in Dragonquest, I think it was). I was pretty young then: I wrote an emotional note and protested, and she promptly responded by sending me a postcard with a cartoon dragon on it saying, if I remember right, “Do people really believe in Anne McCaffrey?”
Her response on the back of the postcard was generous and impulsive: “Oh dear, I am really sorry made you feel your brother’s death all over again. Whatever you do, DON’T read ‘The Ship Who Sang’, which I wrote as catharsis after the death of my father”.
Alright. Confession time here: So I am realizing as I write that my dislike of killing off characters we care about stems from my own personal history. I had a highly unsafe childhood at the edge of the Glasgow Gorbals, and I literally escaped to Govanhill Library and into books to find that safety every chance I could get. Significant character deaths destroyed this illusion of safety — especially after I lost my big brother and my center of the universe, Stephen, when he was sixteen.
Stephen was incredibly kind, funny and just plain good: The only person who stood between me and the bullies, perverts and ‘gangs’. When he died, my mother did not take over walking my sister and I to school, which he had always done (we were still quite small). Instead, she used to push us out the door in the morning and lock it behind us, dismissing our fears about what was out there because she was too afraid to face them, herself.
We quickly discovered, my sister and I, that there was now nothing between us and the monsters. The result: Too many memories of being burned with cigarettes, mocked because our clothes were clean and my father was foreign, and being cornered; dragged or bullied into tenement closes and sordidly molested by males from twelve to sixty-something.
Who wouldn’t want to forget that?
But having faced my own demons, I still think that killing off characters we care about has become a noticeable trend: Something one is encouraged to do in literary circles. If you’re going to write about deaths, make them matter, as Holly Lisle does in “Waking the Corrigan’s Blood”. Don’t just kill off our favorite big brother for titillation’s sake — or to make your readers “feel emotion” when they read your books.
Publishing Trends: The Dark Side
It reminds me of the “new” trend, years ago, back in the eighties, I think it was; [DISCLAIMER: I am Chronologically Challenged] when realism in books became the new Holy Grail. Established, beloved children’s authors like Monica Edwards and Margaret Govan got the chop from their publishing houses. Monica Edwards used to write me lovely letters, talking to me as if I was an adult (I was only twelve) and she complained one day that she had been ordered to put “realistic things like divorce and romance” into her YA books, which were pony adventures. She refused. She already had stirrings of romance between two of my favorite main characters in her books, but that wasn’t enough for the publishers. Both she and Margaret Govan disappeared off the shelves (though in Edwards’ case, her husband’s horrific farm accident also played a part in that).
Next thing you knew, we had Judy Blume writing about divorce and teenage sex, and some woman campaigning to replace Beatrix Potter’s charming illustrations in the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck stories with “photographs of real animals”.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it was about time that kids were able to read about real issues like menstruation, birth control, divorce and death, and I admire Judy Blume’s commitment to honesty and integrity in so doing. Like all authors, her experience and truths are her unique experiences and truths, and she should not be forced to write to a mold.
But when you force all your authors to “be like Judy Blume” and tackle “gritty” issues in a “realistic” way, and you want serial characters with loving families where the family relationship is not the primary focus in a series to “suddenly experience divorce” in your books, then you’ve gone Orwellian and done the exact same thing as the book-burners and banners:
And that is what I really hate, most of all.