Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Testing The Length Of Reader's Loyalty

Can testing the length of your reader's loyalty by axing a beloved character go too far?

This is a somewhat unconventional post for me here on Writer's Alley. As you know, I normally talk about picture books all the way to young adult literature and mingle in a post about motherhood every-so-often. Not today.

Well, kind of but not really. 

I will eventually wrap the dragon's tail back to its children's storytelling head and tie everything in a neat little KidLit bow. But indulge me for an adult second, if you would. 

I'm going to use an example of storytelling from an adult tale that I recently was forced to ponder. This particular story is from a series of books, but I've been introduced to it through television - the HBO series Game of Thrones. (If you watch the show, great. If you don't, it really doesn't matter for this discussion. This isn't about the show, but about a method of writing. HOWEVER, if you watch the show and need to catch up you might want to stop reading in case I toss in a spoiler or two.)

There are a few First Rules of Storytelling I've gathered since I began writing full-length tales. 
  1. Strong opening - show, action, in-the-moment, current world
  2. Intriguing world building - visual, unique, eventually changes in some way
  3. Memorable main character(s) - multi-dimensional: emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, economically - be real 
  4. Distinct voice - adds to MMC's appeal
  5. Agitating Antagonist - love-to-hate, hate-to-hate, hate-to-pity, etc...Endless possibilities
Very simple and brief. We can expound upon those forever another time. Today I want to focus on character(s). And for a series like Game of Thrones there are a multitude of vital MC's via numerous story lines, thus the reason I'm not solely focusing on one MMC from #3 above.

We all know that developing a character isn't all about making him a positive entity or complete eye-candy in a story. Frankly, loads of us rather create the antagonist - the villian, the evil-doer, nature-gone-bad. They're fun to 'play' with and toss at your MC for an intriguing reaction. But both Hero MC or Vulgar Antagonist must have layers to his personality, beliefs ...See #3 above. You need not look hard to find either in the numerous story lines within Game of Thrones. There are so many strong characters carrying so much personal baggage it's almost insane. And beloved. We adore that. 

OMGosh, I hate that character ... That did not just happen to him ... I feel horrible for her ... I could go on and on with emotions conjured by witnessing the boulders tossed at some of these characters. As watchers and readers we hate, love, despise, pine for, encourage, chastise, cheer on, and grow with each fictional life. We take ownership of them, feel responsible. We are moved, which is awesome! 

And despite times when writers take a beloved character to a dark place we never imagined, we understand it's necessary. Life isn't easy. It doesn't hand out a warm blanket when your car breaks down on the side of the road during a snowstorm. And it surely doesn't deliver a fully-cooked turkey dinner to you when you already spent your paycheck for the week on bills and have nothing left to buy food. 

Writing in hardships for our characters is the main ingredient that makes the world they live in tangible. Their reaction makes them real. It gives a watcher/reader something to grip on to, relate to, and escape into. But is it possible for a writer to take a beloved character too far down a dark road of no return? Is it possible, especially within a story like Game of Thrones with a multitude of MCs, to create a character who is untouchable, who isn't expendable, and who death should never come for? This is fiction, where all things are possible, right? But are things all possible in fiction for your story to survive ... really?

If you're creating a franchise, a story monopoly, do you think it would be wise to take one of your most successful story lines and abruptly end it? Kill it off, even though a lot of your popularity and the popularity of the tale rides on that story line/character? 

Yes, I'm referring to the Jon Snow debacle from this week's episode. I am a firm believer that reality must happen in fiction for fiction to be reality. But killing off Jon, at least for this fan/writer, was a wrong choice. As a reader, I NEED at least one reliable within a story. Everything can't be chaotic all the time. It's like in childhood, when I needed my toy stuffed frog. (I like frogs. So what?) Someone could have poured dirt in my hair in the sandbox or bullied me off the swing at the playground. I might have had the flu or lost my TV privileges to my younger brother. At the end of the day none of that mattered as long as my frog was with me in bed to sleep. All set right with the world. 

So, yeah, maybe Jon Snow was my stuffed frog. (Sounds wrong, but go with me here.) As a viewer, I need him. His character is my anchor, my steadfast, my assurance that when all else goes wrong the world still has something right in it. Does that mean that Jon Snow's existence within the story should have been void of heartache and tragedy? No way. Up until this point in the story, whether television or books, Jon traveled a road of potholes, twists and turns, battles, uncertainty, and disappointments. At times, it was hard watching him struggle as he had to, but it was necessary for his growth, the forward progression of the story, and to stabilize the other story lines. 

What made JS untouchable to extinction/death for me? His character was longing, jaded, tainted, torn, suffering, lovable, honest, gentle, lonely, strong, selfless, and brave - the pinnacle of multi-dimensional we all strive for in developing characters. Mostly, he held integrity like no other. And in a stained world like Game of Thrones, integrity is rare. But desperately needed in the small doses that Jon gave. 

Rumors that his character really hasn't met his end and will somehow be resurrected began surfacing directly after the infamous episode ended. If they're true will I feel differently? I'm not sure. If so, I might eventually catch up on story lines and start watching again, but never with such fervor and passion as I did before. I am now a distrusting viewer/reader. 

I feel betrayed by the writing, almost jaded like How dare they do that to him? He's the story's one and only steadfast. What kind of roller coaster ride do they think I signed up for? Now mind you, I was a viewer of The Red Wedding, which was absolutely devastating. It took me three boxes of tissues and a week to recover from that episode. But, despite my horror of losing some of the most beloved characters that make up that story, I was able to find value in their ending and move forward with the show. 

At the end of Jon's death scene - which was totally lame and felt like an afterthought, btw - I made no noise. Didn't scream or cry or anything. I simply turned off the power and whispered under my breath "I'm done." 

What do you think? Is it possible to create a character who is not expendable, maybe one you can bend and prod and twist and burn but who is untouchable and imperceptible to death for the good of the story and the love of your readership? How far can you test your reader's loyalty to your story?
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30 comments:

  1. I think the point of killing Jon Snow WAS to piss off the fans.
    With Game of Thrones, no one is safe. You are invested in the world, not the characters, because you know they could die any episode. (My favorite character is Tyrion, and every week, I expect him to die.) Is it fair to the fans? Now, but that's how Martin and the producers roll.
    Do I think there needs to be one constant? Well, my one constant in life is God, so yeah, I think we all need a constant in any situation.

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    1. No, not now. Crap, too early in the morning...

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    2. Haha! You're probably spot on there. I think Martin gets off on stuff like this. Whatev... And you're also correct about God. I get that. I'm just poking the literary bear.

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  2. I keep hearing/reading about people who are angry with the recent story twist. I don't watch the show or I'd probably be right there in the fray. There have been so many times I've turned to my husband in the middle of a TV show and said, "I'm done." *sigh* Maybe they should have run that one with a beta audience, eh?

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    1. I just wonder if writers can back themselves into a corner where readers opinions are concerned. If we make readers fall so in love with a world or character that it limits our story decisions.

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  3. Okay, now I understand all the Game of Thrones texts I've been seeing. I could only hope to have so many loyal fans that I could kill off a character and create a public outcry lol.

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  4. I don't watch GoT (yet - I fully intend to someday.) so I can only address this from the higher level. I'm not sure it is that one character that is unexpendable. I believe each reader/viewer has their own personal breaking point. They are invested at different levels. They relate to different characters. So whereas Jon might have been a breaking point for you (& others) the Red Wedding episode might have been the "I'm done" moment for others, and an upcoming incident might be the "I can't do this anymore" moment for others. Does that make sense? Look at what happened in Allegiant. Roth killed off a character that alienated quite a few fans. Even gained her some death threats! But I felt it was the right thing to do and well done. So I don't think one character is unexpendable. Is the author playing with fire? Heck yeah - but it's their story and their choice.

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  5. I haven't been watching GoT or keeping up with the books, but it's hard to imagine that they killed off Jon Snow! I do believe that every reader/viewer has a breaking point and even if that reader/viewer reads or watches for a little while after that breaking point, it's never the same. While I agree with Kai that it's the story of the author and sometimes killing off a character can be the right thing, it's a tough, tough choice. I killed off a beloved character in my first book and I had readers (YA homeschool kids who read my book) who wanted me to resurrect him. And my answer, sorry, but no. He was buried and I'm not writing about zombies in that trilogy, and it's not a romance between angels and people. That poor character was slated for death the moment he walked onto the page . . . and he even knew it. I hinted broadly.
    Anyway, I do think it's possible to alienate readers - it's up to an author to know how far and when to push, and if he/she really wants to for that storyline.
    I hope they resurrect Jon Snow for GoT, but I have a feeling that only Tyrian is going to be standing in the end. I'm not just saying that because have a similar name, but because of the way he's written in the first few books. He's the spider in the middle of the web, and there's a possibility of a long, redemptive arc for him. (of course, I haven't read the rest of the series, so maybe I'm wrong and he's already dead or turned super-villain)

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  6. I never watched the show or read the books, but I agree with everything you said. Writers do need to put their characters through hell, put them into the darkness, turn their lives upside down. I am a firm believer that characters have to face hardships in a story to make it real and worthwhile. But to kill off the MC? That's extreme. I discussed it on my blog once a looooong time ago. In some cases, maybe it's warranted and goes with the story line, but in other cases you can find a way to end a series without bring an ax to a beloved character. Take Harry Potter for instance. We all knew he had to die to defeat Voldemort, but he doesn't actually die. JK Rowling found a way for him to live. If she had killed him off, all of her readers would've been pissed and her books/movies would not be celebrated as they are now.

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  7. I never watched the show or read the books, but I agree with everything you said. Writers do need to put their characters through hell, put them into the darkness, turn their lives upside down. I am a firm believer that characters have to face hardships in a story to make it real and worthwhile. But to kill off the MC? That's extreme. I discussed it on my blog once a looooong time ago. In some cases, maybe it's warranted and goes with the story line, but in other cases you can find a way to end a series without bring an ax to a beloved character. Take Harry Potter for instance. We all knew he had to die to defeat Voldemort, but he doesn't actually die. JK Rowling found a way for him to live. If she had killed him off, all of her readers would've been pissed and her books/movies would not be celebrated as they are now.

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  8. I've heard this complaint about GOT for a long time. Honestly, if the character is brought back, then what? I remember the outcry when "Who Shot JR?" turned out to be a dream. I think readers/viewers need to understand some of the rules and the rules have to be plausible. Martin might be straying too far, even for him. I don't know. People are pretty invested at this point.

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  9. Great topic. Appreciate your insight. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog for Alex's post. Have a great rest of the week!

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    1. Oh, you're very welcome about stopping by your site. LUV Alex, and it was great to support you, too!

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  10. I'm right there with you! GoT has been my favorite show from the start and I always knew that there was only one character death that would make me quit watching the show - Jon's. I am done now. I read the books after falling in love with the show and became a bigger fan of the books - when Jon's death happened in the last book I literally threw my Kindle on the floor! At first I thought "I'm done!" with those too but I can see Jon still being around in the books so I'll give the next one a shot. But I can't see watching the show anymore. My favorite storyline has been The North and I don't see how they can have that story without Jon. At this point my only interest is to see the Whitewalkers kill everyone at the Wall.

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    1. You just summed up what I'm talking about exactly! The North was it for me and now I'm only curious about the Whitewalkers. But how the heck can you do anything with that after Jon is the one who killed that Whitewalker???? So frustrating....

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  11. I've not seen past season two yet, but I've read all the books. In the book, it's unclear whether JS is dead, and I'm not sure he is... unless they left the fact without a doubt in the show? I was really bummed when he killed Brianne. I feel like none of the characters have hope. Arya is the one who keeps drawing me back. I have to know what happens to her.

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    1. Hmm... Brienne? Is that the woman knight/soldier? If so, I'm pretty sure she's still alive, at least at this point in the show. (Ooh, I was just going to tell you what she did in this season finale of season 5, but I don't want to spoil that for you too if you decide to watch.) I hear you about Arya. And man, what's happening with her right now is pretty wild. But, on a lighter note, did you happen to hear about what happened to the actress who plays Arya while on Twitter? If you didn't - She was tweeting about the season finale and Tom Hanks tweeted her. She tweets back - "You watch Game of Thrones???" It was a pretty funny exchange.

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  12. Ahhh! I wish I hadn't read your post - I'm waiting for the DVDs to come out so I can watch the season. Dang! Nice post, well structured and full of pertinent wisdom. Loved it.

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  13. I'm a huge GOT fan, and yes, that was devastating what happened to Jon. I read the books long before the TV series started, so I have my theories on what will happen and who Jon really is. Jon along with Arya are my favorite characters. I am incredibly invested in the story of this world, and I'm going to keep reading. Have a great weekend! :)

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    1. I'm glad you're taking this attitude towards the tale. I wish I could. But my oldest son is a major fan, so I'm sure I'll hear all about what's going on next season with the show. Jon, Arya, and Tyrion are my favorites. All this bustle about this season kind of makes me want to read the books, just for the heck of it. I wonder if I'd be as invested???

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  14. George R.R. Martin is well known for making sure no character is safe. I still need to read the books and see the TV show. I get what you are saying. I was like that about Dumbledore. I felt like everything could be right in the world as long as Dumbledore could be there to help Harry out. His death was devastating. I did keep reading and such, but it was more stressful knowing Dumbledore wasn't there.

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  15. I don't watch GoT, but you opened my eyes to some chatter I heard this week. I sometimes get upset by the death of a character, especially if they were good and/or integral to the story.

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  16. I only watch the TV version, but my daughter, who reads the books, regaled me with all the Jon Snow Is Not Dead theories -- and a number of them make sense. We did meet that other minor character who'd been resurrected six times. Seed planted, then left alone to germinate. IF Jon is resurrected, it will supposedly fulfill some prophecy or other, so it makes sense within the series arc.

    If he truly is dead, then we have a whole plot line unfulfilled. Who are Jon's parents? Doesn't really matter if he's dead and gone. But then we're wandering into LOST territory. Remember Libby, whose story we never learned? Remember the women who died giving birth -- never explained? In real life, we don't always get our questions answered, but the producers of LOST broke a contract with their viewers when they chose to leave so many dangling threads. They took their money to the bank and laughed at us.

    BTW, I stopped watching Hell on Wheels when they killed off Lily Bell. I even acknowledge that they had a reason for killing her, because they couldn't let their protagonist Cullen be happy for long. But I could not watch the show after her death scene, which I don't think I'll ever forget.

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  17. Very interesting post, Sheri! I haven't read the books or watched the show, but my husband owns and has read all the books up to date. He loves them but he's always shocked at how easily the author kills off main characters. I don't think I'd ever be able to do that. I think I would worry about reader backlash. But apparently, readers keep coming back for more!

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  18. It's a tricky question. For one thing, I think (from what the book fans have said) that Jon's death is canon, and that it does somehow make sense that he'll come back.

    As for killing main characters... sometimes, if everything is set up and there is just one way things can end, it would be a cop-out to miraculously save a character. (Think of how Armageddon would have felt if everyone went home by some miracle.)

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  19. My thought when that scene played out was that I didn't care about anyone else anymore. They've killed off everyone. I like Tyrion and Arya, but I'm not sure I like them enough to carry the full story for me. And I felt unfulfilled by JS's full storyline. It seemed like we were being taken somewhere, only to have that ripped away. He's our POV character at the Knight's Watch, so I don't get what they're going to do with that if he's dead.

    In other words, yes, I think an author can take it too far, and that they can create a character that should keep going forward. Otherwise, they make the readers feel robbed.

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  20. I don't watch GoT (or any other TV show since I don't have cable, only Netflix), but I think I would feel like you. Certain characters should be staples, and untouchable. I realize it's more realistic to have nothing certain, but LIFE is like that, and I want my fiction not to be quite so lifelike! I want to see characters overcome obstacles, be resilient--and survive.

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  21. Wow, that's intense. I heard about the outcry, but since I don't watch it, I had no real idea what was going on. Yeah, I think it would be a hard thing to deal with prematurely killing off a major player. It happened a couple times on the Sopranos, and I hated it.

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  22. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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