Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Character Death

The death of a character is, for me, the trickiest piece of artistry an author can undertake.

Mainly, it's been done too much and too well too many other times. You can't kill a character without echoing other deaths. I remember laughing out loud when Clint Eastwood's character dies at the end of Gran Torino, because it was so heavily foreshadowed. He even fell to the ground with his arms outstretched, like he was on a cross.

The same way Jay Gatsby dies in The Great Gatsby.

The real flaw I find in most character deaths, and I'm thinking here especially of books I've read lately like Cutting for Stone and The Art of Fielding, is that the author has spend hundreds of pages investing a relationship with tension and conflict, and then in the final scenes lets that conflict go.

It is natural to remember people fondly after their death. We don't speak ill of the dead, and I think that's a credit to the angels of our nature. I remember when my grandfather died, one of my aunts (by marriage) saying something along the lines of "he was a saint!" Well, it's nice to remember him that way, but he had a feud with his brother-in-law that was so vehement that the two didn't like to speak to each other.

I've got a couple book review percolating that involve stories in which characters die, so I've been thinking about this a lot. Only one of the deaths was very well done. Does that mean that for the others it was the author's easy out from a too-complicated piece of plot, or is that a sign of what a feat of artistry the well-done death is?

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