Tag Archives: endings

The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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A sad ending to our self-publishing tale

An unfortunate truth about experiments: they often end in failure.

Sure, I’ve heard the anecdote about Thomas Edison and how his thousands of attempts to perfect the light bulb.  And some might argue that failures teach us more than successes.  But when one’s heart is inexorably tied to the experiment, the disappointment of defeat runs deep.

On December 4, 2013, my wife and I published a children’s chapter book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers.  The titular character occurred to us when our daughter was yet an infant and the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon” was uttered in jest when it was time to put on her overnight onesie.

We jested about how donning magical pajamas transformed her into a superhero, and we thought the concept clever enough to entertain notions of writing a story about said heroine someday.  After our son was born, we jokingly referred to the two of them as the Goofers Twofers, an idea we tucked away as a possible name for the Pajamazon Amazon’s nemeses.

It was roughly six years before Stephanie and I put pen to paper.  It took us a handful of months to write the first draft and another year and a half to edit the book and prepare it for self-publication (more on that process here).  Our daughter, now 8, contributed the interior illustrations; a friend and coworker, the cover art.

On December 4, 2013, we finally published our book.

Less than two months later, we removed all traces of its existence from online retailers and deleted Pajamazonamazon.com.

While ideas are free, words can be owned.  More accurately, words—and combinations thereof—can be trademarked.  And after receiving what boiled down to a cease-and-desist letter from the trademark owner of the word “Pajamazon,” we had a simple yet heart-wrenching decision to make: either fight for our family project (and pump potentially tens of thousands of dollars into the legal process) or fold.

Considering we sold only fifty copies and hadn’t even recouped our setup costs, reason dictated a prompt removal of our book and website from the public marketplace.

I can’t begin to explain the depths of my disenchantment.  What began as a fun family project and then evolved into a medium through which we could share our collective creativity with the wider world has become a source of frustration and pain.

For the record, I harbor no ill will toward the legal owner of the word “Pajamazon.”  That individual is protecting his own rights, and even if I don’t agree with every aspect of his objection—and even if I think our book poses little or no threat to his work—I can understand why he would want to protect his own endeavors.

Even though book titles cannot be copyrighted, the use of a trademark in the title or elsewhere in the book opens the door for legal objection.  While I did embark on some research into the topics of copyright and trademark prior to publication, my due diligence apparently fell short of the mark.  In all likelihood, I searched for other instances of the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon,” never imagining that the made-up word “Pajamazon” in and of itself could come back to haunt us.

(Some have asked whether our story could be salvaged if we substituted a different name for the superhero.  In theory, yes.  However, to change the alter ego of our protagonist alters the very nature of the story.  The name was the foundation of everything—from the outlandish book title to the abilities her magical pajamas bestow upon her.  If we were interested in pursuing commercial success at all costs, then we might entertain the notion of major edits.  But at this point, such a compromise would feel like adding insult to injury.)

Like Edison implied, experiments are learning experiences.  If I ever self-publish again, not only would I spend more time searching for existing trademarks, but also I would likely spend some time and money trademarking ideas of my own.  There are other takeaways as well, perhaps fodder for future blog posts.

While I walk away from this ordeal with additional wisdom, I endeavor to leave any bitterness behind.  Whenever my mind tries to play the What If? game, I remind myself that nothing can change the fact that my wife and I wrote a book together, that other people have read and enjoyed it, and that we will always have a hard copy to treasure.

Even if The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers (very) limited run could be construed as a failure, the fact that we achieved what we set out to do is an indisputable success.

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The tricky trek toward those two little words

In my experience, writing the end of a novel has to be the hardest part.  (Or, at least, the second hardest part.)

Sure, knowing where to start can be problematic.  Do you go with the proverbial “day that’s different”?  Should the protagonist’s pertinent backstory frame the front end of the piece or be peppered throughout the narrative?  Or both?

I’m sure most writers have more than a few false starts stashed on their hard drives.  The good news about bad beginnings is they tend to fizzle out suddenly and for the most part painlessly.  No harm, no foul.  Nothing to see here.  Move along to the next idea…

Of course, once you have a story that sticks, figuring out what should happen between the introduction and the resolution is no picnic either.  Too many details and deviations kill the pacing, but if you skimp on subplots and layers, your Great American Novel devolves into the awkward middle child sandwiched between long short story and a novella.

Sometimes you lose steam or wander far afield from where you thought you were headed.  The journey itself can be exciting, and when obstacles present themselves, you find a way to write around them.  Worst case scenario, you’ll tidy and tighten during the editing process.

But endings are the worst!  You wrote a beginning that promised to be worthy of your time and talents, something strong enough to support the string of chapters that follow.  If you used an outline, you always knew where the finish line lay.  Even if your plot has meandered a bit, had a good idea where your characters are going to end up by the final page.

Then again, maybe not.

It’s easy to start second guessing as the epilogue draws closer.  You’ve spent chapter after chapter building up to this moment.  Is the climax big enough?  Does the dénouement drag on too long?  Will the final sentence leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction or indifference?

The longer the novel, the more problematic those final decisions become.  A trilogy or longer saga raises the bar even higher, which might be one of the reasons why some authors choose to continue their epics indefinitely.  (The “never-ending story” phenomenon is a topic for another day.)

Yet when to call it quits and how to wrap it all up are irrevocably intertwined.  I’m reminded of this while watching commercials promoting the final season of three different TV series: 30 Rock, Fringe, and The Office.

Only time will tell whether the respective finales will flourish or fizzle.  But going into the home stretch, I approach each of them with very different expectations, and I believe there is something any writer of fiction can learn from the treatment of television endings.

In the case of The Office, I had already given up on the series, watching only a handful of episodes after the departure of show staple Michael Scott.  In my opinion, the series should have ended when actor Steve Carell walked.  My guess is that the network was hoping to squeeze a few more miles (and dollars) out of the mockumentary, and when profits didn’t look promising, they gave the once-successful show a chance to say goodbye as a mark of respect rather than unceremoniously canceling it.

I’m sure there are still plenty of people who want to say a proper farewell to Jim, Pam, Dwight, and the rest of the gang.

While The Office has been in decline, Fringe has weathered ups and downs, including (again, in my opinion) a ho-hum start.  My interest in this sci-fi rollercoaster follows a bell curve, and the most recent attempt to “restart” the story—an all-to-common occurrence thanks to parallel universes and alternate timelines—have left me wondering whether I can really care about characters when I’m no longer certain of their origins.

I might have stopped watching Fringe altogether this season if I didn’t know the end was near.  As it is, I’ll stay tuned simply to see whether the show can redeem itself as the clock winds down.  Any ending is better than none, I suppose.

30 Rock, on the other hand, has kept the laughs coming for six straight seasons, and I have no doubt that the seventh will leave me in stitches.  From my perspective, the show is going out on a high note, not so unlike a past NBC hit by the name of Seinfeld.  There’s something to be said for going out on a high note, and even though Seinfeld’s finale proved divisive (I personally thought it was genius), no one can argue that the writers and cast left on their own terms and with their high standards intact.

So how can a writer—whether a screenwriter or a novelist—know when to say when?  Is it better to leave the audience wanting more or to wrap everything up with a neat little bow?  Does the book deserve a sequel, or are you better off saying what you need to say in a single volume?

Obviously, there’s no one right answer to these questions.  Instinct, artistic integrity, trusted opinions, and trial and error—all of these things (and likely more) weigh into the decision.

For good or for ill, every author must choose where the story concludes and when to type those two final, fateful little words.

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