Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

On killing characters

by Rob - October 27th, 2013.
Filed under: Deaths, Writing.

For this article in Canada’s National Post newspaper, Books editor Mark Medley asked me about killing my characters. Here’s what I had to say:

My brother Alan died this past summer. I got a call from my sister-in-law telling me he was slipping away, and I grabbed the first plane back to Toronto from Montreal, but he was gone before my flight took off. I’ll always regret not being with him in his final moments, but at least in the ordered world of fiction, I can — and do — make a point of letting my readers see my characters die; the reader should always get to say goodbye. In my novels I’ve sometimes jumped ahead decades — and in one case millennia — so that I could properly show the reader, quite literally, the final chapter of a character’s life. I think you owe it to the reader to do that; Sophocles had it right in the last line of Oedipus Rex: you can’t assess the quality of anyone’s life until it has reached its end.

One thing you won’t see me do, though, is bring a character back to life; it’s become a clichĂ© in science fiction to do so, and I hate it. Sorry, Mr. Spock, but you should have stayed dead; you lived long, you prospered — enough already! That said, I do often write about uploading consciousness — including in my most-recent novel Red Planet Blues (Penguin Canada) — and I do actually think that will be possible this century. I also like to write about profound life prolongation, as in Rollback. Death is indeed final … but it doesn’t have to come anytime soon.

FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Has there been one death in particular that seemed to resonate more strongly with readers, or got you in trouble?

See, that’s a tricky question; the answer, of course, is yes — but you’re asking an author to give away the ending of one of his books, and I’m loath to do that. Still, I vividly remember working on the concluding volume of a trilogy when the first one had just arrived in stores. A reader said to me, “I love your main character!” I replied, “Thank you — I just wrote his death scene.” The reader was angry, and I realized that although death is the true end of any character’s story, readers prefer not to know in advance that you’re going to tell the character’s whole story; they equate being alive at the end with a happy ending, which is what everyone wants. But there’s no tragedy in a long life well lived coming to its inevitable close.

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3 Responses to On killing characters

  1. Sorry Robert. I would have been angry too. Talk about a spoiler. Love your writing, I’m just saying.

  2. Rebecca, totally. I learned my lesson, and have never done it again. :)

  3. I love the comparison of the reader saying goodbye, to the loss of your own loved ones. Despite possibly being on the downward side of life, I haven’t lost a lot of people close to me, yet, but I regret that I have also never been there at the very end for those I have lost. Once the “soul” has fled, I have no sentimental attachment to the flesh that’s left, but if you love someone, you owe it to them to be there to the end.

    Just as there’s a a sense of completion for the reader when he gets to say goodbye, I expect many of us feel a similar obligation to be there, because so often only our closest family seem more “real” than a beloved fictional character.

    ‘course, now I’m going to expect that if my favorite character didn’t die at the end of one of your novels, there’s a sequel coming…

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