Viewpoint Character Dies

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Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby craig » 23 May 2011, 11:13

I ran my novel synopsis past some editors at a pitch session at a sci fi convention this past weekend. Overall it went very good, but I was told I had an issue that needed to be resolved...

I have multiple viewpoint characters told in third person. One of the secondary characters (Trent), who is a viewpoint character, dies halfway through the book. Another viewpoint character (Howard) is introduced later, shortly after the death of Trent.

I was told that's an absolute NO -- you cannot have a viewpoint character die. And you cannot have a viewpoint character introduced so late. But to change this would require some pretty major restructuring, as the viewpoint character that dies does a lot of stuff alone.

Before sitting down to do rewrites, I thought about this a bit...

The death of Trent is meant to take readers by surprise -- to shock them a bit and shake things up -- to make things a bit unpredictable. However, like any major event, this was foreshadowed. Upon the death, though the reader is shocked (one of them said she almost shouted "Noooo!!!" when it happened), but looking back, it makes sense. He had to die. To allow him to live would actually become a plot hole. I asked one of my readers if she felt I had betrayed her as a writer by doing that -- she said no. I also asked if introducing Howard so late was shocking or jarring or inappropriate, she also said no.

Together, Trent and Howard make up a subplot of the novel. It's a sci-fi novel and this part involves covert black ops -- of which both Trent and Howard are agents. Trent carries out his mission until he is killed. Howard is introduced fifty pages later or so to fulfill the rest of the subplot. (And he is technically not "introduced" there -- that's just when he first becomes a viewpoint character -- he is introduced briefly in the first hundred pages of the book or so.

So... together, they make a whole...

-----

I have seen in tons of novels where a throwaway character is a viewpoint character for a section of the novel. S/he is used to tell an aspect of the story that cannot be told using the main viewpoint characters. But perhaps this one is considered inappropriate as it seems like he's set up to be a main character and then is killed off halfway through?
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby craig » 23 May 2011, 11:15

I asked another editor if this was a problem. She said that the viewpoint character should not die -- but if he must, then leave it as is.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby SingingFlames » 23 May 2011, 11:31

I would also ask another editor. I thought I've read some books that do that, but now I can't remember any titles for sure. I'm also thinking of epic fantasy and not sci-fi, so that may make a difference too. When in doubt, get a second or third opinion.

EDIT -- Ah, you did ask another editor. Sorry, didn't see that.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Watcher55 » 23 May 2011, 11:43

That just doesn't sound right to me. The fact that your viewpoint character did die, proves them wrong. It's just surprising to me that editors (plural) would tell you that you can't push the envelope.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Doug Pardee » 23 May 2011, 11:54

Speaking as a reader (not an editor), I'm fine with it as long as it's handled well. Being a PoV character shouldn't come with a cloak of immortality. That takes some of the suspense out of it. Or so say I.

I recently read a novel in which a supporting PoV character was essentially killed — major brain damage — and we only got a few short, nearly incoherent, PoV scenes with him after that. I thought it worked very well.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Sommer Leigh » 23 May 2011, 12:16

It is very difficult to do well. Not gonna lie there - it has to be done very well.

But it has been done. If you want to read an example of a book that does it very, very, very well, click the spoiler below. It is a HUGE SPOILER though. If anyone isn't interested in knowing the book to read an example of this kind of storytelling, don't click the button. It'll really spoil the book.

Spoiler:
Feed by Mira Grant
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Falls Apart » 23 May 2011, 12:58

Personally, I like this approach. I took it with my own book and, although no editors have looked at it, all the beta readers seem to like it. For examples of works that have this, check: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/M ... rotagonist
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby polymath » 23 May 2011, 12:59

Prescriptively, the only no-no persona who cannot die is a narrator. Who's left to report the drama if the narrator dies? That causes a big willing suspension of disbelief hiccup. Discretionarily, a narrator can die if he or she is somehow around to report events after his or her death or a new narrator takes up the report mid narrative.

Otherwise, readers form a bond with a viewpoint character. If the viewpoint character is a reader surrogate, the persona whom readers build self-identification with, killing him or her off will cause a shock. Bringing on a new reader surrogate later can leave readers without an anchor to bridge the gap. However, if the narrator is a reader surrogate, there shouldn't be a gap.

A reader surrogate dying a self-sacrificing noble death is a hallmark of a beautifully tragic ending. One dying in the middle of the action, though, I don't know, does it further the plot? In other words, does it build upon the main dramatic complication?

Say the viewpoint character dies without finalizing the main dramatic complication. Then a more heroic, capable viewpoint character takes up the mission. That should work fine.

It's finalizing the main dramatic complication that matters, not who finalizes it, per se. One thing, multiple viewpoint characters trading off a mission mid mission challenges readers, therefore, best for new or early adult reader reading skills and above, who can more comfortably process multiple viewpoints.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Moni12 » 23 May 2011, 13:24

I have a Fantasy wip almost completed. It's told from two povs and one of the view point characters dies. However, it is absolutely vital to the plot that this occurs and the other pov character tells the rest of the story. It also happens at the end, so since I was going every other chapter I'm able to do this where I have the living character end the novel.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Collectonian » 23 May 2011, 13:30

I'd certainly hope a viewpoint character could die, otherwise it makes for a boring reading world. :-) I've read plenty of novels where a viewpoint character dies (particularly suspense novels that also include the viewpoint of the "bad guy"). In my own novels, I have major view point characters die, and each death is critical to the story.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby craig » 23 May 2011, 13:46

Thanks all!

So the general consensus here seems to be that it's entirely dependent on the way the story is told (with a few restrictions, such as it shouldn't be your main character/narrator).

I play fast and loose with a few other conventions, which have been discussed on this board before with the same result (it's okay if handled properly and fits with the narrative).

polymath wrote:One dying in the middle of the action, though, I don't know, does it further the plot? In other words, does it build upon the main dramatic complication?


That was essentially the main reason I killed him off. The driving plot is that someone significant must be assassinated for the good of the people -- and at this point in the book, it looks like Trent is the ONLY person who is capable of doing so... and then he is uncovered and killed before he can act. I needed the situation to feel hopeless for a while as the situation slides further into darkness... it has to reach the depths of despair before the main protags can claw their way back and see victory.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby polymath » 23 May 2011, 14:13

craig wrote:That was essentially the main reason I killed him off. The driving plot is that someone significant must be assassinated for the good of the people -- and at this point in the book, it looks like Trent is the ONLY person who is capable of doing so... and then he is uncovered and killed before he can act. I needed the situation to feel hopeless for a while as the situation slides further into darkness... it has to reach the depths of despair before the main protags can claw their way back and see victory.

Then I'd place Trent's death at about the later middle of the novel, say nine-sixteenths or so of the word count. Seems to me like it's the tragic crisis bridge scene, after the dramatic climax scene and before the falling action act scenes. Trent's death also prepositions (foreshadows perhaps) a likelihood that Howard will die too. Great for keeping the outcome in doubt until the bitter end, no matter how bitter or sweet it is. I also assume Trent's death reveals significant information vital to Howard's furtherance of the mission.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Louise Curtis » 23 May 2011, 15:28

Killing off a viewpoint character screams "Teen writer who thinks 'Ah! NO-ONE's ever thought of this before, and it will be terribly shocking to the audience!'"

As you can see from this thread alone, it's not original, or even particularly uncommon.

For the love of your book, please change it. Make Howard the viewpoint character for all Trent's bits - they are working together, so surely it won't be all that hard (or at least, not impossible - you wrote it, you can rewrite it). All you'll be losing is the supposed shock value of having a viewpoint character die. Which doesn't have shock value at all, and will cause the majority of publisher/agent types to sigh in despair. As you've already been told by a professional who was kind enough to tell you the truth.

I'm sorry to be so very very harsh, but here's my story:

I wrote a YA novel that went to the acquisitions meeting (ie the final stage) at Allen & Unwin. It was rejected due to having the YA main character grow up, marry, and have a child. Those adult plot lines are not relevent to YA ("Twilight" got away with it due to being a massive massive bestseller).

I'd already written the second and third books, and the child was a crucial character. I didn't want to lose 10% of book 1 and 90% of books 2 and 3. . . so I didn't chop out the marriage/baby thread.

Long story short - if I had listened the first time, I would be published now.

It took me two years to realise the advice I'd been given was correct, and to make the changes (the book is now a million times better).

Please, please don't make my mistake. Accept that the advice you've been given is correct in 99.9% of cases, and accept that you are in that 99.9%. Fix your book. Then get it published.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Mira » 23 May 2011, 16:03

Well, I'm not one to take the viewpoint of editors at a convention as gospel. I think artists need to follow their vision. And I salute you, craig, in trying to discern what your vision is.

However, in this one instance, it might be best if you followed MY vision instead.

Which is to say - why are all of you killing off all of your characters? Don't you like them? Aren't they good people? Don't they deserve the best in life?

I think that authors have a responsiblity to be nice to their creations and give them everything they ever dreamed of. It's an ethical issue.

I believe it would be best if people stopped killing off their characters all willy nilly and gave them their heart's desire instead. The world would be a better place for a little kindness.
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Re: Viewpoint Character Dies

Postby Mike R » 23 May 2011, 16:29

But, Mira, what about my characters that want to kill?
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