Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Writer/Reader Pact

by Michelle Gagnon

We've all experienced it- you stumble across a book that grabs you from page one and doesn't let go. As an author, it's always my goal to create that experience, a connection with a reader who hopefully becomes a devoted fan. And as a reader myself, I love that thrill of discovery.

A few years ago, I had this experience with a new-to-me author. The book kept me up most of the night. As always with a book that I really love, I caught myself slowing down in the later chapters, not wanting it to end. When I realized the book was actually fourth in a series, I rushed out to buy the rest and proceeded to devour them over the course of a week.

Then I got to the final chapter of the latest installment, the most recent release. There were three main characters whose storylines arced through all of the books. One of them was suddenly, inexplicably killed off. Not in the climax, mind you, but in the denouement, after the storm in the book had passed and everything had been neatly resolved.

It was one in the morning. I dragged myself out of bed, powered up my laptop, and went to the author's website, only to have it confirmed. (I hate spoilers, so I'm not going to name the author). In a letter to her readers she explained that yes, that character was indeed gone for good. There would be no "Bobby Ewing/it was all a dream" turnaround in the next book. In fact, she was starting an entirely new series, although she wasn't shutting the door on the previous one.

I know that it sounds needlessly melodramatic, but I was shocked. I felt betrayed. There's an unspoken pact that writers and readers enter into, especially when a book is a series. Terrible, horrible things may happen to the heroes/heroines, but chances are they will survive. If they don't, they'll most likely die heroically during the book's climax, probably saving at least one other life before expiring. This felt wrong to me, a slap in the face. A lot of other fans agreed-whole chat room forums were devoted to people lamenting the loss of this character, and swearing off the author's books forever.

I initially felt the same way, but decided to give the new series a chance. Two books in, I still wasn't convinced. I liked the new series, but it didn't grab me the way the other one had. I didn't develop the same connection to the characters, and ended each feeling slightly unsatisfied.

When I discovered that her latest book merged both series, I was intrigued and decided to give it a chance. By the end of the first chapter, I knew the connection was back. The two series had been blended believably and seamlessly. Oddly, characters that had left me cold in earlier books suddenly came to life when paired together. It was all new and yet familiar. And behind it all was the unmistakeable hand of someone who knew what she was doing.

Experiencing that had a profound affect on me as a writer. Reading the forums a few years ago I had been struck by the tenor of the complaints. The outcry was such that I thought the author had made a tremendous mistake. She'd alienated her base, and sales would invariably fall. It was the equivalent of Lee Child suddenly killing off Jack Reacher-would his fans remain as devoted if he did that, in an effort to try something new?

I have no idea what happened on the sales front, but I can say that for me at least, this went a long way toward revitalizing a series that was in danger of stagnating (and, considering the setting, falling victim to Cabot Cove syndrome). And it shifted my own perception of where that line was drawn, and what the rules of this particular writer/reader pact were. In her latest I feared for every character at different points, since the author has now made it clear that any of them are fair game, and the completely unexpected can and might happen. No one is safe. And in a thriller, maybe that should be the rule.

So what's the consensus- is killing off a main character in a series beyond the pale, or will you keep coming back for more regardless?


  1. The first series I got swept up in was the Travis McGee series by John D. McDonald. I remember how I devoured every book that had been written and then ate them as they came out. Same with Dune, Lord Of the Rings, and I still do it with Michael Connoly, Jeffery Deaver, John Gilstrap, Bret Battles, John Sandford, Stephen Hunter and a host of others. (I'd forgotten how many there are I follow).

  2. When Jerry Healy killed off Nancy Meagher in the Cuddy series, it wrecked it for me. There didn't seem to be a good reason for it. Killing someone for shock's sake.

  3. I'll keep coming back as long as the death isn't just for shock value (24, anyone?)

  4. I could continue to read a series if a main character was killed off, but I would have to have a lot of faith in the author. Recently, I was glued to a very popular series. I ate the books up nightly until the main character began to change. Character arc is one thing, but this one had gone off the deep end and left nothing of the original person that I reacted to initially. I didn't want to be her friend anymore, so we had to part ways. It would have been better if she were killed off.

  5. I'd have to believe in the author. If I thought it was written in because the author just needed an interesting plot device, I'd give up on it.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. I agree, there are series where the character changed so much the connection I'd had with them is lost. Always unfortunate when that happens.
    Part of what shocked me with this particular "offing" was that the character that was killed was be far my favorite of the entire series. So initially it was hard for me to conceive of continuing on with characters that I was at best lukewarm about.

  7. Remember Stephen King's Misery, when Annie Wilkes finds out that Paul Sheldon has killed off his character Misery Champlain (spelling may be off on that last name), and Annie goes berserk? I wonder if King based that on personal experience with fans that were unhappy with his treatment of any of his characters. Of course, we all know he has a twisted imagination, so maybe not.

  8. I had the exact same experience you had with this author. I now have to go back and read the first two of the newer series to "catch up." She managed to pull it off and get me back as a fan. I look forward now to the next book next year.

  9. Now I want to know who the author is.

    I agree about killing off Nancy Meagher. That would have worked for me if Cuddy's wife hadn't already died, so it didn't add to the character. We'd already seen him fight that fight.

    That having been said, it takes courage to do something like that. You have a good thing going and you can bet it all to take it to the next level. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.