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?