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To Kill Or Not To Kill A Character

This is a guest post by David K Roberts. There are many forms of marketing, and as David will show, how you write your books and what choices you make in a series when you have followers, could either improve your marketing efforts or hinder them, all from the words you write.

The Relationship With Characters

Forgetting your readers for just a moment, the relationships an author builds with a book’s characters are mostly very emotional; often the connection is visceral enough that the author feels as if he or she is living vicariously through a particular individual on the page. If this connection can be made by the author then there is a very good chance that the readers will also feel the same depth of emotion.

This is the mark of a good book; involvement of your customers is essential to your success. Imagine then that your book has spawned a follow-on series creating a trilogy or even a larger set of volumes. One of the challenges an author faces is ensuring the story remains as interesting and fresh as possible. Naturally the flow of the story is crucial to captivate your readers enough to continue buying each book as it is produced, but the question still remains as to what you do with the characters with the passage of time.

Killing A Character

One very prominent example of killing a beloved character is that of Sherlock Holmes. Many of you will know that his unprecedented popularity arose from short stories published in The Strand Magazine in 1891. In all, four novels and fifty six short stories were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an eminent scientist and spiritualist of the time. Growing tired of the character of Sherlock Holmes, he attempted to kill the consulting detective off in a dramatic battle with Moriarty, his arch enemy. Thinking that having the sleuth hurtle to his doom in a waterfall would be a permanent solution to the author’s boredom, he was thwarted by demands from his reading public to reinstate the character. Hence in the follow-on stories Holmes came back in an under-cover gambit to weed out Moriarty’s last remaining henchmen, while at the same time crassly playing with Watson’s emotions, much to the mixed reactions of the buying public. Perhaps Conan Doyle was punishing his readership.

The Desires of Our Readers

Sometimes as an author we have no choice but to follow the desires of our readers. Reviews are a good way to get a feel for how your fans may react; some will want a poignant death or disappearance of a significant character while others would react badly to the same scenario. Of course, some characters are essential to the story and you have little option but to keep them in play. I have a large cast of characters in my trilogy, The Common Cold: A Zombie Chronicle, and although I would like to bump one or two of the core crew off, it would change the dynamic of the story and interfere with the affection a number of my readers hold for the several of the characters. I also have a certain amount of emotional skin in the game and their loss would also be my loss.

If your book is well written and you do have buy-in from your readers (in other words you are generating a good size following and hopefully sales) then a great deal of caution needs to be exercised. In these days of self-published books, marketing comes in many forms, the most important being the development of a fan base or following. Understanding why your readers follow your stories will enable you to make considered changes in your book such as the death of a significant character. Interestingly enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may not have had Facebook or Twitter to connect with his readers, but the ready use of letters to the editor had the same almost immediate feedback we enjoy today.

With the advent of social media you have a golden opportunity to test your ideas on your followers. Ask them how they would react to the death of a specific character – perhaps even turn it into a competition. Not only will you get an answer (not necessarily the one you want or will use) but you will also generate interest in the upcoming book, a public trial from which Sherlock Holmes was never in a position to benefit.

Just remember for whom you write – if it’s for yourself then perhaps the adage, ‘you can’t please everyone, so please yourself’ is for you. Perhaps a more moderate approach for a wider and appreciative audience might be ‘you can’t please all the people, all the time’.

This has been a guest post by author David K Roberts.