Killing Your Characters (Allegiant Fail)

While doing my usual putzing around on Twitter while sipping the morning coffee yesterday, I started hearing some tweets about a book, and people were not happy. At all. Not an uncommon occurrence really, but when I looked into it, the book they were referring to was the final book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a very popular YA Dystopian story with a large following and a movie coming out soon. Books with large fan bases are bound to have a wide range of reactions. Things happen they don’t like, minor characters die, the story goes in a direction they don’t like, the list is as long as there are readers. This is normal. In my Deadworld books, I received similar, negative reactions. It comes with the territory. Opinions are highly subjective and obviously, you can’t write to please everyone. I might go as far to say that writers don’t write to please anyone except themselves. We just hope that a large enough group of folks will feel the same way we do and keep us in the writing business that we love so much. To a point.

While you can’t write to please the reader, one wouldn’t be writing their own story then, there is something to say about reader expectations. Genre fiction tends to have groups of pretty dedicated readers. If one is lucky, your story reaches beyond your target group. Cross-genre appeal is a good thing, but the waters get a little murkier when you have the fortune of becoming popular. Yes, you can say that you should write the story you want to write, no matter what that is, and readers be damned. They’ll like it or they won’t. Let’s face it though, writers want readers to like their stories. We don’t create in a vacuum. We want readers to share our vision, to immerse themselves in the worlds we’ve created and journey with the characters we’ve developed and brought to life. However, a story generates expectations. When you plop the reader down in a world with a hero/heroine on an epic journey full of endless trials and dangers, love and betrayal, conspiracies, loss and hope, you are telling the reader something. You are telling them that you’re going to take them on a grand adventure, physical, emotional, and what-have-you, from beginning to end. Endings can be positive or negative and a mix of both. When you spread out this canvas before the reader though, you are creating a certain level of expectation, and there is some obligation on the writer’s part, I believe, to maintain this expectation. Consistency is vital. If you create an expectation of hope, of victory in the end, of the hero/heroine raising their fists in triumph, however mixed those feelings might be, you had better follow through.

Now, I have not read the Divergent series, so I can’t say how any of this was played out by Veronica Roth. Based upon reader reactions I’ve seen, there was no expectation that the main character, the heroine of the story, would die at the end. Victory came at the ultimate cost. This kind of resolution is a really, REALLY fine line to walk for a writer. You can’t pull off the death of the main character without there being at least a subtle expectation built in that victory is going to require this kind of resolution. There are a lot of stories out there where the main character dies. Sometimes the character has brought it upon themselves. Sometimes the situation is so untenable that death is the only possible outcome. All fine. Not all stories need or require a happy victory dance at the end. Some genres, however, have a certain level of expectation built into them that necessitates a particular kind of ending. In a romance, for example, if the hero and heroine don’t end up together in some sort of happy resolution, you haven’t fulfilled the expectation of what a romance is. The story becomes something other than a romance, which is fine of course, just don’t call it a romance and don’t put it out there to readers as one. When one is writing for the YA audience, a broad audience these days, but specifically targeted at the teenage market, there are also certain expectations built in here. There’s a lot of darkness and angst in this age group, but there is also hope.  A lot of shit happens in the teenage world, and much of it isn’t fun, but there is hope that, “I’ll get through this mess of figuring out the adult world and walk into it on solid ground.” YA Dystopian stories certainly delve into the notion of a lot of bad shit happening trying to figure things out on the way to being an adult. Adults live in a harsh world and getting the swing of being all grown up is a difficult task, but you know what? There’s hope that in the end, no matter what amount of crap is piled on, no matter how much things go wrong, that it will get figured out in the end and you’ll make it through. You don’t struggle mightily and then die.

Ok, we all know that people do struggle to make it through and then die, but that isn’t what you want to read. The reader wants hope. There are plenty of stories out there that detail quite eloquently, just how f’d up the world can be, how people can be harsh and cruel, and things can fail for good and bad reasons, but in the YA genre? Not so much. The expectation is that the teen hero or heroine will succeed in the end, and if you want to go against this expectation, you had better do a damn good job of making that plausible. The expectation needs to be altered, and from the sounds of things, from what I’ve read thus far, readers didn’t have that expectation at all. Should writers just write to reader expectations? No, of course not. That would be boring. As a reader, I like the unexpected, but when you start fiddling around with something fundamental like hope? Don’t crush it. Or, if you want to go there, be willing to accept the fact that a LOT of readers aren’t going to like you for it. They’re going to refuse to buy the book or see the movie (seen numerous comments to this effect). They might decide to never read anything else you ever write, and as a writer, that’s the last thing you want to have happen. I feel for Veronica. She took an unexpected step, and from the sounds of it, didn’t lay the groundwork well enough to alter the readers expectations. It’s a huge risk to kill off a main character, even if makes sense and can be seen from a long ways off.  Messing with hope is a very dangerous game as a writer.

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