Halfway through Jostein Gaarder’s novel, Sophie’s World, the plot takes an incredible twist that illustrates how attached readers can get to fictional characters. I read the book twenty years ago, but the shock of that sudden story turn is still fresh in my mind. We come to think of the characters as real people, don’t we? We mourn when a beloved character dies, shout at the page when one does something stupid, and shed a few tears when lovers finally unite for a happily ever after. Readers have been doing this for centuries; in 1841, a crowd of New Yorkers, anxious to know the fate of Little Nell, gathered on a dock in lower Manhattan to greet the ship carrying the last installment of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.
Cozy mystery writers depend on readers having a strong connection with our characters so they will stick with us through book after book of a series. As a writer, I also form a bond with the characters I create, both the “regulars” like Veronica Walsh, Mark Burke, and Carol Emerson, and the characters who feature in just one book (or so I plan, until I fall in love with them and promote them to permanent cast member). This blog title says it all. I really like the make-believe people in my head.
Sometimes that makes it difficult to have a character suffer, do something bad, or die (no wonder the victim in many cozy mysteries is an awful person whom no one misses when they’re gone). “But I don’t want this character to be childless!” I might say to my computer screen. “This one’s just starting her career, I can’t send her to prison!” or “He’s so sweet, I can’t let him die!”
What I have to do, of course, is kill my darlings. That’s the advice offered on numerous blogs and given by authors from William Faulkner to Stephen King. Per the recommendation, to create a strong, interesting story, a writer must let go of her favorite lines, paragraphs, even whole chapters that don’t advance the plot. For me, that also means always remembering the characters serve the story, not vice versa, and I must not be precious about them. It’s a daily reminder I give myself so I can ruin a character’s life, turn one into a royal witch, or make some guy a dirt bag.
What about you? What characters have become so real you’d like to invite them over for pizza and beer? What literary friend have you mourned over, or wanted to slap upside the head?
I hope everyone affected by the frigid temperatures and snow bomb cyclone is warm and safe. My cold fingers are crossed for a thaw. Pronto!