Archive for February, 2012

When Characters Die

One of the crucial skills an author must develop is knowing which characters to kill off, when, and how. This is important. Fiction is not life, but it reminds us of it. Strongly. Or we wouldn’t spend our time on it. Fictional grief is not real grief, but it does remind us of the real thing, and if an author’s killing of a character isn’t justified (and I’m speaking in terms of story, not morality), we are offended. We are offended, because fictional death must do honor to the real thing, and the real grief that ensues when we lose someone.

In fiction, as in life, we have varying degrees of attachment. If a main character dies, it’s a big deal. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the term “shreddie.” Captain Kirk’s party is transported to planet surface, and there’s Spock, there’s Uhuru…oh, wait, there’s a new ensign or somebody I’ve never seen before. No sooner than we’ve noticed him, ZAP, something kills him, the defeating of which will consume the Enterprise’s efforts for the next hour. The previously unknown crew member is a shreddie. We have no connection to him whatsoever, but the plot required someone to die in the first scene, and we know they can’t kill off a regular cast member.

In murder mysteries, we have of necessity another sort of shreddie, the murder victim. More often than not, the victim is killed early on, and we have no opportunity to get attached. Sometimes, the author goes out of her way to make the character unlikable, or at least unappealing in some way. P.D. James does this with her victims sometimes. In any event, when we pick up a murder mystery, we know what we’re getting into, and we’re not the least surprised if the first character we meet is quickly dispatched.

In the same fashion, we expect characters to be killed in the course of novels about war, espionage, or adventure. These can be characters we like and have gotten to know. It is usually not the main viewpoint character. Usually. In heroic fantasy or heroic space opera, while there may be a sacrifice of one or two “good guys,” the main, number one good guy is expected to survive. But not always.

Sometimes, readers refuse to accept the death of a hero. Famously, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, readers revolted. The author was forced to bring Holmes miraculously back to life. Stephen King fictionalizes a similar situation in Misery, in which fan Annie Wilkes imprisons and assaults novelist Paul Sheldon for killing off favorite character Misery Chastain, eventually forcing him to bring his character back to life.

The reader may not always win these battles, but the reader does have power.

If you do a web search on the subject, you can come up with some sites that ask the questions surrounding the killing of fictional characters. Some give answers as well, when it’s “right” and when it’s “wrong” to do away with a character. I’m not so certain it’s that easy. For every rule given, I can think of an exception.

Successful character-offing is more than rules, and more, even, than art. It is part of the greater conversation between author and reader that storytelling is. Storytelling is a conversation. The responsibility for the successful transmission of a tale is only half the writer’s job. The other half belongs to the reader. Most of the time, readers are happy for the author to direct the conversation, and to go along with the plot, but not always, and certainly not if they feel the author has violated what they feel to be the purpose and the spirit of the work. The character-killing readers resist most, I believe, is the killing of the hero of a series.

Harry Potter cannot die. Neither can Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Adam Dalgliesh, or Superman. They need to outlive everyone, including their authors. They are all supermen, able to hold back the forces of evil that surround us. They have been with us forever, surviving adventure after adventure to start over again in the next installment. They are magic. If they die, the magic dies. We lose hope.

In one wildly irrational corner of our brains, we need to believe that they are there, really there, just in case the wrongness in the world gets to be too much for us. We need to believe it is possible to outsmart death itself, just as they have.

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I Don’t Like Fantasy, Or Do I?

In the last couple years, I have been avoiding the non-contemporary fantasy on my to-be-read shelf. I’m not sure why.

The fantastical element isn’t the problem. I like elves and wizards all right. I’m not such a fan of the fourteenth century, where much non-contemp fantasy seems to reside. I think that’s it. That era was no fun at all for most people, especially women. It was a society that functioned in ignorance.

I’m not a big fan of empires, either. There was a time, when I was younger, much younger, that I believed someone was in charge. I believed a king (or a president, for that matter) would have the knowledge, insight, and wisdom to solve problems and combat evil. I don’t feel that way any longer. Traditional fantasy pits good against evil, but in real life, good is usually sullied, and bad is often relative. Life is not as simple and easy to understand as a battle between good and evil.

Then, there’s the cover art of fantasy. Horses, swords, winged men, and warriors. The battles will kill as many horses as men. I hate it when the horse gets killed. If the cover shows horses in battle, I think that’s all there is inside. It turns me off from ever opening the book.

Now, I was perfectly happy to live in the fourteenth century-ish time of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. It is dripping in medieval, feudal ambience. Many horses are killed in battle, as well as in jousting, a sport even stupider than football. Martin’s characters are such…people. They are evil and they are good. Even the smart ones make stupid mistakes.

Okay, so what about the unread non-contemp fantasy I’ve pulled from my to-be-read shelf? We have:

Nadya, by Pat Murphy:

The cover art shows a young woman of indeterminate age looking down into a body of water. The image reflected back to her is that of a wolf. It is set in the mid-nineteenth, and concerns a young shape-changer. This is not a YA, but it appears to have a coming-of-age theme to it. It occurs to me that I’ve had some resistance to coming-of-age stories for a while; is it that I’m not currently in the mood for that kind of pain? Have I lost patience with the too-trusting naiveté of young females? Possibly. I know I’ve had this book for a while, seven to eight years. Pat Murphy is a terrific writer, and I would be stupid not to read this.

The Last Rainbow, by Parke Godwin:

I purchased this on the strength of Sherwood. I was a huge fan of Robin Hood lore as a child (yes, I loved the TV series starring Richard Greene, but didn’t bother with the new one), and enjoyed that book as well. I suspect this is a fine book, but you know what? I honestly think I will never get to it. I’m going to donate it to the library.

Freedom’s Gate, by Naomi Kritzer:

Here we have cover art with horses-in-battle, swords, warriors, and archers. The blurb speaks of tyranny and slavery, but not a word about any supernatural, i.e. fantasy, content. Okay, wait, the first page intro mentions a sorcerer. I picked up this book at Diversicon in the Twin Cities. I sat on a panel with Naomi Kritzer and had it signed. I’ll keep it in the hopes I’ll get to it. Naomi’s a good writer, and I bet I’d get pulled into the story if I just opened it.

The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow:

Whoops, this doesn’t belong in this group of books. It’s not a fantasy, I don’t think, except one praise blurb mentions fantasy. It appears instead to be historical fiction (late 17th century) mixed with social commentary. And although Morrow sometimes gets a bit heavy-handed with his social-religious commentary, I really love him. And it’s got a kick-ass cover.

The Year of Our War and Dangerous Offspring, by Steph Swainston:

The cover and a glance at the blurbs seem to indicate traditional fantasy fare. The hero is immortal and can fly. Horses, and other beasts, rampage. There is an emperor, battlefields, and one or more castles. On the other hand, one back-cover reviewer calls her “…the queen of Weird Fiction” The books were highly acclaimed when they came out several years ago, which is why I purchased them. The “…queen of Weird Fiction” has me. I will keep these.

My tastes change over time, and my mood shifts. There was a time when — during the Towing Jehovah period — I would have read James Morrow immediately upon purchase. By the end of that series, I had become saturated with his view of the universe. There was a time I would have forced myself to read the Steph Swainston books because they were so well reviewed. I don’t feel the need to force myself any longer. Reading is for my entertainment, and it’s supposed to be fun.

I’m of two minds about the situation. Mind One says there are no rules — about what I feel, what I have to read, what I have to finish, what I’ve changed my mind about. There is no wrong or right about which books I read. Mind Two says, yes but. Yes but 1) think of those works you were forced to read at some point in your life that then proceeded to blow you away; 2) what about those admittedly relatively few times you wanted to ditch a book after forty pages only to have the book take off at page fifty? 3) and what about the times a writer’s supposed genre (like zombie novels–see previous post) has put you off, but it turns out it’s a great book anyway?

You have to keep an open mind.

And I will.

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God Bless You, Mr. Hengeveld

Texts from Mr. Hengeveld's Classes

Late in 2007, I was listening to NPR, and I heard a jazzy-souding cello. The show’s host was talking about the artist, and his singular contribution to jazz, to the cello, and specifically to jazz cello.

I recall speaking out loud to the radio. “If it’s jazz cello, it’s Fred Katz.” And it was. He was, at the time, eighty-eight years old, and a bunch of his work was being reissued on CD. I could not have been more thrilled to hear his voice, and to hear he was still alive and productive.

Fred Katz was one of my two favorite professors at Cal State Fullerton many decades ago, where he taught musicology in the Anthropology Department. And now that we were well into the age of Google, his appearance on NPR prompted me not only to look him up (and order his CDs), but to look up my other favorite college professor as well. His name was Dennis Hengeveld, and he was an English professor.

At first there appeared to be no relevant results whatsoever. Strange. As I scrolled down, however, there were several entries for Mitzi Myers, an authority on the history of children’s literature. Included in the results was her obituary. She had died in 2001 as a result of injuries received during a house fire the year before, her injuries apparently the result of her trying to save her extensive and valuable children’s book collection. At the end of the obituary, I read that Dr. Myers’ husband, Dennis Hengeveld, had died in 1983.

My best guess is he would have been around forty years old then. There was no indication as to the cause of his death.

Until my first class with Mr. Hengeveld, my academic encounters in the subject of English literature had been spotty and unsatisfying. Junior High English was fine, but it was mostly about grammar. High school brought the introduction of Great Literature. Julius Caesar. Moby Dick. Boring. Difficult. I didn’t get it. I was able to slide through with B’s and C’s, but it was a grind. I became quite familiar with Cliff Notes. I continued for fun, though. These extracurricular titles included The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings trilogy,  Jane Eyre, and Gone With the Wind. I read all the time, but declared myself “stupid” about English lit.

I remained stupid through my freshman year of college. In spring semester, I was unfortunate enough to have an instructor who spent a chunk of class time warning us students “…not to believe the things they are saying about me in the English department.” How a bunch of dumb freshmen were supposed to have special access to the inner political rumblings of the department was beyond any of us; meanwhile, I knocked my head against the wall, did my best, but could never do better than a B minus. He was the worst English teacher I’d ever had.

By sophomore year, I still had more core curriculum English to take. A roommate suggested Mr. Hengeveld.

It was a survey class of poetry, drama, and prose. Mr. Hengeveld himself was young, short, slender, and sported red hair and a goatee. He had a magnificent, rich voice, and was very friendly and funny. One of the first things he taught was that you don’t have to have a degree, or be particularly brilliant, or wield some heavy-duty literary theory in order to understand what was going on with a piece of fiction or poetry. You only have to read it. Yes, he spoke of structure, and themes, and recurring metaphors, and helped us notice those. Mostly, though, he said, you can do this. We could do it, and it was fun. He made us a promise: he would not grade down for any analysis we offered, as long as our evidence came from the text itself, whether or not he agreed with us. He wanted the work to speak to us, not to impose his view of the work upon us.

Only a few weeks into the semester, I stopped being stupid about English. I began pulling A’s.

Some people keep all their old text books forever; I have kept only those shown above, all from Mr. Hengeveld’s classes. I take them out from time to time and thumb through them, looking for some of my favorites. I find them, and smile. “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” by W. H. Auden, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. Through the study of these works I learned to analyze writing, thereby to enjoy literature more thoroughly, and thereby to demand more of the reading experience. It was the beginning of the end of junky best-sellers for me.

When I learned of Mr. Hengeveld’s early death, I was very sad, and I was left bereft of even the simplest information I’ve grown accustomed to being able to find out about anyone. I really knew very little about him personally. I could put it in a short paragraph: He was probably around 30 when I was taking classes from him. He was madly in love with his wife, whom he talked about frequently. She liked Elton John, and they went to his concerts. He was convinced, after the release of Plastic Ono Band, that John Lennon was the genius of the the Beatles, and based this opinion on the lyrics of two songs in particular, “God,” and “Working Class Hero.” He also loved Bob Dylan. His specialty was Elizabethan drama, but he adored Beat poetry as well. Most of all, he loved his subject matter, and found joy in everything he taught.

Had I not encountered Dennis Hengeveld, I might not have started writing. I might still be reading badly-written best-sellers. This is a teacher who changed the course of my life.

So, thank you Mr. Hengeveld. And God bless you.

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