This past weekend, I finally caught up on Season 3 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yes, yes, I’m a little late to the party (or wedding, I suppose) but lacking HBO myself, I was entirely reliant on my good friend kindly opening up his home and TiVo for ten hours of sex and gore marathoning. And so over two evenings, we got me entirely caught up and ready for just as gory Season 4.
Quite the experience.
Ok, even having left off reading somewhere in the middle of Book 2, I had some idea what I was getting myself into. Though I had avoided the specifics, I was well aware of the basic principle of GoT, everyone dies. And so when Episode 9 happened, I was decidedly less than shocked. Honestly, as we headed into 2 a.m., my first thought was “How can George R.R. Martin manage to do that? I would be exhausted if I killed off so many of my characters at once.”
Now then, I’m the first to admit that I’m an author who grows attached to her characters (last time I killed off a Main Character in a story I was crying over my keyboard). Those around me are more than familiar with me talking about my characters as if they are real people, and I tend to be of the, “They’re the characters, they know what they should do better than I do,” school of writing. While all of that seems to work for my writing, it does make it difficult to do anything too, too horrible in story.
So the question is, is that a problem?
Personally, I believe it is a matter of degrees. Bad things happen in real life. People die. People get hurt. Depending on your setting, life might even take a note from Thomas Hobbes and become “nasty, brutish, and short” (especially true if your novel involves something like war). If you are reaching the point where you are unable to give your characters any struggles in their lives, that is definitely a problem. After all, wants and struggles are the heart of a good story. Completely contented people who have no hardships whatsoever do not make for compelling storytelling.
Does that mean you had to massacre/torture/jerk your characters around à la George R. R. Martin? Hardly. Should your story demand it/should you wish to none of those things are off the table, but they are also not needed to make a compelling story. Not every story has a happy ending, but stories with happy endings are in no way inherently less compelling than those with tragic ones.
And so, when it comes to writing, the means justifies the end. As long as you write a compelling story, and do what is necessary to keep that story true to itself, whether your characters end up happy or dead really is up to you. It’s just about finding what works for both your story and you.