I can hear it now. Authors freaking out. Writers throwing their pens at me in abandon. “Sometimes the character MUST DIE.” (Just ask George R.R. Martin.)
We’re not talking about killing a character here. If it’s central to the plot, it can make for a powerful story, but that’s not what I mean. When you started this labor of love, you set up a host of people (or maybe vampires, space aliens, etc.) and these people came with traits and flaws and an entire personality that suddenly grew on the page. They came alive. And they were sent out into the world where people, readers like me, fell in love.
It is at this time that writers make HUGE mistakes that costs them readers. I believe this happens more often in television and LONG-LIVED novel-series than in stand-alone books and movies. Why? Writers for television have to spend years on the same characters and eventually forget to love them the way the reader does or maybe they think they can just tweak the world, tweak the character slightly to force them into a storyline and no one will notice. Wrong.
Have you ever watched a show or read a book where you KNEW the characters and thought. “No, he wouldn’t do that. This doesn’t make sense.” And later it turns out it was ALL A TRICK, a sleight of hand so that the author could move the character into position to suffer the consequences of an act that a hero wouldn’t have done and the author says “Isn’t that great? Not only did I create a flawed hero, but I used his flaw to pull him down?” And all the while the readers are SCREAMING foul.
When I LOVE a character and I’ve spent several books getting to know them, and the author needs to maneuver MY HERO into an angst-ridden moment and does so by changing his/her personality, even for a moment, the book is ruined. And if the mistake is large enough, suddenly I never want to read in that universe again.
On a grand scale, I feel this way about the new Star Wars, although I would say Lucas sacrificed the whole entire storyline and I can’t exactly say for what. So how do I handle it? Well, there are two universes, and in mine, the prequels do not exist. They are not Star Wars, they are something else, although Darth Maul has a place in both halves of my split universe, but I digress. When you disappoint your audience, this is what happens, they are forced to either abandon the series or to rewrite it in their head, so the stuff you as an author screwed up doesn’t get in the way of their enjoyment.
I will admit to a slight, ever so small relief that Firefly was canceled after the first season. (Browncoats, please don’t stone me. Let me explain first.) The characters are pristine. They haven’t been muddied by writing that forced them to do things they wouldn’t, mostly because they were still new and fresh and Joss still loved them. And so while I wish that Firefly had gone on for a decade, I know that if it had, something would have happened and some of the shiny would have worn off my enjoyment.
Once your characters go out into the world, the people who read them own a little piece of them. And so, writers, beware. Be careful that you’re not manipulating your characters into doing something they wouldn’t do. If they are heroes, don’t give them flaws so big that your audience starts to hate them.
This is hard to do from the trenches, so I can only hope if I start to err on the side of plotline, I remember to focus on character and let events fall where they may.