Writers hear a lot about their “contract with the reader” -- the obligation to deliver a good story and to follow through on the expectations they’ve created.
For mystery writers, that unwritten contract requires that we obey the conventions of the various subgenres. Readers of humorous cozies would feel betrayed and angry if their favorite writers shoved their noses into the realistic gore of murder, or stuck in a sizzling, graphic sex scene, or (heaven forbid) killed a cat. Thriller writers, on the other hand, have to keep up a brisk pace, slosh the blood around liberally, and ratchet up the suspense to nail-biting levels. Writers of noir can even get away with killing the cat.
There’s one thing, though, that readers in all subgenres are guaranteed to howl about: the murder of a beloved series character. When Dana Stabenow let the bad guys kill off a popular character, a lot of fans swore they would never buy her books again. When Elizabeth George did it, the shock rippled through online mystery discussion groups. Now another of my favorite writers has killed a major character in her latest book -- don’t worry; I won’t name the writer, the book, or the character and spoil it for you -- and I’m curious about the way her fans will react.
As a reader, I was upset with Stabenow for doing in a character I liked. George’s deceased character was one I’d detested from the start, and I was happy to see her go, but reading about it was still a jolt because of the anguish it caused other characters to whom I’m more attached. The latest character death feels like a personal loss. The murder is particularly brutal and horrifying, and I’m stunned that the author made this choice. As a writer, I’m eager to see what direction the series will take now that its fictional world has been so drastically altered, but I expect the next book to be painful to read.
The relationships that readers form with fictional characters, especially series characters, are fascinating and more than a little weird. Look at the mania over Harry Potter and the general horror among readers when they feared that Harry would be killed in the final book. This kid isn’t a real person. He doesn’t exist. Yet millions of readers worldwide would have been more distressed by his fictional death than by the deaths of most flesh-and-blood people they know. Plenty of crime fiction readers feel equally protective of their favorite characters.
In one way, it’s great news for the author when this intense bond between reader and character develops. It means the character is so real and enduring that readers can’t wait to find out what he or she will do next. The flip side of that devotion is the readers’ desire to decide the character’s fate. We think only editors and agents have the right to interfere with the direction of our stories, but some readers feel they gain that right by buying and loving a series. And many readers won’t hesitate to deliver their instructions directly to the author.
With only two books of my own in print so far, I haven’t had time to disappoint anyone in a major way, but I’ve already had a little taste of what it’s like when readers want to dictate what happens to characters they like. It’s strangely enjoyable, but also unnerving. For writers like Stabenow and George, who receive an avalanche of complaints when they upset readers, it’s probably maddening.
Some authors say they’ll write what they damned well please, and readers can take it or leave it. However, if too many readers decide to leave it, the life of the series itself could be endangered. Stabenow and George, whose books are on the dark side, don’t seem to have suffered in the long term for killing their characters, but for writers less comfortably established, it might not be a wise career choice. And many cozy writers say they would never, ever dare to harm an animal -- especially not a cat -- in a story.
So whose book is it, anyway? Should the author write every novel, every scene, with the readers’ preferences in mind? Does a long-running series gradually become a collaboration between writer and readers?
I’m relatively new at this, and I don’t know what the answer is. I hope I’ll be in print long enough to find out!