In Stephen King’s Misery a novelist finds himself at the mercy of a fan infuriated because he has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. The woman is obviously a lunatic, yet a few days ago I found myself sympathizing with her. At the very least I wanted to write fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin an indignant letter.
Right now I’m engrossed in his Ice and Fire series. I can barely tear myself away long enough to do meet my obligations and do necessary work. The first volume, A Game of Thrones, runs more than 700 pages, the other three more than 1000 pages each. And I can’t wait to turn those pages. Martin writes a great story. On one level he serves up typical sword-and-sorcery fare – dragons, wights, dire wolves, skin-changers, giants, sorcerers, brave heroes on horseback, etc. – but he creates his imaginary medieval world in abundant detail and peoples it with complex and believable characters. And along with the many battles come political intrigues and betrayal.
He narrates the story from the point of view of a dozen or more characters. I have grown attached to a couple of them, only to have the author kill them off in one gruesome way or another. In particular I came to like Lady Catelyn Stark, maybe because she’s a woman around my age. Of course my husband isn’t the lord of a castle and I don’t have five children, but I understand and sympathize with Catelyn’s motives even when she screws up. Which she does, more than once. One mistake results indirectly in her husband’s death.
Before going on, I should warn that a spoiler is coming.
Poor Lady Catelyn sees her husband falsely accused of treason and beheaded, her two younger sons murdered, one daughter engaged to a sadistic prince and the other daughter missing and probably dead. But she still has Robb, her eldest son. He becomes king of the northern realm and goes to war with the prince and his scheming family. Catelyn worries endlessly about Robb. He’s only sixteen. Though he wins every battle, he makes a fatal political error. He’s pledged to marry a granddaughter of a crazy old coot but falls in love with another girl and marries her instead. Robb tries to make peace with the old coot by arranging for Catelyn’s brother to marry the granddaughter instead.
Off they go to the wedding. When they arrive at the old coot’s castle, Catelyn senses something wrong but figures they’re protected by tradition. It’s anathema to kill a guest under one’s roof. But the old coot, being nuts, has no problem ignoring the ancient rule protecting guests. At the end of the wedding feast his men ambush the northerners. Catelyn watches helplessly as her son is pierced by several arrows and stabbed through the heart. Then someone cuts her throat. Afterward her body is thrown naked into the river.
Reading this, I was stunned and indignant. For more than 2000 pages Catelyn had been an important part of the story. How could the author bring her so far and then kill her off so horribly? At least he could have let Robb survive and go on to win the war. Of course one of the few remaining Starks could triumph in the end, but I won’t let myself hope. I no longer trust George R.R. Martin. I think he’s going to snuff out every one of them.
But that won’t keep me from reading to the end. I’m Martin’s captive until I finish A Feast for Crows.
The larger issue here – the one that matters to writers – is that readers would care so much what happens to characters who are, after all, only constructs. I want readers to care that intensely about my characters. I want them to feel like writing me an angry letter when I kill one off. There’s no secret to it, really. Readers have to find enough of themselves in a character to empathize, to feel as if they themselves have lost a husband, a child. Easy enough to understand.
Making it happen is the hard part.