On Death and Writing (or, On Reading George RR Martin)

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I’m almost finished reading George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords, and I knew from people’s gossip about the third season of the TV series that there would be some Very Upsetting Deaths. Thus, I braced myself throughout the book for a beloved character to be killed off. And when it finally happened, I felt more angry and annoyed than sad. And whenever death in fiction fails to make me feel sad, I start to think something might be wrong.

Back when I first started dating my husband, George RR Martin came up in a campfire conversation amongst a bunch of his fantasy geek friends. One of them proclaimed, “George RR Martin, who kills off all the good characters.” The tone of this friend’s voice implied that he might have followed that up with an expletive, which I won’t include here because this is a mostly PG-rated blog. But it stuck with me as I began reading Martin’s work, so that in the back of my mind I always have this voice saying, “No one is safe from him.”

I was about to say I was conflicted in my reaction to Martin’s treatment of death, but then I realized that I’m really not. Most of the time, it just ticks me off. It feels manipulative to painstakingly craft characters, to bring your readers to care for them, and then to callously kill them off with hardly a second thought. That’s the reader in me. The writer in me wants to probe deeper into Martin’s workings as an author.

I get the sense that George RR Martin is one of those authors who sees his characters as “tools,” not as “children.” The thought of killing off one’s “babies” is gut-churning, but discarding a tool in place of one that will suit your needs better is just common sense. In the case of Martin’s infamous deaths, I see him trading in the tool of a character when the tool of that character’s absence will suit his story better. It still seems callous to me, but perhaps I can muster up a grudging respect or admiration as a writer.

Then there’s the part of me that wonders if, rather than being callous, Martin is actually brave. We all know that only “extras” ever get killed off in long-running series, and one sign that a series is nearing its end is when regular characters start dying (Battlestar Galactica, anyone?) But Martin doesn’t wait until the end. He kills characters mid-book, mid-series. He makes people angry. He cuts off hoped-for resolutions. He forces surviving characters to grieve when it’s not at all convenient for them. He makes it all so messy.

And that’s what I can’t help but respect about him.

I still don’t like it. But if there’s one thing I like less than characters dying halfway through a book, it’s characters dying at the end of books. Because then it reduces death to a “resolution.” Death is not a resolution — it’s the opening of a whole new conflict, one that should never be sprung on a reader with less than ten pages remaining to process it. (Deaths that occur in the last chapter, or even the last page? Guaranteed to plummet a book review from me down at least one star what it would have been otherwise. This kind of resolution reminds me of how I used to end skits when I was ten years old — kill everyone off, and then the story can’t go on. Shouldn’t we expect more from professional writers?)

By killing characters off midway through the journey, the aftermath of death becomes achingly real. But these kinds of deaths bring with them their own pitfalls. While better than treating death as a “resolution,” sometimes these deaths seem to be reduced to a mere plot point. Martin is guilty of this. While it’s true that his characters continue to grieve the losses of loved ones from the point of death onwards, often I don’t feel the impact of that death in my gut the way I should. It feels more like a political maneuver than anything: “Now that this character is dead, these subplots have some new wrinkles.”

NaNoWriMo often encourages killing a character off as a way to keep writing when one gets “stuck.” I have never followed this advice. I think I never will.

I don’t like death in real life, I don’t like it in fiction, and I don’t like writing it. But it is part of life, and all life has a place in fiction. Unfortunately, death in fiction runs the risk of romanticizing it (resolution, tragedy) or trivializing it (a mere plot point), or of using it as a backdrop against which to say something “deep” about life. But I really hate it when someone has to die so I can learn some deep insight about life.

If death must occur in fiction, I think its highest purpose is toward character development. I think this is why I have a tendency for my deaths to occur prior to my story’s opening, as part of the backstory. Death is world-shattering. Death is life-defining. Life-changing.  And not conveniently resolved in 3 pages or in 300. This might also be why I gravitate toward death in memoir while I avoid it in fiction. I know death is real, and I have more interest in learning how real people cope with it than seeing how a writer manipulates it for his own ends.

Without giving any character-death spoilers for Martin’s work or others’, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the way death is handled in fiction. Who does it well, and who shouldn’t be doing it at all?