Last evening I was in the hot seat at one of my writing groups. We reviewed the second chapter of a novel that is long in the tooth, but coming to a conclusion this year, finally. The advice I got was varied and helpful, encouraging and stern. That's what I need from a review of ongoing work. What got me thinking this morning was the interest these readers expressed in a pair of characters whom I have seen as plot elements, secondary, maybe tertiary. One of these characters dies in the next chapter, and the other storms off the stage, never--till now--to be heard from again. I've devised a way to deepen these paper people and satisfy the readers' interest in those two characters' backstory.
But I have also spent much of my journal time this morning thinking about our relationships to characters, and realize that as a reader, I don't do well with tragic stories in which fictional people whom I have come to care about suffer. I just read most of The Cellist of Sarajevo. It's a wonderful novel, well written and bearing important information into the world. But it's relentlessly dark, as it can only be, given its wartime setting. I closed the book before the end because I just could not watch these people suffer and die, and it was clear that they would. I was helpless. I could not be a rescue hero or a good Samaritan to them. My choices were to read on and suffer with them, or turn away by closing the book.
What then, do I make of the writers' relationship to characters with whom we live for months or years, watching them grow and take life from the wimpy little letters we type? How does a writer find the courage to see the story to its one true conclusion, even when that end means the death of these characters? This sense of inevitable loss, an ongoing lesson in mortality, casts light on the comfort of series books. As a reader, I know that no matter how tight the fix, Kinsey Millhon and Stephanie Plum will survive to delight another day. Evanovitch and Grafton know that too. It explains my delight in the TV--now DVD--series Monk. I know that Adrian Monk is immortal, like Hawkeye Pierce. I can get involved and know that I don't ever have to say goodbye.