In 1996, I saw a movie that changed my life. The movie was Independence Day, featuring Bill Pullman and Will Smith.
The part that changed my life was this: Stories revolve around the characters who live to tell them.
I remember thinking, as I left the theater, how incredible it was that with a body count as high as the movie had, none of the important characters were killed. If a character died, it was intentional, sacrificial. With lasers and bullets flying everywhere, you might have thought that SOMEONE would have been killed unintentionally, but no.
Stories are told by the living. Why would the script writer tell the story of a man who accidently died in a car accident? That would make for one sad movie.
I operated by this understanding for years. Every time someone would point out how implausible it was that all of the characters got through a war or something like that, I would think, why would the author follow the ones who died?
But then I started reading George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and all of my preconceived notions died like so many of Martin’s characters. I don’t mean to spoil the series for anyone, but if you’ve heard anything about it, you know not to get too attached to any of the characters. No one is safe from the author’s pen stroke of death.
As a man who is usually more fascinated by the characters than the story itself, this troubles me. How can I escape into a world of fantasy when it is as cruel as the real world?
Now, I know that authors use terrible events in the lives of their characters to prove their mettle and to draw readers in, but there is usually an unspoken rule that things will work out well in the end. And if the character happens to die, it will be a noble death, one that gives closure to the storyline.
But if the story is more important than the characters, then anything goes.
Which is more important to you? Story or characters? Do you ever feel cheated by the author’s choices to kill certain characters? Or would you feel cheated if things worked out TOO well for everyone?