Oct 4 2010

Survival of the Fittest

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I had a spectacular and unexpected ‘wildlife’ jog last week that began with the sighting of our resident Harris’s hawks (I had only been seeing one, so I was pretty certain that the mate had been killed). I was quite happy to find the pair together, and even more excited yesterday, when I discovered that there are three in the family!

This is obviously not the big buck I saw when jogging. But this beautiful doe appeared last week when I was completing novel research with a local rancher. Click to enlarge.

I continued my jog, smiling as I thought about the Harris’s, unaware that I had just jogged right beneath a Cooper’s hawk. When I made the abrupt turn to retrace my steps along the railroad tracks, I heard the swift beating of wings in a stout palo verde tree, no more than two feet above my head.

As I watched the Cooper’s hawk fly into a small valley, something else caught my eye: a big buck. Probably the largest I’ve seen in Arizona (and I wouldn’t likely have seen him if not for the Cooper’s hawk). I was patient. I stopped and waited for him to break the mannequin-like stance he’d assumed when he heard my feet crunching along the gravel.

I couldn’t help but think that hunting season is approaching. And that this buck’s life might, realistically, soon come to an end. I also realized, given his size and rack, that he had evaded hunters for years. That resilience alone, I think, should earn him a “get out of jail free” card this hunting season. Though I’m not sure it will happen, I hope he thrives for many more years, adding even more points to his rack, badges of courage.

For Writers: (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Elegance of the Hedgehog) I think readers often feel the same remorse when they’ve read a story in which the main character dies. They’ve connected with the character, shared her hopes and fears, taken the journey with her – only to learn of her death in the final pages. As readers, we feel sadness at the often unexpected change of events. Sometimes we feel cheated. And sometimes, the death plot element actually makes sense to us.

All the writing advice says debut novelists should never kill off a main character – that only well-established authors have that privilege. But it’s been done, with great effect, by debut novelists. Consider David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle or Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I admit it: I felt cheated at the conclusion of both stories… this is, until I really analyzed each. In both instances, I realized why the author chose that course of action. And, in the end, I was okay with both endings.

What’s your take? Is it okay to kill off your main character? Does it matter if you’re a debut novelist or a pro? How do you feel as a reader when the main character dies?


4 Responses to “Survival of the Fittest”

  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    Interesting question, Melissa. Personally, I need a happy ending to the fiction I read — not necessarily all neat and tidy and fairytale perfect, but some shred of hope or sunlight. To me, it doesn’t matter if the writer is a debut novelist or a seasoned author. If I feel cheated, I feel cheated. I don’t like to invest my time reading a book only to have the main character let me down in the end (by dying, or by making a disappointing choice, or by doing nothing at all, etc.) That said, I think when reading literary fiction vs. commercial fiction, I’m a little more likely to accept (and almost expect) that knife in the back. But I can’t say that I enjoy it, and I’m not likely to pick up another book by that author — pro or not.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Good point, Jessica, about literary fiction being more prone to the “knife in the back” at the end of the story. I never really thought about it, but you’re absolutely right. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for being honest about your happy ending preference. You’re definitely not alone.

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  • avatar Prem Rao Says:

    Quite thought provoking! My take is that it really depends on the nature of the novel and not so much whether the author is a debut novelist or a seasoned pro. What if the main character is suffering from a dreaded disease? The story might require him/her to die in the end. This might actually make the book more appealing to the reader as it would be factual and less romantic- where there are only happy endings.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, I agree. Sometimes the type of book will dictate the ‘death ending.’ And I guess I have less of an issue with that kind of story. It’s the ones where you don’t even see it coming – a freak accident of sorts – and the wind is knocked out of your sails. Agreed, also: probably doesn’t matter if you’re debut or seasoned pro. I think sometimes it can work, and other times, not so much. While I like ‘hopeful’ endings (as Jessica also suggests), I agree there is something honest and true about the less happy endings. I may not be happy when I put down the book, but often I find myself thinking about the ending and coming to peace with it.

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