At the risk of mixing metaphors, I’ll admit that what got me thinking about the theme was the recent season-ending television episode of Downton Abbey. (If some of you—the ones who are living on Mars, perhaps?—have not seen the show, be forewarned, there are spoilers here.) Matthew Crawley, one of the main characters was killed off in an unexpected (at least it was to me) plot twist. And once the initial shock had passed, I got to pondering how I felt about the development.
I confess, I was angry. How could the show’s author (the esteemed Julian Fellowes ) do this to his audience? Here I had invested three seasons watching Matthew’s relationship with the main heroine, Mary, develop. As in real life, the going hadn’t been easy for them. Misunderstandings, stubbornness, pride—a whole host of human emotions had made things hard for them to come together, faults and all. And then, just as things were getting really interesting between them—whack! Matthew’s gone.
But that said, my feelings were tempered a little by a previous experience with the same situation. I am a big fan of mysteries, and some of my favorites are the Inspector Thomas Lynley series by Elizabeth George. Now, television does tend to knock off characters occasionally, but in literature it’s one of those cardinal rules that an author mustn’t kill off one of the main protagonists. Well, George turned that rule on its head when she had Lynley’s pregnant wife (we had spent years watching them going through complex emotional gyrations to finally end up tying the knot) die at the hands of a random shooting.
Well, her readers were up in arms! So much so, that George decided to write an essay explaining why she did it. Now, I was one of those irate readers, so I was curious to know her rationale. And I found it so interesting that I thought it worth sharing some of her thoughts here.
She begins by saying, “ . . . the first thing you need to consider is the two alternatives available to a writer when she decides to create a series that features continuing characters. A series like this can be approached by freezing the characters in time, place, and circumstance. Or it can be approached by allowing the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time. Characters who have been frozen in time, place, and circumstance are best exemplified by Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes (with the obvious exception of that trip over the waterfall), and Dr. Watson. On the other hand, characters who are not frozen in time, place, and circumstance but who move forward, growing, changing, and developing can be found in books like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, as well as the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books.”
Okay, an interesting distinction. George then explains, “For perhaps the six years preceding the creation of With No One as Witness, I knew that Helen Clyde—as I’ve always referred to her—was going to die . . . . Why? The answer is simple. Helen’s death, unlike the death of any other character, had the potential to affect more greatly the characters left alive. Her death was like a hand grenade thrown into their midst: The aftermath allowed me myriad story lines to pick up on, based upon the devastating impact of this crime on the other characters. No other death would have done that for me. As I looked at it, no other death would have come close.”
Hmmm, but maybe readers didn’t want a hand grenade thrown into their midst. Well, George has an answer to this. She finishes her essay by saying, “The literary philosophy I have always adhered to is this: When a writer writes, as John Steinbeck put it so eloquently, he seeks to form a trinity, and this trinity exists only when the work, the writer, and the reader are joined together. It is a communion of sorts, in which the reader is invited into a world created by writer and is asked to feel something about that world and the people in it. That is the purpose of novels. On one level, of course, novels do entertain and divert. But on another, deeper level, they move. In creating the scenes leading up to Helen Clyde’s death in With No One as Witness, I sought to place the reader in a position not dissimilar to Lynley’s own. My purpose in this was to have the reader feel—if only marginally—something of what Lynley felt when he had to authorize the termination of life support for his wife and their son. Had the reader completed the novel, tossed it to one side, yawned, and walked into the kitchen for a beer and a bologna sandwich, the novel would have failed in its purpose. There would have been no trinity. But the reader didn’t do that. The reader cared. The reader wept. The reader raged. These reactions spoke to the fact that the novel succeeded in doing what novels have always been intended to do.”
I found this a very thought-provoking explanation. Now, emotionally I wasn’t really any happier, but I have continued reading the series, and find she’s done some very interesting explorations into how people pick up the pieces after a shattering life experience.
So, what about you? How do you as a reader feel about losing a beloved character from a series? Do you agree with George’s thinking? And lastly let’s end by having a little fun with a serious topic. A lot of people have said killing Matthew from Downton Abbey was too easy a way out. Fellowes could have come up with a more creative way to get rid of him. (Apparently the actor wanted out of the show.) What scenario would you have used to get him out of the picture? Here’s mine: He’s sent to New York to help Mary’s American grandmother with some crisis. Now, Matthew was not born an aristocrat, so he finds America’s egalitarian attitudes refreshing after England. He meets a woman journalist and is intrigued by her independent spirit . . . Anyone else want to play?