Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Know They're Dead, First We Had To Know They Were Alive

I'm reading David Benioff's novel "City of Thieves," which is a pretty good romp through St. Petersburg during the Nazi siege of that city in WWII. The protagonist is well done, the city is vividly portrayed, and Benioff has set up a good story question that I can't wait to see answered. So that's all good. But.

Last night I read a passage wherein the protagonist discovered that his home--a multistory apartment building called the Kirov--had been flattened by German bombs. It is assumed that most of the occupants were killed. Benioff's narrator pauses to list and describe the more colorful and likeable characters who have probably died, and I am sure that this passage is supposed to evoke some sort of emotion from the reader. I am sure that we are supposed to be moved by the loss of these people. And in a general way, I was, sure. But not much.

No matter how much detail Benioff supplied, these deaths were pretty much meaningless. Why? Because we find out all the neat stuff about these possibly sympathetic and interesting folks only after they're dead, when they won't ever be mentioned again. They were, therefore, never alive for us, so how can we mourn their death now that they're gone?

I kill off a good number of characters in my own novels, and I learned a long time ago that in order for a death to have any meaning to a reader, there must be a lot of meaning in the scenes where these characters are still alive. Possibly they have to be even more alive than the characters you don't kill off. So watch yourself if you do away with any of your characters. Make me love them before you drop a piano on them, or I won't love them at all.


  1. I like to call this the "No setup, no payoff" principle of characterization.

    There are no real shortcuts around this, readers won't care about someone or something if they haven't invested any time or feeling into that person or thing.

    Great post

  2. Mayowa has an excellent way to explain it "No, setup, no payoff".

    Readers have to care about characters (either in a positive or negative light) to give a darn about their deaths.

  3. Excellent, Scott. You should put this on Lit Lab. That's just kind of weird that he would list all that stuff after they're dead... of course, I've done this. I did it in Monarch with Annabelle who's dead the whole time and we're supposed to care about her the way Nick cared about her. Not sure if that's a good example, but I see that as possibly being problematic. I don't know.

  4. Mayowa: D.H. Lawrence called it "unearned emotion." I usually call it sentimentality. Either way, it's just lazy writing. "City of Thieves" is still a good read, though. Don't get me wrong.

    Crimey: My fortune cookie at lunch today said, "A stranger will compliment you."

    Readers have to have become emotionally invested in characters to give a darn about whatever happens to them. It's easy to forget that the reader's emotional investment begins at zero on page 1.

  5. Michelle: I have a feeling that Benioff's editor said to him, "Hey, can you make the bombing of Lev's building more emotional? But keep it short." and Benioff said, "Okay," and wrote that passage. I may put this on the Lab next Tuesday. We'll see.

    I might suggest that the whole Annabelle part of Nick's story arc could go away without doing any damage to your story. I don't want to get into any detail about your book in public, though. Even so marginal an "in public" as a blog with 57 followers!

  6. 57 followers is nothing to scoff at! If you want to go further into detail an email would be good. I don't know what to do with the book, if it's even worth working on more or if I should just move on.

  7. Unearned emotion, I like it. The novel does sound like a good time, I imagine St. Petersburg during the Nazi occupation was no birthday party at Chuck E Cheese.

  8. People were eating dirt and cutting apart books to eat the glue in the spines. But I'll let you know if a big animatronic banjo-playing bear shows up.

  9. Ouch.

    Those banjo bears are scary though.