(While I’m away, here’s something to think about before you knock off another protagonist.)
I mentioned some time ago that in my short story class I have very few rules. One of them is this: “No writing about serial killers.” This is because I believe every new writer should look into her own heart and decide what it is that makes her want to write, and then work on stories that, by this standard, feel genuine. I don’t believe new writers—at least not the ones I’ve met—search their hearts for the source of their creative inclinations and hear a voice that says, “Serial killers.”
Here’s a second rule: “Nobody dies.” How’s that? Being a writer is a heady circumstance in which you can actually do anything you like. That’s a rare thing in this life. When you’re writing, you can pick up a handful of dust and make a character out of it. You can run him through all kinds of adventures. If you find the laws of nature confining, you can suspend them. You’re in charge. Your characters, poor plebes that they are, are helpless before your godlike powers. You can kill ’em on a whim.
But don’t. Lots of great fictional characters have gotten killed for legitimate reasons and to great effect. Shakespeare knocked off Romeo and Juliet. And having the white whale drag Ahab, tangled in the harpoon lines, down to the depths of hell made great sense, considering that Ahab always had been hell-bent to get there.
But you’re not Melville and your story isn’t Moby Dick. I’m insisting that you don’t kill your protagonists for the simple reason that dead people don’t do stuff, and I want your protagonists to do stuff. Turn off the switch on your characters and you’re turning off their possibilities. Come on, wring some more tears out of them, some more laughs. A lot of interesting things can happen to a person when he or she’s alive; fewer things when they’re dead.
A student of mine conjured up a fond old guy who escaped from a nursing home one rainy night because he felt he wasn’t ready to pack it in. He wanders into a truckstop. At the coffee counter he tells his story to a young truck driver who gradually warms to him and says something like, “Hey, old timer, why don’t you ride along with me down to Roanoke? We’ll find you an adventure or two to get into.” Me, I’m reading along and thinking: Can’t wait to see what happens. So the old guy climbs up into the cab of the 18-wheeler and they pull out of the parking lot and onto Route 81, whereupon another rig plows into them and POW! The fireball is so big they can see it back at the nursing home.
That was a surprise. I tend to like surprises. But this was a disappointing surprise. All those possibilities, and all of them gone. That was the end of the story. It let my student off the hook; she didn’t have to deal with all those messy human things that would have happened in Roanoke. But all those messy human things are why we read stories.
I tell my students this: Death’s a serious business. Drop a piano on your protagonist’s head and you’re stuck without a protagonist. Worse than the fact that there’s nothing more you can do with him in the real world is the fact that there’s nothing more your readers can do with him in their imaginations. At the end of Casablanca, Rick Blaine could have been killed in the exchange of bullets with Major Strasser. Rick would have died heroically, but it wouldn’t have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Capt. Renault.
More likely than not, new writers kill their characters because it feels like a weighty thing to do, or because there’s an intractable plot problem and death’s the nearest exit, or because—and a student of mine actually told me this once—a short story’s supposed to be short and he’d already written 20 pages. But I’m begging you now, let ‘em live. At this stage of your writing, when you’re first learning how to envision lives lived on the page, let’s not breath life into these guys only to see them get creamed on their way out of the parking lot.