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No, no, no! Please don't die! – of the constraints imposed by reality

I write historical fiction, and as such I am a big fan of knowing my period and the important players of the time. However, my first series featured a time-traveller and her 17th century husband, a couple affected by what was happening round them – Matthew Graham is obliged to uproot himself and his family and leave Scotland due to the religious persecution in the aftermath of the Restoration in 1660 – but they were never anywhere close to the centre of things. This allowed me a lot of freedom when plotting their lives and adventures – albeit that I do have real-life characters flitting in and out.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer
Isabella and Roger – IRL (hmm, like a century after the fact)

My new series also features fictional characters. But this time round, I’ve tied their fate to that of the movers and shakers of the time, and suddenly my writing is populated by far more characters who did exist than did not.
“I should hope so.” Roger Mortimer pours himself a goblet of wine and reclines on one of the window seats that have, just by magic, popped up in my head. “It is us that are truly interesting.”
Well, excuse me for not agreeing 100%, Lord Mortimer! Well, okay: I am fascinated by Roger Mortimer – have been, since a certain Mr Wilmshurst (one of my first history teachers) summarised the story of Queen Isabella and Roger.
At the time, Queen Isabella came as a fresh air, proving to everyone in the class room that not all medieval ladies were meek and submissive. In actual fact, I think very few were: it suffices to look around at the women that surround us to realise submissiveness is not necessarily an ingrained female trait. But you see, no matter how tough as boots Isabella was, I never really warmed to her. I did, however, warm to Mortimer.
“He would not have given you as much as a glance,” Isabella says from where she has joined Mortimer by the window. She twirls, showing off her perfect figure. Everything is perfect about her – but there’s something hard and calculating about her, and I’ve always felt she could have done more to save her lover from his fate.
“My fate?” Mortimer stands up, and beside him, Isabella is as dainty as a foal beside a stallion.
“Well, you know,” I say, squirming a bit. “You die.”
He gives me a humourless smile. “I know. I was there, remember?” His hand rubs at his neck. “I was hoping you’d apply an alternate history approach.” .
Ah. But I already do – sort of – and one can only play with the facts so far, unless I aim to recreate an entirely new historical setting, which I don’t. So I clear my throat and shake my head. “Sorry. Facts are facts.”
“Are they?” His brows shoot up. “So you know everything about me and Isabella?”
“Umm…” Obviously not. It’s not as if these two were kind enough to leave me huge diaries to read. And even if they had, who’s to say that would be the truth. The truth is never much more than a perception – unless we talk of the hard facts, such as “he was born then, died then.” Died. Gone. An irrefutable fact.
I’m going to come clean here and say I have a major, major problem when my characters – invented or not invented – die on me.
Dead – very dead (Ophelia by Millais)

Now, when it comes to invented characters, the savvy writer can keep a careful eye on the character’s development and the plotline so as to ensure death is not the only option. Close shaves at times, but not death. Not yet. Preferably not ever – or at least not in any of the books I intend to write about this character. Some characters take matters out of your hands by being quite contrary and end up dead anyway, but such misfortunes can be avoided when dealing with imaginary peeps.
The problem is compounded when dealing with people who did live – and die. Unless you’re aiming for alternative history – as my pal Roger so helpfully suggested – in which you could, f.ex., keep Harold alive at Hastings while having William eating dust, writing about real-life people is constraining.
“Harold?” Roger snorts softly. “He was a Saxon savage. With William came order and structure. No William, no Henry II, no Eleanor of Aquitaine, no Edward I, no Edward II.” His brow furrows. “Not that Edward II would have been a major loss to mankind.”
“Whatever,” I tell him, wanting to clap him over the head for his disparging comment about Harold. “My point is rather that real life characters such as you were born, and then you DIED.”
And once these historical people reach their best by date, no tweaking of the plotline will help – there they lie, as still as a rock and with as much animation. Truth be told, they were just as inert prior to being included in the ongoing Work-in-progress, but once you start breathing life into a person, they become your baby, sort of, and we don’t like it when our babies die.
Roger Mortimer gives me an amused look. “Your baby?”
“Figuratively speaking.”
“Ah.” He glances at Isabella, who has moved off to study her reflection in a pool of water. (My head is very roomy, okay?) “Not baby in the more modern sense?” He winks.
Sheesh! My cheeks heat, and darkly handsome Roger Mortimer throws back his head and laughs. Well: I’ll get my revenge – sort of – by sticking to the actual dates, so come December 1330, this vibrant, forceful and extremely ambitious man will be lying in an anonymous grave somewhere. Right: I need to take a little break and fortify myself with a gulp or two of tea. Roger – who is quite the gentlemen when he wants to be – pats me on the back and tells me not to feel too bad about killing him off. After all, most of his contemporaries were of the opinion he deserved it. This he says with a crooked smile, and I know his ignominious death still rankles.
My conversation with Mortimer is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam de Guirande, my very invented hero who loves Mortimer as a father – even if at times he doesn’t like him or his methods much. If I am upset by the thought of Mortimer’s death, it will eviscerate Adam.
“It will.” Mortimer’s dark gaze follows Adam’s progress towards him. “So we don’t tell him. Not yet.”
“Not yet,” I promise.
Mortimer moves off with Adam, doing one of those elegant fade aways my characters often do when they desire some moments of privacy. I revert to my morbid musings regarding the demise of characters.
One of my main gripes with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Throne series is that he keeps on killing people off. No sooner have I developed a relationship with one of his main characters, and he offs them. I have still not recuperated from Ned Stark’s beheading, let me tell you. Now, if I feel so bereaved, I can only imagine how bereaved he feels. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he maintains a professional distance to all his imaginary creations – but I don’t believe that, as anyone with half a brain cell can see how much of himself he has invested in his books and characters.
Still, Martin has the option of keeping them all alive. Had he wanted to, the entire Stark family could still be sitting in Winterfell, expressing that “winter is coming” in between bickering about whether to worship the Seven, the old goods, or the fire god. Not necessarily the most riveting of stories, but he could have aimed for a Happily Ever After seeing as he invented the Starks.
Had George R.R. Martin been writing about William Wallace, Happily Ever After would not even be an option. After all, we all know how Wallace died, and there was nothing happy about it. (And while I break out in hives every time I see Mel Gibson depict Wallace wearing a kilt, I must give him plus points for that awesome death scene.)
A very dead Arthur (Edward Burne-Jones)

It’s very frustrating to know from the beginning you’re going to have to kill off some of your protagonists – just because they happen to have a fixed death date. Alternatively, you end the story before they die, but sometimes that isn’t an option. In the example of William Wallace, there really is no point at which we can have him riding off into a rosy sunset, leaving his future fate to be determined by the reader.
No, William Wallace had no Happily Ever After, and neither did my Roger Mortimer. I sigh and press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Shit: Adam de Guirande will never forgive me for this, for allowing him to develop such strong bonds with a man I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be around to grow old. But that, dear readers, is one of those things us writers have to deal with. Still: I wish…

11 thoughts on “No, no, no! Please don't die! – of the constraints imposed by reality”

  1. Little Angelic Rose

    The deaths of main characters can be incredibly powerful. I read Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour as a teen but the part in an enormous book that I recall most clearly happened right at the beginning – the death of Edward IV’s brother Edmund. The rest is hazy.
    They also give you a fab plot twist and a chance to explore characters- who is most affected and who is pleased? Who gains? And what? And who loses? In Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter true character is revealed following the death of the leading man.
    Useful things, deaths. In fiction.

    1. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it is easy as a writer to plan your character’s demise. I cried buckets writing the sixth book of The Graham Saga (will not reveal more) despite the obvious “benefit” to the plot 🙂

  2. I never plan to kill anyone in my narratives and yet, without fail, being someone who writes as my characters tell me to, there is always a death, someone dear, someone important, someone that makes the reader sit back and go ‘Nooooo!’
    Maybe that’s why I prefer to write about the common man than those historical figures whose lives we know were curtailed or spared. I like having that… (forgive me)… ‘licence to kill’. In fiction, as Little Angelic Rose says.

    1. But with some characters, the author (or the character himself) leaves ample hints that things won’t end well. They are too brash, too dare-devil, too everything – and we fear (even if we hope not) that they’ll die. But absolutely: desth is a powerful plot component

  3. Great post Anna! I had the same feelings in my first book, where I knew the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham was going to wreak havoc with my poor family. A horrible inexorable sense of dread as I steered them down the path to disaster! Now, I’m creating a relationship withing my new novel where an early death is intended to bring home to the reader the senselessness of war. The challenge is in creating a fine balance between helping the reader form a powerful relationship with the character, and yet not feeling betrayed by the author that we encouraged them to invest their emotions with him.

    1. You hit the nail on the head 🙂 As a reader, I feel let down when the characters I’ve really bonded with die – like they do in GoT. It affects my reading experience, in that as I go forward, I am suspicious of the author: is he/she setting me up again? Accordingly, I retain a certain distance…Thank you so much for stopping by – and for your comment 🙂

  4. I want to give you a round of applause for such a good blog post – I have two children vying for my attention yet I successfully ignored them, so good is your writing (thank you).

  5. : Oh, Anna, this is MARVELOUS! I love it when authors “break the fourth wall,” and allow their characters to step out and talk about The Plot. I’ve forgotton what I know about Sir Roger, and the only Queen Isabella I know is from Spaiand 1492. I’m going to step over to Wikipedia and refresh my memory with some “facts,” and I’ll keep an eye out for your latest WIP. <3

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