Thursday, December 18, 2008

Unwritten Rules: Keep the Innocents Alive

When I read your post about “Unlikable Characters,” it sparked a question about likable characters who die. Although we know almost immediately the narrator in “The Lovely Bones” has died a violent death, Sebold’s novel went on to become a mega-bestseller. This seems to fly in the face of an unwritten rule, I thought existed, against killing children and dogs.

Oddly enough when I started reading Jodi Picoult’s “The Pact,” I stopped reading immediately after the father took the family dog into the woods and shot it (because it had diabetes). Yet, even though I knew the premise of “The Pact” going in -- a teenage couple enters into a suicide pact -- I would have read it had the disturbing incident with the family dog not occurred toward the beginning. This reaction confuses me even more.

So I guess my question is: how often and under what specific circumstances do readers, agents and/or editors pass on a project because an innocent dies in the story? I assume you’re going to tell me it has a lot to do with how the material is handled, possibly how “off stage” the death occurs. And then again, perhaps not, since the protagonists in “The Lovely Bones” and “My Sister’s Keeper” both end up dying. Other examples where children die are Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (one of my all‑time favorite novels and one I read all the way through) and Jane Hamilton’s “A Map of the World” (which I stopped reading when I sensed what was coming and knew I couldn’t handle it). I’m having trouble seeing a common thread in how these deaths were handled to make them acceptable other than the voice in each of these examples being very good.

Still, among the five books cited here, I wasn’t able to finish reading two of them. Why me and not editors or other readers? Are there any hard and fast rules with respect to these questions? I’d appreciate any insight you or your readers can bring to this question.

Rules, rules, rules. Do you know one of the biggest reasons I started BookEnds? I hate rules. Well, okay, I like making my own rules, but I hate living by those created by others. Stop living under this idea that there are rules in writing. There are no rules. There are guidelines and suggestions, but for those of you following a long list of rules, I’d like to know first where the rules came from and who gave them to you, and second, how much are they holding you back? The authors willing to bend the rules, break them at times, and explore their own paths are the ones who have success.

There is no consistent thread in the examples you give because they are all very different books. And there are no rules to how to properly kill off children or dogs. If you’re looking for why these authors could get away with it, the best I can say is that it worked. It fit the story and was appropriate to building both plot and character. Sure the voice might have something to do with it, but ultimately it was a heart-wrenching moment that fits and doesn’t feel gratuitous. As to why you couldn’t get through the books when others obviously could, I can’t explain that in any way other than the fact that we all have different tastes. There are many, many books in this world that I have not been able to get though, books that were published, acclaimed and even award-winning. There have been many books I’ve loved, laughed and cried over that I couldn’t find an audience for.