Some Are Gone and Some Remain*

It’s a sad fact of real life that people we know and care about move to other places or pass away. It’s always hard when that happens, but it is inevitable. It sometimes happens in crime fiction, too (in case you wondered, crime writers are ruthless that way at times). As sad as it is when a beloved ‘regular’ character passes, it does in a way reflect real life, and that can add a bit of authenticity to a series.

In Elizabeth George’s Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley series, readers have gotten to know several of the ‘regular’ characters. Several story arcs develop around these characters, and they are woven through the larger main plots of the novels. Their interactions are often important parts of the focus of the novels, too, and many readers feel they truly know those characters. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that readers were shocked when one of the characters died. In fact, there were plenty who were absolutely furious about it, and stopped reading the series. The series has continued without that character, and it’s interesting to see how George has integrated the loss of that character into the storylines.

The focus of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series is on Chee and Leaphorn, who are both members of the Navajo Nation. They are also members of the Navajo Tribal (now Navajo Nation) Police. Over the course of the novels, Hillerman also introduced several recurring characters who played roles in Chee and Leaphorn’s lives. Readers came to appreciate those characters and look forward to their appearances. In a few instances (such as two of Chee’s love interests), the characters leave the series, as you would expect when a relationship ends. But there are a few other characters who die during the course of the series. That, too, is realistic. But that doesn’t make it less painful for Chee and Leaphorn when it happens, and it’s hard on readers, too. Yet, those losses fall out naturally from the plots. In fact, Hillerman uses those events to allow for new characters to make their appearances.

Ian Hamilton’s series features Ava Lee, a Chinese Canadian forensic accountant. In the first several books of the series, she works for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong- based company that recovers stolen money. Clients come to Chow Tung (and Lee) when they’ve been swindled out of a lot of money and have no other options. They’re desperate to get their money back, and can’t or won’t turn to the police or other agencies. Lee’s specialty is ‘following’ money and tracing it to whomever has it. The job takes her all over the world, and has gotten her in more than one dangerous situation. It has also given her the opportunity to meet several recurring characters. Over the course of the series, some of those characters either bow out or die, and one loss in particular is very hard for Lee. It changes part of the direction of the novels, and it’s interesting to see how Hamilton adapts the storylines.

Much of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series takes place in the small Québécois town of Three Pines. Everyone knows everyone in town, and as the series goes on, we get to know the characters as well. So does Gamache, who is first sent there in Still Life. The lives of the people of Three Pines are intertwined with each other, as they are to Gamache, and when one of them dies, that loss changes everything. It’s hard on the town, it’s hard on Gamache, and it’s hard for readers, too. The series has continued without that character, and Penny has shown in those novels how the town has been impacted.

Cat Connor’s Ellie Iverson is an FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC). Throughout her career, she’s worked with several different teammates and other FBI personnel. Several of those characters are regulars in the series, and we learn about them as the series evolves. The thing about working with the FBI, is that it’s not a safe job. So, more than once in the series, a regular character has died. When that happens, it’s always a blow, and everyone suffers. Readers aren’t always happy about it, either (a-hem). And yet, the series continues even after the losses. New characters join the team and there are other changes to the characters’ lives. So, even as the impact of loss can be heavy, it also allows for new changes to the series.

And that’s how it is when a regular character – even a beloved character – leaves a series, whether it’s through a move or death. It can be very sad, especially if readers have become attached to that character. But that change also allows for new plots, new characters, and so on. What do you think? Do you keep reading a series even after a beloved character dies or leaves? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ In My Life.


9 thoughts on “Some Are Gone and Some Remain*

  1. Not easy for an author to lose characters either! 🙂 Thank you, Margot.
    There is a grief process for characters just like real people, because to us and to readers, they are real.

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    1. That’s just it, Cat. They are real to us, as we hope they are to readers. Losing one is very hard. And come to think of it, you’re right that there’s a grief process. For me, anyway, it starts when I have to let it sink in that this character is going to die. And we grieve even as we know that that death is essential to a story…

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  2. Very nice article, Margot. It partly depends on the author. One author killed off the love interest of the protagonist and did it so badly, it killed her series. Another author did it in such a way that the readers felt it, grieved with the protagonist, felt her emotions even going forward into the series.

    I have a harder time when an author dies and their estate hires someone to take over the character and the series. No matter how good the new writer, it is nearly impossible to replicate the original author’s voice and style. I’ve yet to find a series where that has worked for me.

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    1. Thanks, Bksrmgc – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You are absolutely right that the way an author handles the death of a character has a lot to do with readers’ reaction. If it’s handled well, then it is like the loss of a real person, and readers can, as you say, grieve with the other characters and follow the process of grief and healing as the series goes on. If it’s not handled well, it really can ruin a series.

      I have to say, I agree with you about a follow-on series, too, where another author takes over a character and series. As you say, it doesn’t matter how talented the writer is, it’s never the same because the new writer has a different voice. It hasn’t really worked for me, either.

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  3. Ha, there have been a few series where I wish the main character had been killed off after a while! I can’t recall any characters who have perished that I’ve mourned.

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    1. Haha, I know just what you mean, Col! I’ve felt that way about a few main characters, too. Needless to say, I haven’t continued those series…

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  4. Thanks for making me think of characters gone. Maybe readers who do not like spoilers should not read this comment further. In Gail Bowen’s series with Joanne Kilbourn there are two books with shocking deaths of prominent characters. The first left me deeply saddened. The second occasion shocked me as I had no inkling it was coming. Now Uncle was such a powerful character that Ian Hamilton created a whole new series on Uncle’s life before Ava. And that series, begun as a trilogy, is now expanding to 4 or 5 or maybe more books.

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    1. I thought that was clever of Hamilton, Bill, to create that series featuring Uncle. Very often, prequels don’t work for me, but this isn’t a ‘prequel’ series; it’s quite different and I think it’s effective. And about Gail Bowen’s series…she handled those deaths in a really authentic way, and she’s good at building multi-layered characters, too, so it’s easy to feel them deeply. I’m glad you mentioned them.

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