I’m reading (or rather listening to) a best-selling fantasy series. Each book is thick and extensive. The world-building is impressive, the multiple plots intertwine seamlessly, and the characters are deep and plentiful.
This series has made my oft-challenging commute almost enjoyable and several times I have sat in the car outside my house waiting for a chapter to end. I dream about these characters and imagine myself alongside them.
I am about two-thirds through the third book and happy to know that there are at least two more waiting in the wings. If I intersperse each book with something different, I can easily keep my commute comfortable until well into the summer.
But, and here is the reason I have not revealed the author or series, twice this week, as I was merrily driving home from work, a number of the good guys were put to the sword (or otherwise dispatched). Now, this is not the first time that our well-respected author has killed off heroes/heroines. He does it with drama, dignity and a huge amount of skill. He has left me in tears or sitting stunned at my driving wheel (hopefully while stationary) on a number of occasions.
But suddenly, I feel adrift. Each time one of my heroes dies, another emerges to take his (or her) place. These characters are usually in the background and, figuratively speaking, step up to the plate. And once more, our intrepid commuter is as happy as those drivers who gloat as they pass all the stationary cars while in the carpool lane.
One of the fascinating aspects of this author’s craft is that most of his characters are not totally good or totally bad. It is challenging but possible to remain interested, even invested in some of the more fiendish without rooting for them. And there are plenty of characters with the potential to be heroes who fail or turn to the dark side (not a hint to the series).
But, suddenly, I am bereft of a hero: one who is fueled by noble principles, by a cause, and who is…well, heroic.
I find myself questioning my considerable investment in the series, the immense time I am spending on it, and even walk to my car with a certain level of tension and resignation. I am no longer sure with whom to stand when I dream and fantasize about the outcome.
And so I must pose the question: Can you kill too many of the good guys and still engage all your audience? What say you, sir/milady?
Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.