By Henry McLaughlin
The writer’s life does not take place in a vacuum. Especially if your work is published.
Suddenly, there is a community of readers who have questions about the story and why did certain things happen.
A frequent question I’ve received is why, in Journey to Riverbend, did I kill Old Thomas.
Old Thomas is the Native American scout on the posse. During the course of the story, Old Thomas and Michael Archer form a spiritual bond. The scout’s culture and belief system adds to Michael’s own understanding of his own faith and his walk with God.
As the posse closed in on the kidnapper, Old Thomas is shot and killed in an ambush. Apparently, a lot of readers like this character and are upset when he leaves the story so violently.
In speaking to book clubs and readers, I’ve often quoted Jerry B. Jenkins-I didn’t kill him. I was just writing along and I found him dead.
And this is mostly true. When I look at my original outlines and notes for the book, Old Thomas’ death was not planned or anticipated.
When I reached that point in the story, I went off the outline and killed Old Thomas. I surprised myself when this happened. And Michael Archer wasn’t too happy with me either.
I studied other writers and discovered many did the same thing. And my reaction was similar to what I heard from readers-“How could you do that?”
I examined other writers and the scene of Old Thomas’ death in my novel. What struck me is how the rest of my novel flows from it. I know now Old Thomas died for the sake of the story. As a storyteller, I needed to raise the stakes. I wanted to give Michael more stress, to make things worse for him. I wanted the moral choice Michael makes at the end of Journey to Riverbend as clear as possible. He needed to wrestle with his inner demons in order to conquer them.
Have you ever killed off a fairly significant character in one of your stories? Why? How did it work out for you?
Henry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. Besides writing fiction, Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.
Thanks for your insights into character deaths!
Your welcome, Ashley. A character’s death can not only ratchet up the reader’s involvement in the story, it can also add tension and conflict and raise all kinds of internal issues for other characters.
“…for the sake of the story.”
Reason enough, right there! Thanks for this — it actually covers more storytelling decisions than just the one you were asked about.
Thanks, Janice. You’re right. Killing Old Thomas peeled back layers of insight into Michael Archer and the flow of the plot.
As a writer I totally understand…but as a reader…did you get hate mail? Great post.
I wouldn’t call it “hate” mail, but readers have been upset me but then said they really enjoyed the book. Something we have to deal with as writers, I guess.
I think that reader/viewer ire is the reason for the “evil twin” trope in TV! Great post. Someone once sent me a picture showing them reading my book with a look of mock horror and the caption “Why did ___ have to die?????”
Thank you, Christen. That picture must have been hilarious.