Counterpoint: Don’t Bury The Lead!

Booth and Bones have too much chemistry to kill one of them off
Does the chemistry keep the show alive?
In Bury the Lead…Please!, Elyse Dinh-McCrillis made a plea to American television producers that struck fear in the heart of this American television viewer. She writes: “If producers want to bring viewers to the edge of their seats, they should consider killing off lead characters to breathe new life into their shows.”

Citing the example of MI-5, and its frequent disposal of lead characters, Elyse claimed that American television audiences have become so used to their lead characters being protected from death that they’ve grown cynical and bored. To which I, romance reader that I am, say: not so fast!

First, a little background. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the genre, romance fiction, according to the Romance Writers of America, lists as one of its two basic requirements, “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” (The other is, duh, a central love story.) I don’t know if you know any romance readers, but if you do, mosey on up and ask them what their reaction would be if the romance novel they were reading suddenly killed off one of the two main characters. I’ll wait….

Now, what did they say? I can guess that it was some form of “I’d be pretty annoyed.” Only there might have been profanity involved. Romance readers, to put it mildly, do NOT like death to be mixed up in their romance.

This might not seem to be a problem in the world of mystery and intrigue, where most of you reside. But most readers don’t read exclusively in just one genre. And they don’t watch television in exclusively one genre either. So there are, I would imagine, any number of romance readers (like me) who read mysteries, and watch various television shows that do not exclusively deal in romance.

Elizabeth George With No One As Witness, wherein Lady Helen dies
Some wished no one had witnessed this book.
Several years ago, Elizabeth George annoyed hacked off a good portion of her readership by…

SPOILER ALERT…

killing off Lady Helen, the wife of Detective Thomas Lynley in a random shooting. Now, I know that Elizabeth George writes mystery and not romance, and that some of you will say she was playing by the rules, but I’m not the only mystery/romance reader who quit reading George after that book. And remember, Helen wasn’t even the lead character. And to be honest, I didn’t even like her. But after spending umpteen novels dealing with Tommy and Helen’s courtship it was a shock to the system when Helen died. And feeling as if George had broken faith with me as a reader, I quit her.

Now, imagine, if you will, what would happen if The Closer killed off Brenda Lee Johnson—which was one of the scenarios Elyse posited in her article. She says that because we always know that neither Brenda nor a close team member will be offed that there’s no sense of danger. What amuses me about this is that the very week that Elyse’s piece ran, I was thinking to myself that one of the things I liked most about The Closer was that I didn’t have to worry about Brenda or one of her team getting killed. The unwritten contract—and I could be totally wrong about this, but I think it’s implied—between me, the viewer, and The Closer is that I do not and should not have to worry about them killing off one of the main characters. The same goes for Bones (though honestly, I was so sad about Vincent Nigel-Murray).

The death of Kate on NCIS Sasha Alexander
Kate’s sudden death shocked a number of NCIS viewers.
The others I evaluate on a case by case basis, relying on the degree of grittiness, humor and general sense of je ne sais crois to figure out where on the risk spectrum each show lies. Sometimes I’m right (The Closer) and sometimes I’m wrong (NCIS—Kate!!!). But I’m right more than I’m wrong.

Look, I know that pretty much anything can happen at any time on any show. Someone could quit. Or get fired. Someone’s contract negotiations might not go well. The writers might want to take a show in a whole different direction. Nothing is sacred in tvlandia, and I know this. But I don’t have to like it.

Life is crazy and unpredictable enough. And just as I like knowing that by the end of a mystery novel I’ll know who done it and how. And just as I like knowing that by the end of a romance that the hero and heroine will live happily ever after. So too, do I enjoy knowing that some character deaths are less likely to happen than others on my favorite mystery shows. In fact, I depend on it.


Manda Collins has been reading mysteries since her first Nancy Drew at the age of six. An academic librarian by day, by night she writes historical romance blended with mystery for St. Martin’s Press. Her first book, How to Dance with a Duke, is scheduled for release in February, 2012. To learn more, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter @MandaCollins.

Comments

  1. Will

    @Collins:

    Isn’t the possibility of character death part of what makes a story
    interesting? If you’re certain that the main character(s) come out okay,
    why read? You know there is nothing to be gained or lost, so throw it
    in the garbage.

    I’ve seen a lot of main characters die and each has shocked me. You say
    that George broke faith with you. The only compact a writer and a reader
    have is that the writer tell you the truth. It sounds like George
    wasn’t afraid to, and it made for an interesting book (as you claim it
    shocked you). Why quit there? What awesomeness might you have missed
    because the book didn’t fit into the narrow definition you had imposed
    on it?

  2. Manda Collins

    @[url=http://www.criminalelement.com/community/users/hohmeisw]hohmeisw[/url]

    The only compact a writer and a reader
    have is that the writer tell you the truth.

    I cannot disagree more with this statement.

    I am not one of those readers who mistakes fiction for reality. I read fiction precisely because it is not reality. As a writer, I tell stories in a way that is pleasing to me. And I do so within the constraints of my genre. Obviously there are no set rules for authors to follow. If I want to kill off all of my characters on the last page, that is my perogative as an author, but I would be breaking faith with my readers, who picked up my book with the expectation of seeing a hero and heroine live happily ever after.

    I acknowledge that the rules are different for mysteries. That so long as the mystery is solved by the end of the book and the bad guy gets justice (and even that isn’t always the case) the genre constraints have been satisfied. However, I don’t have to like the way the author does that. That is my perogative as a reader.

    I might be missing out on some great books because of my “narrow” constraints as you call them. But I can live with that.

  3. Carmen Pinzon

    @Collins: I’m with you on this. I drop any author who does somethin I consider extraneous for the shock value. I don’t read mysteries where the villain gets away or the answers aren’t know by the end of the book and I can’t stand important characters getting killed. The author can do what he/she wants; I can spend my money elsewhere.

  4. Laura K. Curtis

    I think it depends on what you read/watch for. Some read for the puzzle and read for the characters. Me, I am a characters person. Of course, there are exceptions: I do sort of wish Robert B Parker had killed off Susan.

    I also think there are ways to kill off a character that are more offensive than others. If I’ve read a dozen books all featuring a character, and you’re going to knock them off, for goodness sake, do it at the beginning (or at least the middle) of a book. I do think it’s unfair to leave a reader to grieve at the end of a book without having any closure. That totally turns me off. If it’s in the beginning/middle, I can work my way through the grief with the characters in the book and feel…among friends, as it were. If it’s at the end, I just feel manipulated and angry.

  5. Manda Collins

    I think part of what hacked me off so much about the way Elizabeth George handled Helen’s death was that she was killed by a random shooting. Not by the main villain of the crime Tommy was trying to solve, but just some random kid on the street. I get that cops are in danger all the time and there is risk, but this was at their house in London and just totally out of the blue. And she was pregnant. And it was close to the end.

    Laura K, I agree with you about characters vs. puzzle. Though I thought I was a puzzle reader, I think I figured out pretty quickly after the George incident that I am a character reader;)

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