Writer’s Craft #101 – Kill to Retire

Jennifer Lott
Jennifer Lott, YA author

Jennifer Lott has appeared in print in Neo-Opsis Magazine (“A Day in the Life”; Issue 18; December 17, 2009) and the Opus 5 Okal Rel anthology (“Pet Peeves”, Absolute XPress, 2011). Her first public foray into writing is her popular fan fiction Alternative Ending to the Animorphs, which was well received by readers disappointed by the dark turn taken by this young adult series in its final installments. An early childhood educator, Jennifer writes mostly for children and young adults. But is currently working on an SF novel. She said “yes” to boyfriend JP Sullivan last December and the marriage was in June 2012.

“I wanted to finish my series and retire,” said an author at this year’s Surrey International Writer’s Conference, “so I told my agent I was killing my main character so my fans couldn’t ask for more. My agent said ‘no’. I said ‘why, it’s just a character’.”
Without knowing anything else about what this woman writes, I know I don’t want to read her books or watch the movie she’s got in the works. Letting your book get made into a movie does not make you a sellout. Treating your characters as disposable products does. If the creator of said character cares so little about her creations, I certainly don’t want to meet them. My assumption is they can’t be worth caring about; they must be cardboard. It got me thinking, what does lead an author to portray her work that way? My mother may be in the right when she says it is just a hidden brag: “I am so famous, smothering popularity is what I suffer.”
My husband, who loves Dragonlance, believes series should just go on; authors shouldn’t make finite series without at least letting someone else take over when fans want more. I was willing to agree as far as books such as Dragonlance go. This is a D&D based universe featuring multiple authors. I also agree there are picture book characters who carry on very well after their original authors stop telling their stories (although I would not begrudge an original author feeling too attached to allow this). I am guilty of loving the Animorph series which is largely ghost-written, but as an author thinking of my own personal work the idea horrifies me.
Fans shouldn’t have the power to push an author beyond his/her vision. They have every right to want more, but so has an author to say “this one’s finished”. I believe in fan fic. By all means, if you can think of so much more that happens in my universe, write the stories and post them online. I am honoured you’re that interested. But don’t expect me to drag out what I’ve built. Just like a painting, the work is done at some point and throwing more paint onto official artwork only obscures what’s already been achieved. I believe a writer should have the integrity to know when they can’t do their next book justice. To decide this is where it ends: this is my completed masterpiece and I’m proud to have it out there.
After this discussion, my husband posed a terrible question: “What if your heart wasn’t in it halfway through your series? Would you really wrap it up where it was and leave your fans hanging?” My series has the type of framework that concluding it any earlier than planned would make it a glaringly incomplete masterpiece. My immediate response was “that would never happen!” Because of course if it did, I’d be screwed. I don’t want to write books I’m not proud of, but I don’t want to hand the integrity of my series over to a ghost writer either.
How would you answer the question yourself? Do you have fall back plans? Is losing the passion for a project even a concern?


7 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #101 – Kill to Retire

  1. If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, is a sellout for unsuccessfully trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes so that he could concentrate on more important things.

    I think that if they die well, killing off the series protagonist can well be a satisfactory conclusion. And it’s not like there’s nothing else to read.

  2. I suppose it is a question of relationship between writer and reader. If the feelings of the reader are irrelevant or at least unimportant from the writer’s point of view, sure.

  3. I agree with you up to a point–if the author’s heart is no longer in it, he/she shouldn’t continue based only on his fan base…I feel fairly connected with my characters but a couple of them had to die to further the story–not the main protagonist, of course but others…without the author’s passion, a book would be dead and dull…

  4. I think part of why you (Lynda) have a problem with this is that you see killing off the series character as a violation of an implied contract with the readers. They’ve been cruising along with the expectation that each book will adhere to a certain formula that involves the protagonist winning out in the end, so killing them off feels like a betrayal. They didn’t think they were buying that kind of book. They didn’t think they were making an emotional investment in that kind of series, back in the beginning.

    But even if the author’s focused on providing value to the readers, it’s not a clear-cut choice. People don’t do their best work if they’re bored with it or have come to resent their characters. They might not trust that turning the series over to someone else would be fair to the readers, either. Should we just keep churning out more books in a series because we can sell them, and to hell with quality?

    And the writer deserves to be having fun, too. The pay in this line of work isn’t high enough to be doing it if you’re not absolutely loving it. Readers don’t have a right to expect that. I think the writer has a right to be a little selfish; it’s their only life they’re spending on this.

    The epithet “sellout” is also something of a trigger for me, because it’s usually used as shorthand for the elitist attitude that the customer doesn’t matter, that it’s all art for art’s sake, and screw the spectator if they don’t get it or don’t like it. The way you’re using the word here puzzles me. She’s a sellout for not kowtowing to her readers? Without knowing anything about this woman than the comment you quoted, I don’t feel I know enough to judge, but I’m inclined to say it’s her character and she should do as she sees fit, and we hope it’s a good choice. I don’t like to prejudge, but the agent is the one who, on the face of it, is treating the character as a commodity. “Don’t kill that character off. We’ll get someone else to add to that series and milk the last penny out of it.”

    I agree it’s possible to get into a trap. You can write yourself into a corner by setting up the readers’ expectations such that there’s no decent way out when you’re ready to quit. It’s unfair to kill off the MC and violate that implied contract, it’s bad to just stop writing with no kind of conclusion, but it’s also unfair to let the series go to pot and disappoint the readers in another way. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and choose. And take a lesson for next time to not let yourself get into that situation.

    Maybe a more polite way out is to let your protagonist make a big score and retire, themselves, and say they lived happily ever after in Tahiti.

    For myself, I’d prefer, when I write series, to write them with a story arc, so that it’s quite legitimate to have the characters experience any disaster on the way to a final conclusion. I don’t generally care to read books where it doesn’t really matter whether I read them in order, so I wouldn’t care to write those either. Or, of course, you can have an ensemble cast and establish the ground rules early on by killing off a few of them. Reader beware: don’t assume anyone in this book will get out alive. Then if there’s a grand debacle and they all die, it’s not such a shock.

  5. I sometimes feel a hypocrite for being opposed to the killing off of characters given that some people stop reading my books after book 3 because Di Mon dies between book 3 and book 4. So yes, I do kill characters. But always out of story-driven motivations. And never with something akin to contempt for people “dumb” enough to care about a character I’ve created. Ultimately, I suppose, the character-loving teenager in me feels betrayed by authors who talk about fans of their own creations with something a kin to contempt. I’m proud to know readers have loved and enjoyed the heroes I create. And even the antiheroes or downright villians as well.

  6. For more than a year now, I’ve been hard at work on a short story series about a journalist who travels through time. I have to admit that there have been a few moments when things weren’t working the way I wanted and I just wanted to kill everybody off and go watch TV. Of course I wouldn’t do that, but I can understand why some people would.

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