Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Killing Off Characters

cemetery-755456-mIn real life, people die–friends, family, strangers we hear about on the news. Consequently, stories, if they are to reflect reality, should include characters who die. Great writers don’t back away from killing off characters.

Mystery writers, of course, don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. Readers expect it. These may be characters that are incidental to the reader, however. They are victims and give a reason for the crime solvers to do their work, but their deaths don’t generate an emotional impact on the reader.

But harder, and more shocking, is the death of a character when the readers were not expecting it. And harder still is the death of a character readers care about deeply. Margaret Mitchell heartlessly killed off Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, then trumped that move by having Rhett and Scarlett’s little girl, Bonnie, die as well.

Perhaps no one killed off her characters more aggressively than J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. From Cedric to Sirius, Dobby, Dumbledore, and Fred, Rowling didn’t hesitate to bring an end to beloved characters.

Some writers have ventured to bring their characters back after they died. J. R. R. Tolkien successfully did so in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing Gandalf back in The Two Towers after he felt to his death in the Mines of Moria during The Fellowship of the Ring. C. S. Lewis also meaningfully killed a character–Aslan–and brought him back in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first in The Chronicles of Narnia.

There are dangers for writers, however, in killing off characters. For example, I read a book years ago in which the main character died at the end, and I have not since picked up another book by that author. More recently [spoiler alert] Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has been in the eye of the storm of unhappy readers because she killed off her heroine.

I think there are some things writers can learn about killing off characters.

First, killing off characters creates realism. Regardless of the genre, dying ought to be a part of the world the author creates. Therefore he should at least consider adding this element to his story. Not all stories need to show the death of a character, but a good many could benefit from the report of one dying.

The_Paradise_(TV_series)_titlesIn a romance, for example, the death of a beloved grandparent might be an obstacle in the path of the heroine and her love interest. Contemporary or historical stories can use the death of a character and the resulting squabbles over the estate to divide a family or create heartbreak that needs to be overcome. A widower can pine for his dead spouse for years, as did the main character in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise).

Killing off characters, however, needs to be properly motivated. There needs to be a story reason for ending the life of a character. Doing so for shock value is not sufficient. Rather, a noble sacrifice, a diabolical plot, a horrible accident, an incurable disease can take a character’s life and move the plot forward.

In addition, when a character is taken from the story, relationships change. A child is orphaned, a friend is alone, a spouse is a widow, an employee becomes the boss, a neighbor becomes a suspect.

Therefore, when a character dies, the other characters need to have an emotional response, but also a re-examination of values, a reshuffling of rank, an alteration of position. In short, the death should matter.

Finally, killing characters needs to be properly set up so that it is believable (and so that readers won’t want to throw your book across the room). The death may come as a surprise, but it should not be implausible.

tombstone-844609-mPeople who are young and healthy do die suddenly of some undiagnosed condition, however rarely, but in fiction such an event would read as author manipulation. Rather, a young person who was diagnosed with leukemia might experience a return of cancer, however unexpected. The fact of the earlier condition prepares readers for the eventuality of the character’s death. A character might be engaging in a dangerous hobby like rock climbing or bungee jumping. She might work with toxic material or high voltage electricity. These elements can add tension to a story but also prepare the reader for the possibility of that character dying.

One last point. Characters can be taken from a story without dying. A teen might run away. A parent might walk away from his family. An employee might get fired. A best friend might move across country. These losses can have the same impact as a death and can change the dynamics of a story. They are also part of the real world which needs to be reflected in the story world.

Have you considered killing off one of your characters? What effect would that death have on the other characters? On the direction of your plot?


Filed under Characters

Symbolism, Part 4 – The Beginning Of Construction

To continue exploring symbol, I want to start with some thoughts from Rebecca McClanahan‘s Word Painting. First a little info about metaphors:

A metaphor always requires two parts, two sides, to complete its equation. The critic I.A. Richards calls these two sides the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The tenor, the main subject or the “general drift,” is usually a thing but can also be an idea, an emotion or some other abstraction. The vehicle is the concrete image that embodies the main subject, supplying it with weight, shape and substance. For instance, in “He carried his guilt like a heavy suitcase,” guilt is the tenor and suitcase is the vehicle.

Connecting this explanation with symbolism, McClanahan says:

The tenor is the general idea that requires concreteness before it can be fully understood; the vehicle is the embodiment of the tenor. In both metaphor and simile, the tenor is stated. In symbolism, it is not. In symbolism, only the vehicle shows itself. A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself (emphasis added).

McClanahan gives some examples from classic literature:

    * a raven symbolizing death in “The Raven,” Poe
    * blood standing for courage in The Red Badge Of Courage, Crane
    * a necklace symbolizing human vanity in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”
    * laundry representing angels in “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World,” by Richard Wilbur

Aslan is first a lion before he is a symbol for Christ

If we look at C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, we can see a number of symbols, not the least of which is Aslan himself.

Kathryn Ann Lindscoog in The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land explains a statement by Dorothy Sayers:

She continues with the broader assertion that all language about everything is analogical and that we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.

This statement reminds me of what McClanahan said about symbols. Yes, they do stand for some meaning beyond the literal, but to be effective in a story they must first stand for the literal, concrete things that they are. Before Aslan represents Jesus, he is a lion—completely fitting in a land of talking animals.

Another writing book that addressed the subject: The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall has this to say in the opening paragraph in the section dealing with symbols:

We are told by his biographer, Leon Howard, that it was Herman Melville’s practice to let his mind play with concrete details until they became “luminous with suggestive implications.” Until they turned into symbols, in fact, which then formed a conduit between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the generalization.

In other words, a writer includes an object in the narrative because the story demands it, but a connection to an abstract suggests itself. The author ponders the connection, explores enhancing the object, and a symbol is born.

I’d conclude, then, that, unlike theme, a symbol appropriately arises from within the story, but, of course, the author must be looking for opportunities to capitalize on its presence.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

Christian fiction writers are often accused of being preachy, but in fact, secular authors also routinely write for the purpose of communicating some message about which they are passionate.

So why do Christians alone get tagged with the preachy label?

I think one reason is the familiarity with Christianity in the western culture. The western world has become, if you will, a Christianized culture. Not that this familiarity has resulted in the embracing of Christianity. Just the opposite. It’s as if western societies, instead, have been inoculated against Christianity by repeated exposure, because, as you know, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What does this have to do with symbolism and the preachy label? I’m postulating that this Christianization allows for ready identification of Christian symbols and rejection without contemplation of the ideas behind them.

What’s a writer to do?

One possibility is to avoid using Christian symbols. Some writers make religion or faith the centerpiece of their stories, thus avoiding the dangers of symbolism.

For the fantasy writer, this solution doesn’t offer much. In a struggle between good and evil, how does one represent God without being transparent, without using a symbol that makes the Christianized skeptic roll his eyes and go, Here comes the evangelism pitch.

CS Lewis did a masterful job in choosing a lion to represent God—one reason his fantasy series still resonates. Not that Lewis came up with the idea on his own. Scripture calls God the Lion of Judah, and certainly Lewis drew upon that image.

Perhaps that’s the secret—choosing symbols that are lesser known, not so easily identified as symbols. Ones that require contemplation first by the author himself.

Interestingly, our culture is no longer as Biblically literate as it once was, which may explain why some Christians choose the symbols they do.

“Call me Ishmael” was the opening line of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. With those words Melville announced that his story was more than just a tale about whaling.

How so? Because the name created an allusion to a familiar Biblical story. As did the name for Melville’s protagonist—Ahab. As did the White Whale antagonist.

Back in 1851 London, Melville’s readers would have been familiar with the stories about Abraham and his disinherited son Ishmael, evil king Ahab and his conflicts with God’s prophet, Job and leviathan, Jonah and the whale God used to chastise him.

Granted, rather than symbolizing, the names allude to these Biblical accounts, but they can serve my purpose.

There was a time in Western culture that the Bible was well know. The average person was familiar with Gideon, Joash, and Festus. Mention of manna, a burning bush, a lamb caught in a thicket, brought to mind whole stories and the truth contained within.

Times have changed. Through a complex set of circumstances, we now find ourselves in a society—with the exception of a core group of Christians—that is nearly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.

My guess is, what people do know is, Jesus born in a stable and dying on a cross. Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. David killing a giant. Moses parting the Red Sea. Ben Hur racing his chariot. (I did say there was near illiteracy, remember. 😉 )

Seriously, the average reader will no longer immediately recognize Biblical allusions or Biblical symbols. I am assigning no blame, just stating a fact. A pertinent fact for writers because our job is to communicate.

So what do we do if the reading public no longer recognizes Biblical allusions or symbols? Perhaps we rely on the core group of symbols and stories the audience does recognize.

And inoculation sets in.

Inoculation, when what we need to generate is contemplation. Meditation. Thoughtful self-scrutiny. Worship.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. I really do believe that the best fiction is the kind that makes us think and rethink and days later remember and talk over what we read with someone else.

Producing stories that rework the same ground over and over will not accomplish this.

Does that mean Christian writers should no longer look to the Bible as a source for symbols and allusions that will communicate the ideas we wish? I think that question is worthy of further exploration another day.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction


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Different Fiction

I’m reading a work of fiction this week that defies categorization. The debut book by Matt Mikalatos, entitled Imaginary Jesus (Tyndale), includes the caveat “A not-quite-true story” on the cover. So it’s not pretending to be non-fiction, which usually leaves us with Novel. But this book isn’t quite a novel either.

There have been a few books like this before. C. S. Lewis wrote a couple—The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. In essence the “story” has some autobiographical element—even if nothing more than the writer’s supposed discovery of letters, explained in a prologue—and has less to do with “what happens” than with what the characters think and believe and choose.

Another more recent book in this style comes to mind, though written from a different worldview. I’m referring to The Shack. In a similar way to Mikalatos’s work, the “story” is primarily a vehicle to discuss theology, though Imaginary Jesus does so by employing humor and The Shack by utilizing pathos.

So what genre are these kinds of books? They aren’t “true” in the way we generally think of biography or memoir, yet they aren’t fictitious in the way we are accustomed to think of novels.

They exercise a great deal of latitude when it comes to the reality of the events.

Lewis wrote about two demons corresponding and a dead man destined for hell experiencing a taste of heaven. Paul Young, author of The Shack, wrote about a man’s encounter with the three persons of the Godhead, in physical form. And Mikalatos employs time travel to visit the first century, a talking donkey, and an appearance of the Apostle Peter in the twenty-first century.

Yet the content—the what’s-it-about—of all these works deals with spiritual reality, though not in the straightforward way a book on theology does. The uncommon manner of delivering the subject matter makes it more easily understood because, in essence, the books use the ultimate fiction technique—showing more than telling.

So I wonder, will more such books be on the horizon? In which case, we may need to create a new category, a new way of labeling this kind of different fiction.


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