Imagine the following scenario. You know a couple in their mid-thirties. They are called, say, Max and Sophie. After several years of trying for a baby, they are now undergoing IVF. The process is stressful, but they can rely on the support of Sophie’s younger brother Stephen. He is a light-hearted chap, always popping round to boost their spirits when they are feeling low.
One day, Stephen is knocked off his motorcycle at speed on the motorway. He is killed instantly. Sophie cannot cope with his death at all. She appears to lose all interest in conceiving a child, and spends long periods in bed or on the sofa, eating little and barely communicating at all. Max cannot cope with Sophie’s withdrawal. He becomes addicted to online gambling and after a series of increasingly crazy bets, ends up owing many thousands he cannot afford to pay. Ultimately their marriage collapses, their home is lost, and both are reduced to shells of the people they once were.
If you did know Max and Sophie, their tragic situation may inspire any number of thoughts. You may be shaken by the manner in which lives can be pulled apart by one tragic, unforeseeable incident. Or you might feel powerless to help as Max and Sophie disappear into their own personal hells in which no one, not even you, can reach them.
Now imagine you are reading a novel called, say, No Baby Blues. It’s about some moderately likeable and generally inoffensive couple named Max and Sophie who are trying for a baby and have started on a course of IVF. The book isn’t anything special, but you are interested in the subject matter. It is, however, enlivened by the occasional appearance of Sophie’s younger brother Stephen, whose chirpiness gives respite from the overall sense of anxiety that dominates the text.
Two thirds of the way into the novel, however, Stephen is shockingly killed in a motorbike accident. From that point on, the book goes a little odd. It stops being about trying to have a baby at all and descends into a grim mire of clinical depression, online gambling addiction and debt.
Chances are, you the reader won’t be contemplating the randomness of life, chains of unintended consequences or the inability of one person to help another. Instead you’ll be asking one basic question: What on earth was the author thinking doing that?
The unexpected in fiction can never work in the same way that it does in life because, unless you’re a believer in a particularly interventionist God, in the former you are always on some level aware of the hand of the author and in the latter you are not. Consequently, totally unpredictable deaths in fiction often feel like a cheat. It’s as if the author is dispensing of characters s/he has no further need for, or using their death to manoeuvre others into a position they would otherwise never head.
This is not to say that nothing random or unforeseeable of a tragic nature can ever happen, of course, just that great care should be taken in doing so. Sudden deaths and the like tend to work better at the beginning of a story than halfway through, as then they serve as the trigger for all that follows. Too far in, and it can be as if the story has been reset, or at the very least, had an unexpected upgrade.
Tragic events can work well later on, however, as long as they can be seen to be the consequence of something that is already established. For instance, if Stephen falls off his motorbike after it has been made clear earlier in the story that he is reckless, then at least it will serve as the logical endpoint of his having that particular character trait. Or if you have a story set in a merciless city in which no one seems to care about those around them, then a beloved child character being mown down on a zebra crossing in Chapter 17 would tie into that theme quite nicely.
Ultimately, though, it’s a question of judgement on the part of the author. Does a character have to die? Is the story begging for their demise in order to be itself? Or is it just a matter of convenience that they do? If it feels honest when you write it, you’re probably doing the right thing. If it seems as if you’re trying to get away with something, however, alarm bells should be ringing. After all, there are no accidents in fiction really, just a series of decisions that the author has made, and must bear responsibility for. Careful though, you may end up with blood on your hands.
(Copies of my new novel No Baby Blues can be pre-ordered from my website.)