Up a Level
Killing off characters and the hate mail that follows

Whenever I write, there are various points in a story where I'm afraid people are going to throw the book aside and never read my stuff again. This is true with all stories, but with serials there is a week (in this case) between each post and during that time, people talk about their favorite characters, what they think what will happen, or even a debate on motivations. All in all, I absolutely love hearing people debate my stories.

This also means when there is a major plot twist, any opinions are magnified because of the anticipation. This week, I hit one of those points with one of my bylines. Thirty chapters into the story, I killed off a character.

I planned on the death from the beginning, mainly as the turning point for the main character. What I wasn't planning on was people loving the doomed character. Every time I saw "I love X," my heart broke because I knew X was going to die in chapter 30.

I agonized over that chapter for a while. Do I ignore all the hints and foreshadowing I did for twenty-some chapters and kill someone else? Do I go forward with it?

In the end, I just gave it as much attention as I could and shuffled their mortal coil. And a week editing, re-writing, and editing some more. I hate the chapter, not only because I feel for the character but because I was going to break hearts. And maybe piss off a few people.

When I submitted it, I pretty much drummed F5 waiting for a response. The chapter was fairly big, about seven thousand words, and it took an hour for the first comment. It was rather easy to read, it only had one sentence.

I hate you.

I don't know about the rest of the writers, but I have a fragile ego. I want to please everyone and getting that simple comment at the first almost broke my heart. But, I'm also a persistent bugger so I kept tapping the F5 in hopes that the declaration would somehow change.

[...] You ruined the story and everything you've created [...]

More comments came in, each one on the same tone. Hurt. Betrayal. Anger. Declarations that they would never read my stuff again.

The first email showed up about four hours after the posting. Someone took the effort to find my email address, write a short essay detailing how I tore their heart out, and sent it.

I had to go to bed at that point, but my dreams were filled with a thousand people all crying for my blood (I'm pretty sure not that many people read it though). I wondered if I had to give up on the serial or I had to rewrite the chapter. In the three serials I've done, I've never gone back to change the plot. I'm pretty proud of that, but I also know that I will make mistakes beyond simple grammar or spelling (those I change those in the archives).

The next day, there were sixty comments telling me I had done a horrible thing. How I ruined the story. How I forced the plot or it came out of the blue.

The hardest part was not responding to the emotional ones. There were questions in there, as there always was. They were technical or questions outside of the current plot. Things like "why didn't Y see it coming" or "didn't artifact Z prevent that?" Those are easy to handle. Either I say "that will be in a future chapter" or I tell them why. Most of them were hate mail though; while I read them, I didn't respond.

On day three, there was only one new comment.

OMG, I couldn't stop crying. Please, never stop writing.

A hundred comments hating me and tearing me apart. And then this. One comment that said exactly what I hoped would come from the chapter. That one comment, anonymous of course, became a catalyst. The hate mail slowed down and people started admiting they cried or just responded with the visceral emotional response I was hoping for. And the most important, they wouldn't stop reading. A new discussion started on the little hints I put in there, as people went back and looked for them.

I thought they would leave me. For days, I listened to them and doubted myself. And then it just changed. I don't know if it was because they needed a chance to grieve, or they went back and saw that I planned it, or simply they couldn't admit it. (Or they are sheep and just follow the last comment's tone.)

I remember novels which did the same thing for me. When the writer got me so emotionally involved that I felt betrayal and anger when a character died. Some of the most emotional stories were done that way. I remember wishing that I could do it someday myself, to create a character people fell in love with.

So many writers who have done the exact same thing. I'm not special in this regard. I'm not an amazing writer or even great. Instead, I feel this is a milestone. I might have finally climbed up another rung of the writing ladder. I might actually be a bit better of a writer.

A few things were confirmed during this. One, let things sit. It was painful not to comment and try to explain why I did what I did. The other is that sometimes... it takes time for the emotions to come out. The initial response isn't always the true one.

And never stop writing.