I’ve been thinking a lot about stories that end badly. And I don’t mean that the storytelling is bad; I mean that the outcome for some or all of the main characters is tragic in some way.
My thinking on this was triggered when Beth (who won a pile o’ books sometime ago) emailed me to say how disturbed she was by the way A Thread of Grace ended for some of the characters. And it’s true. A Thread of Grace is set in northern Italy during WWII, and not everybody survives. Mary Doria Russell is one of those brave authors who can take on a story like that and do it justice. When she was writing the novel she tossed a coin (or maybe she asked her son to toss the coin; I can’t find the email right now where she told me about this) for each character. Fate is just as arbitrary, was her reasoning. And she was right, of course.
People die suddenly, in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are the people you love most and are most attached to. An author is like anybody else with a community of people. You like — even love — some of your characters, and you dislike (strongly, at times) others. The easy way would be to have happy things happen to the people you like, and make all the nasty people step in front of speeding trains. And that may work, but first you’ve got to earn those endings you want so much, by putting the characters through their paces.
So there I was, thinking still about Beth’s discomfort with the resolution of A Thread of Grace when three things happened. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Lost had their season finales, and in both cases we’re talking dark, dark, dark. Grey’s left everybody — and I mean every character — in a bad (depressed, enraged, disappointed, desperate) state. If you haven’t seen it but plan to, you had best set your mind for some serious stuff. Lost was even worse, in terms of dark and truly sad endings.
The third thing is this: I am listening to Lonesome Dove on unabridged audio whenever I’m in the car. I love that novel, I truly do. I think Augustus McCrae is in my top five favorite fictional men. But whenever I think about Lonesome Dove I think about the fact that McMurtry wrote a sequel sometime later, which I was looking forward to and then couldn’t read beyond the first chapter because I hate what he did with the characters who survived the first novel. One of them is summarily dispatched by the kick of a horse before the story ever gets started. That made me angry. Grey’s, Lost, A Thread of Grace — in none of those cases am I angry. I am tense, maybe. But I’m trusting the writers to take the characters — and me — someplace interesting.
Good writers take chances. A good writer challenges the audience. Such writers (or film makers, or whatever) are betting that you’ll come back. And they’re right, if they’ve handled things well.
My point (and I do have one) is that good storytelling isn’t about happy-go-lucky people who never have a problem, or bad guys who always get what they have coming to them. On the other hand, when bad things do happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath. A solid story will survive terrible things happening to a major character. That is, the audience will go along with the loss, even if they are put out and unhappy.
If you’ve read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, you know exactly what I mean. King has said that PS is the novel that scares him most, and that he can’t re-read. It’s tragic in the classical sense, and it is scary. But nothing that happens is unfounded or unearned.
At the end of A Thread of Grace I was sad but the Lonesome Dove sequel just made me angry at the author, for the way he tossed a particular character aside. He could have simply left the character out of the story, in which case the readers would be free to imagine a future for him. That would have been acceptable.
So that’s a very long reply to Beth asking me about A Thread of Grace. I was shocked and disturbed by the death of characters I liked and who I expected to survive. One of them was even named Rosina, so sure, it shook me a little. But in the long run the story made both logical and emotional sense, and that’s what counts.