Reader Response to the Death of a Character

The Stand  by Stephen King
The Stand
by Stephen King

(If you haven’t read The Stand by Stephen King and want to, please know that spoilers lie ahead.)

I’m going to dip into the philosophical today. But, then again, shouldn’t good writing always dip into the philosophical, at least a pinkie finger?

I’ve been listening to The Stand by Stephen King this past month. It is a novel to which I gave many chances to grab my attention. The farthest I ever got before downloading the book onto my Kindle and plugging it into my car was several chapters. Now I’m a good eighty to ninety percent through that brick of a book and a character finally died. I say “finally” because this character was a plague to the narrative. His only end purpose was to blow up a few of the good guys. And yet he stuck around for a good eighty to ninety percent of the book.

When I realized that Harold M. Lauder was going to die, a grin slipped across my lips and a little bit of devilish glee dropped into my heart. Now, I’ve touched elsewhere–not on this blog–on the creation of characters, what their real world importance is and what, if any, moral obligations we have as writers toward those characters. But I’ve never thought about a reader’s own attitude toward characters. How should I, as reader, respond to a character’s failures, faults, or even a character’s death? We, of course, find ourselves automatically responding to events in fiction. This is one thing that makes fiction so wonderful; it creeps past that little emotional checkpoint, or world-formed bias, and manipulates you at a heart level. So, maybe the real question is this: What do our responses to a character’s demise say about our own hearts?

Granted, Mr. King did manage to pass a little bit of sympathy past my already inflamed desire for Harold to choke on his own bullets. It was an unexpected surprise, especially since Harold’s nickname and ultimately alter-ego , “Hawk,” had rarely come up in previous pages. (Mr. Lauder actually having some sort of struggle between his “noble” side–“Hawk”–and his “ignoble” side–Harold–would have been much more believable.) But I was still happy to have Harold in the grave. Am I committing some moral wrong by wanting a character’s life ended? As an adult, I’ve not wished anyone dead in the physical world, and yet, I’ve committed mental murder thousands of times while reading fiction.

Perhaps this mechanism is a moral release valve for the reader. What if having an enemy to hate is so ingrained in our psyche that we need a place in which to act out that hidden part of ourselves? This goes as far back as the Biblical narrative about Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Whose head gets crushed in the end? The Serpent, the bad guy, the one we tend to equate with Satan or Lucifer. How long have we been telling this story, reveling in the ending? Good triumphing over evil, or even Evil doing itself in with its own evil?

I will leave this open ended. I don’t know the answer, but I will think on the question. Perhaps there isn’t even an answer.

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