Is it ever okay to kill off a series character, or is that a career killer?

I’ve thought about this from time to time. JK Rowling managed to kill off beloved series characters in the books, and still sell millions upon millions.

Conversely, when Ian Rankin was in Canada a few years ago, I saw a televised special with him where a woman almost burst into tears as she declared that every book she feared it would be the one where he killed Rebus.

More recently, I’ve seen extreme reactions to books where a series character has been killed.

Now, personally, I can talk out of both sides of my mouth. I look at Rowling and think how brave she was to do what she felt needed to be done. I also think she was smart, in that she forewarned readers of the fact that a character would die before the book was released. I suppose it minimizes the shock.

But I look at some writers I don’t follow, and when I see readers venting rage at them I wonder about the decision. I’m not surprised people are upset…

On the other hand, I think a fitting ending to the Rebus series would be with his death. And Siobhan standing over his grave and then she feels the baby move. (Yes, I’m evil.)

I’m just beginning a series, so I can’t even imagine being in a position to consider voluntarily ending one after ten, twelve, fifteen books, or twenty years writing those characters.

Would you consider killing off a series character? Would the death of a character you love turn you off an author… or would it depend on how they handled it? How much should writers consider the feelings of fans when it comes to making life and death decisions in the stories?

I’ll admit it – I was partially inspired by the recent announcement that Jorja Fox is leaving CSI. Now, I’m not a CSI junkie the way some people are, but I have already found myself debating how they’ll write her out… seems to me death is the probable option.

And if any of you have killed off a series character, was it a hard choice, and how did readers take it?

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Ah, I realize now how I put it may be cryptic to non-Canadians. To "move work south of the border" is not about seeling it in the US - my deal is with Dorchester - it's about the setting for the work. The majority of Canadian authors an international readership can identify set their work in the US or the UK so that it's easier to market.

And it's really insulting and frustrating to hear how much people love setting used as a character in the work, and then to be told nobody wants to read a story set in Canada. However, John and I both have sold Canadian-based stories to NY publishers (not to mention Giles Blunt), so in my opinion it can be done, but I still hear it on a regular basis as advise given to aspiring authors here.

Not every story works in every location. My first book with Dorchester couldn't even work in every city in Canada, it's that location-specific. Moving the book to the US was not an option.
Sandra wrote:

"The one thing I do know is that even signing with a Canadian agent, when I handed in What Burns Within he advised me to move it south of the border. And nobody who knows me will be surprised by my "Fuck that" response. Yet a lot of Canadian authors take the push and move work south. And if they do it because it's easier to sell the story, then they've sold out commercially on that point."

Sandra, you do know we've moved onto a whole new conversation, right? This is no longer about killing series characters. It's now about the intrinsic second class citizen mentality of most Canadian authors. (What's that? You stepped on my foot just now? I'm sorry about that!)

I can think of a handful of Canadian authors who have done what you say: shifted a story initially set in Canada into the US. I can think of zero instances that worked on a critical or commerical level. So I respond to this in exactly the same way I responded to the killing series characters thread: if it's the right thing to do for the story, then do it. If it feels correct and leaves you -- the author -- in integrity with yourself and your work, then kill the character, move the series and whatever else you want to do. But if it does not, do not do it. Full stop.

Good stories -- well told, well executed -- sell. It does not matter if they're set in Thunder Bay or NYC and even though there's a whole faction of the community prancing about pretending they know what will and will not sell, the reality is that what everyone really wants is a great story. That's why the really great books and the really top sellers are not about what everyone says the industry is looking for. Because what everyone is *really* looking for is the special something that moves the heart.
A whole other discussion, for sure. I think, rioght now in canadian puiblishing we're getting to the point of a generational change and we're not managing it very well. As this article ( points out, CanLit is getting old and having a very tough time with the new.

And, of course, Canadian publishing has always had a tough time with anything remotely 'genre.'

But it's a young industry. Most of the agents working in Canada started their own agencies, they're still first generation, so it's bound to change.

Peter Robinson says he wrote a novel set in Toronto, but then rewrote it as an Inspector Banks novel in Leeds.

I think what does pertain to this discussion, though, is an idea of "career." My feeling is when you start thinking about that - instead of about the books, one at a time, and what's best for them - then you're in trouble.
I don't see it as a whole different conversation. People made strong assertions about authors maintaining artistic integrity about whether or not they kill off characters and that they shouldn't consider fans/publishers/anything else.

How is making a decision about setting for the work any different? I don't see that it is, unless there are lists. That which we must NOT listen to anyone about when we decide, and that which we must DO WHAT WE'RE TOLD and not have our own opinion.

The Canadian setting example is just one classic example of how some authors do allow others to dictate a choice about the work.

I've interviewed Canadian authors who've said the decision to set work south of the border was reached in conjunction with a publisher (and been told by others that it was that or no deal) and some are reasonably successful authors. Not to mention a recent author event in Ontario where a Canadian agent went on a soapbox about why you should never set fiction in Canada, citing a very successful Canadian author as an example. In one recent conversation the person said right out they'd move their book anywhere (and have thus far in their career) and they strongly advised me to set my work outside Canada. I'm not going to name names, but the examples are there, and off list I can counter with named examples people who have moved the setting and are doing extremely well. I can name more Canadian cf authors setting work outside our borders than within, myself.
I'm definitely going off topic...another Canadian writer wading in here. Thanks for the article John, so telling about the industry here. I am looking for an agent so I am very interested in this subject and wonder how I will fair in this game. My settings have quite a range, first book set in Napa, CA. My MC is Canadian but the action all happens in California. I really didn't think much of it, it just happened I was inspired by people I met there and the location after several visits. Second book, continuing the series is in BC, Okanagan wine area. Again, setting intrigued me, funny it is not so much the wine aspect but the people and conflicts I have encountered, ready to be twisted into a murder plot. Third book set in Italy. Wonder which one will spark interest? Giles Blunt gives me hope, and Louise Penny. If the writing and plot hold up, what does it matter really where it is set as long as it is interesting? Maybe we should recruit American writers to use Canada as a setting - bet the Canadian publishers would change their tune then. What about all the books using India as a setting lately? Why is it such a weird requirement that mysteries should be in England or US?
Yeah, actually I agree. It's why I haven't been to a movie (other than kids') in a couple of years. I rent the odd dvd and watch some TV shows on dvd, but there just aren't that many good ones out there.

So really, the "art versus commerce" line was on TV about TV and it's true there, but you're right, publishing is a lot different. There are still hundreds of books published every year that I think are terrific.

There's some collaboration, though. I've really benefited from a great editor and a great publisher -- so much that I wouldn't go anywhere else now just for more advance money (I don't know how typical this is, but I've gotten some terrible advice from a number of agents -- all of whom seem to have come out completely on the side of commerce). Also, there are times when I do things I don't like to do - like awards. I really don't like the idea of competition in the arts and giving out awards, but the industry runs on them, so when my publisher asks me to attend the Arthur Ellis Awards, I go. I don't know if that's compromise or collaboration.

Oh yeah, a few years ago someone asked me to make a list of my ten favourite movies from the last five years to see how many were based on books. The answer to that told me something...
I'm with Linda on this. There is no collaboration. But then I have been pretty much left alone on the books I sold, and the books I didn't sell ( because they weren't commercial enough -- that is not to say that those that did sell are commercial).

Every writer must decide for himself what he is willing to compromise in order to get the sales, for -- be warned! -- if you don't get the sales, you don't get to publish the next book.
The sequence of all the replies to replies is bound to get confusing. I'm now picking up on Sandra's point about being forced to consider a different setting because it will sell better.
That problem applies not only to setting but to time also. Modern crime novels sell a heck of a lot better than historical ones. I'm not sure what would happen if I shifted my mysteries, or the current thriller, to now. Clearly, new research and inclusion of current technology. But there is the whole matter of the ambience. That cannot be translated. Neither would the behavior of the characters fit our modern world.
Still and all: modern crime sells much better. And more respectably -- and this really infuriates me. Historical novels bear a stigma of shlock -- undeservedly.
John, yes: A great editor and publisher can be an amazing part of the equation. But in most cases, this is more like various degrees of support than actual collaboration. (Yeah, I know: potaytoe, potahtow, right? Still. To me the word "collaboration" requires a more direct involvement.)

And Sandra: I was never suggesting that there were no cases of Canadian authors sliding their series into the US after being browbeaten by Canadian (ahem) collaborators. I know many, as well. What I'm saying -- and I'll say it more plainly now -- is that you should not do it. (Another full stop here.) That is, it should not be done. Doing it is more about us than it is about them, if you follow. That's what I was getting at with the second class citizen thing. But it's just *so* 1985. It's not even really a reason anymore. Do some people still think it is? Yes. They do. But it is not. Stand fast. Stand firm. And make sure your book absolutely rocks.

And, as Tina suggests, there is no earthly reason that mystery fiction must be set in the US or the UK and -- fortunately -- an increasing number of writers are proving that it does not.
Yes, the replies are all mixed up, but luckily we're clever people here ;)

I agree, the reputation of historical novels is undeserved, just more lazy applying of labels.

And Linda, you're absolutely right, the attitude is sooo 1985. It seems to be lingering a lot longer in anything close to 'genre,' as certainly no one ever suggests to Alice Munro or David Adams Richards or Lisa Moore or... the list goes on, that they change the location.

And to Tina, Giles Blunt, Louise Penny, Sandra Ruttan and even me. It's a bit of a joke for me right now, I have a book coming out in 2008 set in Toronto and the American publisher is using a picture of the skyline of Toronto for the cover -- something no Canadian publisher would ever do. I think it's a great cover - I wish I could claim to have collaborated on it (okay, that was a joke for Linda).
Congrats John, I think the tide is changing, but slowly. As a reader I want to explore all sorts of different places. I like the option of going from a Florida backwater to Northern Ontario to the English countryside. Evil is lurking everywhere... Oh and back in time too, I love historical fiction, makes me feel like I'm learning too:)


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