Believability in high stakes with paranormal fiction–can death be pulled off?

download (5)!SPOILER ALERT! I will be mentioning by name the death of a secondary character in a Nora Roberts’ Circle Trilogy book, and characters in a Joss Whedon film, so if you’d rather not know, don’t read further.


I’m the the middle of reading Morrigan’s Cross by Nora Roberts, and King just died and I didn’t have the reaction I think I probably should have last night, and it made me start to wonder, and so because of that, I thought ‘hey, self, blog post!’

So this isn’t any well thought out treatise, but rather my thoughts this morning in case anyone else could add to this.

Anyway, here’s how my reading experience went last night when I got to that part of the book: I completely missed that he was dead. Sure, I read the lines where he was drop-kicked over the edge of a cliff, but it didn’t click with me that that equaled truly dead (it also happened extremely quickly). So I’m reading further along and the other characters are all angry and weepy and I’m confused, because my brain hadn’t registered it. I kept expecting for it to be a mistake, for King to stumble back and say “I’m not dead, caught a ledge guys” and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But it hasn’t happened (yet) and this got me to thinking:

is it harder to convince a reader of a character’s death when writing paranormal fiction?

heck, even Sherlock Holmes survived a fall like this. Are we now trained to think that if we don’t actually see the death, it hasn’t actually happened in fiction because too many times authors have pulled the gotcha?

Even if you do pull a gotcha (And Nora might still pull one with King; I haven’t finished it yet), as a writer you’d want the reader to still believe the death happened. But you don’t want to yank them too much and this book is a great example of this. I remember thinking when these characters who make up the team were first getting introduced that I hoped Roberts wasn’t going to kill one of them, and that if she did, I’d be really pissed. But when it happened, I didn’t throw the book at the wall, so she’d skillfully not gotten me too invested in the character. Looking back, he’s the only one, besides Larkin, whose head we haven’t hopped into, Nora-Roberts-style. And killing off a team member is a great device to show the stakes are real (Serenity!). But even in Serenity, we saw both Book and Wash truly die. The stakes were real and felt/mourned at the time. Here, I’m not feeling it, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to feel it too much. So it’s definitely a hard line to navigate.

Anyway, that’s it. Just wanted to put this out there and see if anyone else had thoughts on this 🙂

Do you think it’s harder to pull off a death in paranormal fiction? Have you read this book–what was your reaction? (don’t tell me the end)

5 Replies to “Believability in high stakes with paranormal fiction–can death be pulled off?”

  1. It’s not just in paranormal books. When Lisbeth Salander is shot in the head and “killed” at the end of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, I kinda knew she wasn’t dead because there’s a third book! 😉

  2. That’s an interesting point about the believability. Especially when so often in paranormals, “dead” can be quite a relative term. 😉 Maybe it’s a fine line to walk – just as killing one of the main characters is (still remember how angry I was with J.R. Ward). I was totally bummed when they killed Wash – I hate watching that part in Serenity (yes, even though I know it’s coming). But at least his death really invested you in the stakes. I think it gave the overall movie greater impact – especially when in some ways it was one of the most “innocent” / sweet characters who gets it. Really, what’s the point of killing off any of the characters (even if they come back to life) if you don’t make it matter?
    Haven’t read the book either. Hope it turns out you don’t have to throw it across the room. 🙂

    1. Don’t tell me which Ward book does this!! I just finished Book 2 of the BDB series and don’t want to know! And in Book 2, she did a good job in making me feel Mary’s death even though I knew it couldn’t have happened, but I felt Rhage’s grief. Oh, I know, Wash…… I still get choked up at that scene. I remember when I was watching it in the theater and after that scene when the others were starting to get shot, I thought, this is it, this is Joss Whedon’s big FU to FOX, he’s killing all of them!!!!!!!! I was soooo believing that any of them could be dead too. I think it was the most worried I’ve ever been with any movie.

  3. It sounds like, whether the character is dead or not, the scene/event wasn’t handled well. Neither outcome was conveyed to you in an at least somewhat convincing manner.

    I recently read a book where it was done EXTREMELY well [SPOILER]–Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare. Readers are left wondering why that person’s deathbed scene was omitted, yet we experience it through several other characters (and yeah, I bawled). I thought it was odd, but not enough to think, “Ah-ha! This character’s still alive!” When s/he appeared later, I nearly fell out of my chair.

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