By Jean Asselin
While I never intended “Don’t do ‘X’ in the fiction you submit” to become a continuing series, recent submissions point me once again in that direction.
Let ‘X’ be: “Your main character just had the adventure of their life but in the process has to shuffle off this mortal coil.” Or:
Why Your Point of View Character Can’t Die at the End
As a young reader, I once encountered the following riddle. “A woman once had a nightmare so horrible that she died in her sleep of a heart attack. A detective refused to believe in this story. Why?”
The exact same answer applies to your point of view (henceforth POV) character: if one dies at the end, without having had the chance to tell anyone the entire story in all its glorious details, how could it have possibly reached us?
Because most modern stories are written in close Third Person, with events described strictly from one character’s own senses to enhance realism, a story that ends with this character’s death begs the question I asked above—even more so for a First Person narrative, of course.
If your response is that we don’t know if there’s life after death, that’s fine but with one essential caveat: a story that reaches us from beyond the grave is such an impossible feat that it must, in and of itself, become the only story to be told here.
Objections such as “this is a constraint on creativity,” “a writer must respect the story,” and “this is an affront to the Freedom of Writing” are fair, so…
… I hereby call to the stand our namesake, author, scholar, teacher, and professor emeritus James E. Gunn. In distinguishing Science Fiction from Fantasy, he points out that both are the literature of discontinuity—the world depicted in the story is clearly different from the one we live in—except that in Science Fiction you can trace a path from here to there.
My position is this: If your POV character dies without having somehow recorded their story, then such a clear, traceable path does not exist and your story is no longer valid. Disbelief is thereby suspended. I am thrown out of the story.
When I write, “having somehow recorded the story”, I mean precisely that. It nearly happened in a story submitted to James Gunn’s Ad Astra, with the POV character having a chance to record his brain’s contents in the penultimate scene, an opportunity the writer chose not to seize but could have.
By no means does this imply you cannot have an open-ended story. It may stop when the POV has the business end of a gun pointed between the eyes, or is at the edge of a cliff pondering the meaning of life, or ready to turn on an Extra-Large Hadron Collider that may or may not annihilate the universe. The point being that the character’s ultimate demise has not yet happened, and there are multiple outcomes, of which most allow the reader to trace a path from here to there.