On Bon Courage and Whether or Not to Kill Off Your Characters

November 1st, 2013

So I spent most of last month in ANOTHER COUNTRY (France)!

It was only my second non-book related trip outside of the US since I first got published. I felt a little guilty about it (proof you are a workaholic: when you feel guilty for taking non-work related trips), but it was for a good cause:  to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday! All she wanted for her birthday was for her loved ones to go to France with her.

My mom is an artist (much like the mom of Mia Thermopolis) and she likes French art, although not so much this kind of French art:

 

More like the home decorating kind of French art found in Provence:

So my mom, her boyfriend (some of you might remember him as being the inspiration for The Princess Diaries, since he was one of my teachers, and my mom started dating him after my dad died, much like Mia’s mom does in The Princess Diaries, although my dad was not the heir to a royal throne in real life, and in the books, Mia’s dad is not dead); my mom’s boyfriend’s daughter; her husband; He Who Shall Not Be Named In This Blog; me; and my brother and his wife all went to France (along with the Heather and Cooper wedding cake topper from the cover of The Bride Wore Size 12).

You might think it was difficult to find restaurants that could accommodate that many people, some of whom did not speak French, one of whom has to eat gluten-free, one of whom is six feet eight inches tall and kept hitting his head on the small medieval doorways in all the castles we visited, and another of whom has Parkinson’s disease, but actually, we managed quite well, because we had:

“Bon Courage”

That’s what a French cab driver wished us when he dropped us off at our second hotel in Paris, because the staff of the first one was going on strike at midnight and so they were kicking all the guests out (yes! This happened).

“Bon courage” means “stay strong, brother” or, literally, “good courage.”

It made us feel quite French to be wished “bon courage” during a strike by French workers (the next afternoon they were granted all their demands). Bon courage!

So as you can guess from the above, and perhaps the photo below, things got dicey occasionally:

But we had an amazing time. Mostly it was all incredibly beautiful sunsets, rainbows, cats, and of course castles. And some donkeys.

 

 

It wouldn’t be France without amazingly delicious food, bought fresh from the local town markets. Why does everything taste so much better in France?

If you ever go to France, THIS is where you have to stay. It’s where we stayed in the Dordogne (why do so few people in the US know about the Dordogne? But maybe it’s better that way) and it is out of this world.

Now we’re back in the US and there are no more charcuterie platters for lunch (sad), but we all realize how very lucky we were to have had the chance to take this trip.  Many thanks to my mom for being born and for insisting that this is what she wanted, and to everyone who pitched in to make the trip so special, including HarperCollins who made an effort to truncate my Bride Wore Size 12 book tour so that we could squeeze in this important family event!

(And I will continue the tour at the Miami Book Festival at the end of this month. Exact dates and times to come!)

It was sobering to come back to the US and realize that this is the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, in which a lot of people lost their lives, their homes, schools, and in some neighborhoods, even their public libraries! Talk about “bon courage!” Sandy survivors have really shown it.

Someone else who’s showing it right now is longtime blogger and Meg Cabot Fiction Club  (and one of the first – and possibly only – male) member James “Boothy” Booth of Book Chic Club, who recently posted the sad news that he has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The prognosis looks good, but he still has to go through a lot of painful chemo treatments, so please keep him in your thoughts!

While I was in France, I didn’t have steady access to wifi, so I couldn’t keep up with what was going on back in the states (which, considering the government shutdown, might have been a good thing), but when I got back the first thing someone told me (ERRONEOUSLY, as it turned out) was that my favorite character from one of my favorite TV shows (The Walking Dead) had died.

(NOTE: This is not true. This person read a spoiler wrong. The character SMILED. She did not die. Don’t ask me how someone could read DIED for SMILED, but this person – who shall remain nameless as always in this blog – did, even though he has a Masters in English Literature.)

Obviously, I was upset! Although I’ve never had cancer or lost a library, loved one, or home to a hurricane -yet- I’ve been through hard times, and one thing that helped get me through those hard times was losing myself in a good fictional story.

Nothing works better to help you forget your own misery for a little while than reading about someone else’s, especially if that person is facing his or her misery with a sword and some “bon courage” (like Michonne on The Walking Dead, who did not, I will repeat, NOT die).

Sometimes it IS necessary for writers to kill off characters in order to further their narrative (case in point: Everyone else who has died on The Walking Dead. And of course, George RR Martin has killed off many characters – and animals – in his Game of Thrones series, but you’ll notice that none of them were particular fan favorites – so far. Except the dire wolves).

I don’t think it’s wrong to be upset if a character you like gets killed off (just ask how I felt when I was 13 and read Mill on the Floss), but it’s always wrong to threaten an author with physical violence if he/she does kill off a character you like.

I mention this because lately there’s been a rash of authors killing off popular characters in their series, and some fans have responded by threatening to punch those authors in the face if they ever meet them. Please don’t do this, even to be funny. Authors are sensitive, like a flower.  Not me, obviously, but some authors.

I certainly understand feeling passionate about a book, and wanting it to end a certain way (personally, I want the Khaleesi to marry Jon Snow. There, I’ve said it. Do you hear that, George RR?).

I’m a fan of happy endings, because we live in sad times. One out of four children in this country is on food stamps. One of five women in the US has been raped. Some of us need happy endings.

But sometimes the happy ending we pictured isn’t what the author envisioned. I’m not sure I’d have made the choice Helen Fielding did to have Darcy be dead in Book 3 of the Bridget Jones series (this is not a spoiler, the news was released before the book was). But I understand why she did it, because a widowed, middle-aged Bridget dating  provides more material than a happily married Bridget. And a lot of readers seem to be enjoying the book (I still need to read it)!

All I can say further on the subject is, in one of the first creative writing workshops I ever took, I noticed that all my other classmates were writing very sad stories at the end of which the main character often committed suicide with rusty razor blades.

Meanwhile, I kept writing humorous stories about girls who got broken up with at the mall (which was especially weird since at the time things were not going well in my home life).

So I started writing sad stories, too, since that’s what I thought you were supposed to do in creative writing workshops (hint: if you want to win a lot of book awards, do this in your writing career as well).

As soon as I’d turned in the first one (about a homeless vet who’d lost his hand in the Vietnam war and so was going to commit suicide with a rusty razor blade), my awesome teacher, Judy Troy, took me aside after class and asked what the hell was going on.

I explained that I wanted to do what everyone else was doing in the class, and make readers cry.

Judy got very irritated.

“It’s easy to make people cry,” she said.  “Anyone can do that! I could make you cry right now while you’re standing front of me. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make people laugh? You have that gift. Don’t waste it! We need more stories to make us laugh. Go back to doing that!”

So I did.

My feeling is this:

So many people in this world have lost so much, and need so many things. But the one thing we all really need right now are more stories to make us laugh, with heroes and heroines who exhibit “bon courage.”  We need them so that we, in turn, can feel inspired to show “bon courage” in the face of hardship, too.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any sad stories, because that would be ridiculous, and fake, and a waste.

But the sweetest endings, the ones that stay with you the longest, are the ones where, after the long, hard battle, the good guys win. Because that actually does happen, sometimes.

And – although I’m not saying all stories should end this way – maybe then they go to France with their mom for her 70th birthday and have a really good time, with a lot of laughs.  And then they all come home and get back to work.  And it everything ends up happily ever after … for now!

Thanks, Mom!

More later.

Much love,

Meg