“…my only gripe is you write great characters I love and then you kill them!”
A frequent criticism of epic fantasy is that it romanticizes war, focusing on the glamor of combat and weaponry, rather than presenting the real consequences of armed conflict, i.e. General Sherman’s “war is hell.”
One aspect of romanticizing is that ‘bit players’ and unknown faceless masses die, while the main characters largely sail through unscathed, not only surviving every encounter, but never ending up maimed, or suffering PTSD. The Star Trek “Redshirts” have become shorthand for this phenomenon, the term deriving from the apparel of the crew members who accompanied the main characters on their adventures, pretty much for the sole purpose of dying.
So although The Gathering Of The Lost is heroic fantasy, it also reflects my personal philosophy of epic storytelling: people who matter, people those in the story love and care about, are going to get injured and killed in the armed conflicts—because that is what happens in war. Even where violence may be necessary to defend yourself and those you love, it exacts a price that you and your friends may well have to pay. So as part of achieving realism, I try and make sure that those caught up in the conflict are real people for the reader, not just “redshirts” who can be killed off with zero emotional cost.
So yes, sometimes that means characters we love are going to die.
The master of this approach, of course, is George RR Martin in his A Song Of Ice and Fire series. Since the first truly major character died at the end of A Game Of Thrones, we have learned as readers that no one in this story is sacrosanct. Another aspect of Martin’s storytelling I like is that not only will characters we love die, but sometimes the reason they die is because they are trying to do right. The notion that people prevail because they are the ‘good guys’ finds no foothold in the Westeros world. In terms of reflecting the realities of war and conflict, I have always felt this gives Martin’s storytelling authenticity.
I do not, however, believe a high body count in and of itself, whether of major characters or not, gives a story authenticity. War may be Sherman’s hell of “dead and mangled bodies … the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated,” and people we love and care about may well be cut down alongside strangers. But even in the most terrible conflicts that have wracked this planet (for example, in the Thirty Years War, it’s estimated that up to 50% of the population of what is now Germany died) people—many people, even—have survived. Some will even have survived unscathed physically, if not emotionally. So in an authentic story of war and conflict, characters we love may also live.
In the end, authenticity will never be about how many people die or live, or whether they are major or minor characters. Authenticity derives from the realism of the situations portrayed and the emotional believability of the characters’ response to them. In other words, the integrity of the story should drive every aspect of the narrative, including who lives and who dies.