When should a character get over another character's death?

by JL

Hi, I'm not actually stuck, but I don't want my whole book to be stupid dark and somber and I don't know where to stop the character's melancholic reflections. The whole theme is about going from the worst one can be to the best one can be, but there's just so much tragedy. The character in question is Nathaniel Farrar, he's a privateer for the kingdom of Andren. He has his own ship and crew, both of which he has grown up with and inherited as his own following his father's death. As you can imagine, he's quite attached to these people, especially his first mate Bombo the Fish.

While Nathaniel isn't the character who will be making the big decision at the climax, he is one of the three important PoV characters and the story opens with him in media res. This inciting incident leads to the deaths of Bombo the Fish and a recently wedded couple who're also part of Nathaniel's crew, the Buicks. This catastrophe of an event, which included the leveling of the capital city of the barbarians by a single sorcerer, led to the rest of Nathaniel's crew abandoning him, believing their captain to be an inadequate replacement for his father. Save for the obsessive Jane Barding and the little girl Sierra Martin, Nathaniel is all alone, feeling responsible for not just the destruction of the city because he felt he could've stopped the sorcerer, but because stopping this villain would have kept Bombo and the Buicks alive. The rest of the crew's battering him did not help.

That's the gist of it, but I'll add more detail if you care... Skip to after the wall of text for the question, if you want. Nathaniel has a lot to be gloomy about so I'll just make a list:

- He is trying to convince the king he's working for that he's worthy of knighthood, but the king believes that he should not be fully trusted, given his father was a pirate that led to the prince's death. As a result, Nathaniel is trying to bring honor to his family name by doing meaningless messenger chores for the bitter king, whose only desire is to keep the young man under his thumb. This brings frustration to Nathaniel because the king doesn't find messengering to be more than a meager task, but at the same time the Farrar name has been unfairly tarnished and Nathaniel is honor bound to cleanse it.

- He was told by his other crew members that his father had always striven to fulfill his crew's aspirations of riches and adventure while Nathaniel had them running meaningless errands for a king, which is true. Bombo and the Buicks had died without fulfilling their dreams.

- As I said, his crew left him, but in reality he told them to leave because he didn't want them to die in his quest to assassinate the sorcerer that had caused him grief. He had to make them believe that he was a useless coward who was going to do nothing to avenge his friends' deaths, so in this way he actually caused the rest of his crew to desert him. This, as you can imagine, can hurt quite a bit.

- Jane, one of the two people who refused to leave, is obsessed with Nathaniel. She's sick in the head and all she wants is to be romantically involved with him. Desperate to fulfill her dreams before he led her to her death, Nathaniel kissed her and nearly had sex with her, but he stopped after she uncharacteristically pushed him away to shout at him. She seemed to hate the fact that she had allowed him to kiss her for so long immediately after the deaths of her family and went to
bed alone, crying uncontrollably. Nathaniel immediately regretted what he had done, feeling that he was so much further from honoring his father after he had explicitly told him NOT to lead Jane on unless he truly loved her. Other than this, he feels as if he took advantage of Jane's mental instability to make himself feel better (as in, bedding her would be fulfilling her "dreams" and he would be a better man for fulfilling her life goal), which he did.

- Lastly, the other young girl that chose to stay with Jane and Nathaniel is an orphan. She is the newest addition to the crew and the only person Nathaniel has recruited since his father died. Sierra Martin adores Nathaniel and Jane, she sees them as the closest thing to parents and has been learning tons from them, but she's still just a 13 year old girl that will be a prime candidate for murder in a quest for vengeance. In light of this, Nathaniel intends to drop her back off in the very orphanage he took her from to keep her safe. Again, doing this would absolutely crush Sierra's hopes and dreams, which is exactly what Nathaniel doesn't want for her and Jane, but it's preferable to her being massacred like Bombo and the Buicks. All of this, combined with Nathaniel loving the girl as a sister, is tearing him apart.


That was a lot, sorry. But yeah, there is still more tragedy to follow on the side of the character that's making the climax choice that will affect everything, so here's my question: when should my characters stop feeling so down? At what point does a character feeling sorry for himself become annoying to the reader? I intend for most of what I write to be light-hearted with good storytelling, but I feel as if I'm kind of killing that bright tone I want and making myself depressed instead lol. Maybe I chose the wrong theme or I'm not too far into the story yet xD

My solution so far has been to give each character someone to kind of cheer them on, but then the question would be, how quickly should my characters recover from a tragedy?

Answer: People react to emotional trauma in different ways. A lot depends on whether they can afford the time to grieve, how resilient their personality is, and how much support they have in other areas of their life. Support can include friends, family, and faith in religion or other ideology. It can include anything that helps them feel secure such as health, job security, financial security, a community where they feel loved and accepted, a nurturing home, etc.

In terms of personality, people react to stress in different ways. Some become angry at the world and want to tear things down. Some become depressed. Some become emotional and want others to take care of them. Some want to take action, such as revenge or looking after others.

In writing fiction, you have to have a strong sense of who your character is to know how he would react to tragedy. It may help to think about tragedies you or people you know have endured. Make sure the story feels authentic to you. If it doesn't, it probably won't feel authentic to others.

As for when a character's grief becomes annoying for the reader... I think you need to show the grief once, so the reader appreciates it. After that, it may continue to affect the character's actions for some time. However, once you have illustrated the grief, you don't need to continue illustrating it. Once we've read the character's thoughts and feelings on the subject, we don't need further long passages delving into them. We want to find out what happens next.

Best of luck.

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Character Invite.