Ramblings on Writing - Meaningful Character Death

on Friday, June 4, 2010
Ramblings on Writing - Meaningful Character Death
June 4, 2010

So, in thinking about the topic, I've decided that I'm too damn serious all the time, especially on this blog. I mean, I want it to be professional and about writing, but who says I can't have fun while I'm doing it? So, see more posts coming up with just random junk that I feel like talking about. It probably will be writing related, but you know what? It might not be.

Now that this is out of the way, onto the topic at hand. 

Character Death is something I really can't give you a clear cut "yay or nay" on with regards to your own story. Truth be told, whether or not you kill of main (or side) characters is completely up to you, and many people actually totally hate it when authors kill somebody they've spent all this time connecting to (Barbara Hambly at CONduit very explicitly stated that she'll put a book down or quit a TV series if the author just randomly decides to kill a main character). So, as with all these little blurbs, take what I say with a grain of salt, and I'll mostly be talking about my own personal interpretations and experiences.

My writing group and I recently watched through the entire series of Firefly, and once we finished with the TV show we capstoned the experience by watching Serenity, the movie released a few years later to tie off the series, which was cancelled early. For those who haven't experienced either (minor spoilers, but if you haven't seen them you need to turn in your nerd card), just know that key characters from the series die in Serenity, including my favorite character. It's shockingly jarring and completely unexpected; I've watched a whole first season and a movie with these beloved characters. How could you kill them? How dare you play on my emotions like this!

Personally? I think it's brilliant, because it shows the author is serious, and he isn't screwing around. 

Think, for a moment, about tension in books. Tension can arise in many ways - between characters, between a character and his environment, etc. However, if you read a majority of novels, you usually don't worry too much about the well-being of a main character. This is especially true in the fantasy genre, where we can't even kill Gandalf without him coming back shortly after. If a person is a main character (especially if they are a viewpoint character), we as the reader expect them to make it to the end of the story. While we may have tension because they'll be tortured (either physically or emotionally), or put into dangerous situations, we never really fear their death, because we don't think it will happen. I think, while this is perfectly acceptable, it isn't realistic, and it is a total tension killer. Characters should die, and the character we think shouldn't die should totally be able to. 

When I first began writing, I kept telling my friends (who were actually mission companions and buddies, because I wrote the first 3/4 of Lacrymosa on a three-ring binder on my P-days) that my motto was "Nobody is Safe." While that might make me seem like a jerk (or just arrogant), I noticed that people would become seriously more concerned for the characters than they would reading other books. Knowing that I was fully capable of killing off a main character or love interest (which I have done in every book I've written so far, except maybe Paradise Seekers...uh, spoiler warning?) made them worried that I actually would. Because of this, when Lilly was being hunted by a huge Zentapox (a nasty dragon like thing that eats people essentially), was out of arrows and her protector was downed, people actually considered the option that I might kill her, or her main-character protector. And that, in and of itself, made the book both more tense and more realistic. 

Now, there is a line I must draw here, because I draw it myself. If you run around killing everybody (especially if you kill a viewpoint character in the prologue, which is exactly what I did in Lacrymosa), your readers are going to go from "shocked" to "pissed off" pretty quickly. In Serenity, when the main characters we knew and loved died, their deaths most certainly did evoke some anger in me, but because their deaths were meaningful and perfectly in character with the plot, I bought it. Rather than cursing at the author, who clearly decided they had to die, instead I cursed at the characters in the story who had done the actual killing. Because the writer walked that fine line between "shocked" and "angry," I was able to still stay in the story, focusing more on what the character's untimely demise meant in the plot, rather than be pulled out and start rage-hating at the author. 

How you do this is up to you, but I do have a few points. Please note these aren't universal truths, just pitfalls to be aware of. First, don't kill your character in a way that feels cheap. While that might be the most "realistic" (a stray bullet or blaster shot missed and ended up killing him), in most situations it just doesn't work. Second, if they do have to die, I personally think a "shockingly sudden" death is much more interesting than one where it is dragged on heroically for twenty pages. Again, it might work, but in real life people can take one, maybe two arrow shots before they are gone. Third, be very, very aware of the ramifications, both on yourself as an author and the characters in the story. As an author, I've had books planned where I know this character is going to die. All the way up to writing that point, I am aware of it, but I seem to convince myself it won't be horrible. It is. I get so immersed, it actually depresses me when somebody I've loved and developed with everything I've got bites the dust. But even more important than what I feel is how the characters in the story feel (because, honestly, an anonymous reader doesn't care if I had to take prozac after killing my hero). Killing the last beacon of hope is distressing for characters, and many people aren't emotionally capable of handling death. Know that the other characters in your book will all respond differently, and the world itself will change because you've killed Gandalf or Dumbledore. Know the consequences, and how drastic they are.

Something fun I often do when I am in the planning stages of a book (which, as mentioned before, is just a bare-bones idea dump) is, after I have a basic plot and a few characters, ask myself: "Ok, what would happen of character x died?" I've found this is also a great way to get past writer's block. Pretend a character is dead, and write a half a chapter describing the reactions of the other characters, and the impact is has on the story. Then store that chapter away somewhere, and proceed as usual. You'd be surprised as to how well you'll get to know your characters once the love interest is unfortunately killed by orcs, or the kind mentor is cut in half by Darth Vader. 

I think death, especially of key characters, in books can provide a very strong and very impactful emotional jolt to readers. It makes your book incredibly memorable. Think for example, about the Harry Potter books. Does anyone remember what really happens in book five in great detail? Of course not, we remember Sirrius Black dying. Same goes for book six, and Dumbledore. They become the center of the story, a blast to the reader's mind that makes them remember what they've read. 

So, give it a shot sometime! Tell me how it turns out. Just remember: keep it meaningful, and make sure they die in a cool way (killing Balrogs = awesome. Getting zapped by Snape = Not so much). 


Anonymous said...


Consider a seriff font. :P

Ryan said...

Stick with sans.

Then again, I read your blog 99% of the time through Google reader, so it doesn't make much of a difference.

Nathan Major said...

What is wrong with this font. I have terrible eyesight and I can read it just fine.
Plus, since it's a template, I don't know how to change it. :/

Anonymous said...

I vote sans because it looks modern and it's easier to read

Dustin said...

Character death seems like any other literary method - if it's used for its own sake it does piss people off, though if done appropriately and not necessarily in a context where it would be automatically expected, it can work really well (and we're getting back to Wash here).

I'm sick of character death being obvious, though - whenever two old friends fight the Big Bag of the series the older one (even moreso if they're a mentor) is likely to croak, but not before they have about five minutes to give valuable, heartfelt advice. Nope - harpoon through the chest! - if you're gonna do it be a real man or woman about it.

Dustin said...

I mean to say "Big Bad" in that last comment.

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