When To Kill a Character

In early 2016, I was ask to participate alongside other small press editors as a panelist in the day long event “Get Published! 2016” at the Herrick District Library in Holland, Michigan, hosted by MiFiWriters. The programming mainly focused on the mechanics of publication, so that’s what I’d prepped for. But there were a couple of questions that arose from the interests of the audience that I hadn’t prepped for and, consequently, really got me thinking.

One such was about killing off characters. Should you kill off characters or should you avoid it?

We live in a post-Game-of-Thrones world.

The immediate response from the panelists showed me one thing: We live in a post-GoT world.

We welcome Game of Thrones (GoT) being Game of Thrones, but anything else that’s as savagely death-happy we’re . . . well, we’re over it. Which is funny when you consider that in Dexter (the TV show not the books) we had at least one murder per episode carried out by the protagonist and frequently another murder occurring under other circumstances. What Dexter didn’t have was the continual, perpetual killing off of primary characters, characters we’d grown to care about . . . although many did eventually get the ax, it wasn’t constant. That’s pure GoT.

One panelist even said that he’d been “all murdered out” by GoT. So many interesting characters had been killed off on GoT that he’d lost the ability to bond with or care about any new character he met in that world. A perfectly normal coping reaction. If you’re constantly being tragically abandoned, sooner or later you develop a defense mechanism and assume it’s better to not get invested in anyone, because if you do, they’re only going to leave you and hurt you in the process. Even if they’re just a character in a book.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the sort of stories where everyone lives no matter what.

Stories where, as ridiculous and implausible as it might be for a person to live through Situation X, the characters miraculously do. Further, they tend to survive these scrapes without a scratch on them, certainly not without the months or years of medical treatment normally associated with living through a physically brutal event. So much so that by the next episode they don’t even have a limp or a sling or a residual pain that leads them to a pill addiction. Nope. Everybody lives. Everybody’s healthy. No need for “scraped and bruised” makeup in the next episode even though it’s supposed to just happen a few days later.

Dude. Let me just say, I’ve had bruises from running into the coffee table that have lasted longer than most lived-through-a-car-accident-on-a-TV-show bruises.

If the above examples represent the two ends of the spectrum, where should a writer try to fit his or her story? 

The simplest answer I can give is: Probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

Of course, the nuanced answer is . . . well, nuanced.

It depends on your plot, world building, and character development. Don’t kill off characters willy-nilly just because you can, or because you don’t know what else to do with an extraneous character.

True story: I had a friend in high school who, whenever we were asked to write a creative story in English class, would kill off every single character by the end of the story. She wasn’t a terribly macabre person — actually, she was quite bubbly and cheerful — she just didn’t know how to end stories, and admitted as much. If everyone died, then the story had to be over, so everyone died. Honestly, next to her, GRRM looks like a spring pansy.

If a character dies in a story, it needs to serve the story. Or — what I probably said at the conference this past weekend — the death needs to serve the plot. 

Then — boom! — the following infographic appeared in one of my social media feeds a day or so after the conference. (Or maybe it wasn’t serendipity, maybe it came to my attention because I was looking for it, consciously or subconsciously. Or is that in and of itself a precondition of serendipity? But I digress.)

Nifty infographic from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com on what's a good or bad reason for killing off a character.
Nifty infographic from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com on what’s a good or bad reason for killing off a character. Credit: K.M. Weiland.

The infographic comes from the K.M. Weiland article “How to Successfully Kill a Character,” and opens with the utterly provcative statement, “I love killing people.”

On the panel we discussed how a character’s death can re-frame a narrative. [Hunger Games spoilers, this paragraph only.] How nearly reaching the end of Hunger Games only to have Prim die — when avoiding Prim’s death was more or less the inciting incident of the trilogy — helps solidify the ultimate narrative outcome as not one of triumph or accomplishment but one of futility and the cyclical nature of human greed and suffering, power and rebellion.

Proving you’ve got the chops to mete out death.

In a podcast, Carrie Vaughn has described her killing off of a character in Kitty and the Midnight Hour as an act of proving it wasn’t another happy-go-lucky world where everybody lived. Indeed, it was more serious than that, more deadly, more dangerous. Like some sort of literary hazing ritual, killing off a character can be a moment when a writer decides they want to prove themselves as someone not to be taken lightly.

But tread cautiously. Carrie Vaughn was still using the character’s death in service of the plot. She could have reworked the plot to not need that death. It would have been a different book if everybody lived. And what she’s talking about is making that choice to not be the book where everybody lives.

Of course, I can’t invoke the phrase “everybody lives” without thinking of Doctor Who. “Everybody lives, Rose. This one time, everybody lives!” cries out the Ninth Doctor at the end of “The Doctor Dances,” one of the episodes you might know better as the Are You My Mummy? storyline. And at that point in the show, all characters surviving was truly remarkable. Prior to Steven Moffat taking over as showrunner with the arrival of the Eleventh Doctor, everybody died on a regular basis. Except in episodes written by Moffat. And there’s a great article on “What Steven Moffat Doesn’t Understand About Grief and Why It’s Killing Doctor Who” that lays this all out. But during the tenure of Doctors Nine and Ten, characters seem to constantly be dying around the Doctor. Again and again they risked their lives — and frequently lost them — because they believed in the Doctor and what he was doing. Often because the Doctor was willing to risk his life. He was willing to die. He intended to sacrifice himself again and again and it was only because someone stepped into his place as sacrifice or shield that the Doctor didn’t die. What was remarkable was just how many people died in his stead. And it wasn’t without impact. Doctors Nine and Ten were war-scarred. They didn’t want more death, yet it hounded their heels. It’s compelling narrative. Doctors Eleven and Twelve are understandably different. You see the differences clearly in the 50th Anniversary Episode where the Tenth Doctor is The Man Who Can’t Forget and the Eleventh Doctor is The Man Who Doesn’t Want to Remember.

I’m digressing again. Bringing up Doctor Who will do that to me.

Will it upset fans too much to kill a character?

Great question. Hard to predict the answer. Although I caution writers against caring too much about the answer.

Certainly, if you’re a reader and your favorite not-the-protagonist character dies, you’re going to be distressed. Denial, anger, depression — you’re going to experience grief even if it’s “just a character,” because we all know how deeply something can affect us even if “it’s just a book.” I still remember Master Harper Robinton’s death — not the book in which he died, that story is rather foggy in my memory, but I remember the grief I felt as a reader, because it absolutely tore me apart. It was the first, and perhaps deepest, such impact I’ve felt from a character’s passing in fiction. I wasn’t mad at Anne McCaffery for writing it. Most certainly not. Death is part of life, and both are part of storytelling.

But that may be more rational than some of the fan-anger — fanger? — I’ve heard tell of.

Readers are more directly connected with each other than ever before. And sometimes more directly connected with authors than ever before. And admittedly, I was reading All the Weyrs of Pern before I was engaged in the internet. That direct connection can be a good thing . . . and it can be a very very bad thing for writers, because it means that the reader’s instant, gut reaction can be blasted across the world in a smattering of outraged electrons. Worse, because there is a connection, the reader thinks the author should care about — and somehow fix — their outrage. But if the author has crafted a story in such a way where the death serves the story/plot, then whether or not it serves the reader’s emotional bias goes way way down the list of appropriate concerns for a writer;s day. Somewhere beneath wondering how long you can wait between oil changes if you’re trying to eek out a little extra over the suggested millage but don’t actually want to damage your car. Of course, writers are often dialed in to emotion and empathy, which makes them want to prioritize human opinion over vehicle maintenance even if it’s bad for the writer’s mental health and bad for their writing output and ultimately bad for their vehicle maintenance and all the other errands they should be doing but now aren’t because they’re second guessing themselves and worrying about fan reaction to something they no longer have control over.

My personal recommendation is to write the best story possible, work with your agent, editor and publisher, but don’t engage in — or even read — fan discussion of your work. Because by that point, it’s not the story you wrote, it’s the story they read. And those two things will never be exactly the same.

But then — to approach from a different angle — there’s my favorite saying of my father’s: “If you’re pissing someone off, you must be doing something right.”

Seriously. It should go on our family coat of arms. Not that we have one. But if we did.

If you kill off a character and no one — no one — is upset by it, then they probably weren’t a very well-crafted character to begin with.

I am a leaf on the wind.

If we can bring film into this discussion: Serenity. Wash’s death hit me just as hard but differently because I was in no way prepared for it. Joss Whedon is amazing at sucker punching you with the death of beloved characters but doing it in such a way that you completely forgive him.

It’s a skill we should all aspire to.

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