Nah, this won’t be a morbid post. It won’t even be another navel-gazing ramble about how little I’m getting done, because I came back from MidSouthCon recharged and ready to write.
Okay, so I might have only gotten about a thousand words done, but it’s better than the rest of the month. Baby steps, people, baby steps.
Anyway, today I want to talk about killing. Specifically, killing characters and the level of thought and care that has to be taken with it. It’s obvious that you can’t just randomly kill a main character, because unless you’re Jim Butcher, when you kill your protagonist, the story (and series) is over. And even if you are Butcher, you’d better have a damn good reason to kill said character and a damn clever way to bring him back to life.
And yes, Jim, I’ve forgiven you for Changes and Ghost Story. Cold Days is totally worth it.
Moving right along . . . it’s important to take care of your relationship with your readers. After all, they’re the ones allowing you to keep selling books. And part of this relationship is not doing things carelessly, like killing characters they love. Now I’m not saying don’t kill people. Heaven only knows how high the body count is through all the stuff I’ve written, and we’re not even going to get into the value of property damage. What I’m saying is don’t kill people carelessly.
Death in fiction is as constant as death in life. We learn this at an early age, probably through something like Old Yeller. I remember the first time I read that book, the outrage I felt, the pain at the death of that dog (and I’m not even a dog person!), and the hope and sense of rightness at the end when there were puppies to carry on Yeller’s legacy. That’s the way to kill a character. With intent, with purpose, and with follow-through. If you’ve got those three things, you can kill anyone you like and readers will go with you. Miss one, and you’ll have people throwing their books across the room, wishing they were throwing it at your head.
Intent – You have to mean it. A character’s death can’t be accidental, no matter what the manner of death. You as the writer have to mean it. A good character death can come out of nowhere in the narrative or be foreshadowed, but you as the writer don’t get to be surprised by it. Even if you’re not a heavy outliner, when the time comes to kill off a character, it should be a reaction of “Oh yeah, that had to happen here for this and this and this reason.” And the same should be obvious for your reader. I have a friend who just killed off a main character in one of his series, and he thought long and hard about the reaction from fans, the impact on the story, the impact on future stories, the impact on other characters, all of it. That’s the level of intent I’m talking about. Get our buddy D. B. Jackson talking about the character he killed near the end of Thieftaker, and he’ll give you a whole earful on how much he thought through that death. He knew what fans’ reactions would be, and carefully weighed whether or not it was critical to the story. That’s what good writers do – they’ll kill anyone, but they only do it with intent.
Purpose – The death can’t be a throwaway, it has to mean something. Now of course I’m not talking about the third spear-carrier from the left in the fight scene when two thousand other spear carriers die. I’m talking about a real character, one that you’ve spent some time developing. Their death must be like any other plot point – it has to serve a purpose. It must either move the plot along, reveal something about the characters, or reveal something about the world. This keeps your contract with the reader intact. They’ve spent their time learning about the character and investing time and emotion in the character, if you’re going to kill them off, it better mean something. Old Yeller didn’t just have to die because he had rabies, he had to die at Travis’ hands to show that character’s final steps on his transition to manhood. Travis had to make the impossible decision to kill his friend for the greater good. Everything in the book leads up to that defining moment of character, and no matter how distraught I was when it happened, looking back on it the book couldn’t have happened any other way. So if you’re going to kill a character – mean it. Make it count.
Follow-through – now I’m not going to go back to Butcher, but he did write an entire novel about the follow-through to a character’s death. That’s follow-through! Keeping my Old Yeller theme going, the scene at the end where Travis starts to fall in love with Yeller’s puppy is awesome. That’s all we need, a little bit of denouement to close out the book and really let us understand why it mattered that the dog died. You can’t just kill a character, bury them by the side of the road with their sword, and never mention them again. It has to touch the other characters consistently and repeatedly, or it doesn’t matter enough.
So those are three things character deaths need to make them really effective. Now it’s your turn – who kills characters well? Who does it poorly? Give me some of your favorite and least favorite examples of killing off a character in fiction. And obviously I’m not feeling terribly limited to genre today. 🙂