Matters of Life and Death. Well, mostly death, really.

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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 StoryCold 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. 🙂

 

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22 comments to Matters of Life and Death. Well, mostly death, really.

  • D.B. thanks you for the shout-out. Killing that particular character was INCREDIBLY hard, because, as you say, I knew just how much blow-back it could bring. I actually think that J.K. Rowling did this very well in the HP series. Beginning in book 4 she kills a character near the end of each book, and each death is harder to deal with, more of a blow. It’s like she drew concentric circles around Harry, and stepped inside of a new circle to claim a character with each successive book. My Winds of the Forelands series was actually the place where I messed around with killing characters the most — I kill A LOT of people in those books, and claim key characters in just about every volume. Difficult, but also effective. At least I think so . . . Fun post. Thanks, John.

  • As far as poorly done deaths go, it’s hard to come up with a worse one than that of Tasha Yar in the season one “Skin of Evil” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Black goo zaps her, with no real build-up and no possibility of defending herself. And the follow-through didn’t occur until “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, the fifteenth episode of the third season, wherein her death is described as “meaningless”. This is especially true as it would be a simple matter (ha-ha) to recreate any dead crew member (or live one for that matter) from the information stored in the transporter’s data buffer — a deus ex machina elephant in the room that producer Rick Berman said they just chose to ignore for the sake of plot (although they did this in “Unnatural Selection” to bring Doctor Pulaski back).

    But I digress.

  • Fireheart1974

    I agree w/ you on Butcher. Cold Days definitely redeems Changes & Ghost Story.

    I’ve got two deaths that stand out over time:

    Flint Fireforge in Dragonlance’s Chronicles. Even though it was foreshadowed well, I still threw the book across the room. Even now when I reread the stories, that scene still makes me tear up. (This may also be because it was very likely the first book I read where a character died.)

    And with much love to David, it took me WEEKS to get past the first death in Children of Amarid. But it did catch my attention as a reader and make me read the rest of the book which is definitely a plus.

    I’m not in love w/ George RR Martin’s killings. Sometimes it comes across to me as “I’m bored with this character, let’s kill him/her.”

    Great post. I’m working on outlining a new series and now I’m wondering if characters should die? And if they do, how to make the deaths meaningful. Thanks!

    ~Fireheart

  • Wait, what….the dog dies in Ol’ Yeller????? 😉

    I had to kill two characters in Kestrel’s Dance, and it was terribly hard both times. One had to be done in so as to show how far the bad guy was willing to go, and the other died because Kestrel couldn’t move forward while the character still lived. I cried through both killings, but they had to be done for the sake of the story.

    And I think that’s the most important thing to keep in mind – everything your characters do should be in service to the story.

  • Speaking of dead, 3 of the 5 “related post” links are deceased.

    I kill off my secondary-MC way up in Book 7… I could see it coming for a long time, and it finally happened. Probably her own damn fault. 🙂

  • Don’t laugh but I cried when Heath from the House of Night series died. I don’t think I could even finished the series after that.

  • The death that still lingers for me is that of a character named Saltheart Foamfollower. He was a giant who protected the title character in the series called the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a popular fantasy series from back in the 80’s. Foamfollower died nobly, saving the main protagonist, but it affected me simply because I liked him so much. Thomas Covenant was a bit of a whiner and a reluctant hero to say the least, but this giant with a cool name just went about his business, doing whatever needed doing without complaint. I loved the character and that made his death infinitely more potent.

    Also, if we’re going to discuss character deaths, we have to mention Wash’s extremely unexpected death on the Firefly movie, Serenity. In the very informative and entertaining director’s commentary, Joss Whedon says Wash’s death was extremely intentional. He said he wanted to movie’s viewers to feel like no one was safe from death in the end, and the only way to accomplish that sufficiently was to kill one of them off. He did, and boy did it ever work as planned.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    OOh, since Edmund brought it up, does that mean I get to jump into my rant about how, no matter how deliberate Whedon’s choice was, it was still a bad one? If it were just the movie, then okay, it does what it needs to do and we’re done with it; Wash is the everyman character. But this is following a beloved (half-season) series, and the thing *I* loved most about those characters was that they were a family. In the *series* Wash is *not* just the everyman character. Joss Whedon chose to kill the character that embodied the sense of family, and in so doing he killed, for me, any hope that what I loved most survived. …and I will try to stop there…

    A character death that worked *very* well: Levitas in “His Majesty’s Dragon” – heart-wrenching, but in service to the plot, and *hugely* to the character development of all involved.

  • In my reality, there was only one Matrix movie, the fifth season of Babylon Five never happened, and Wash is still very much alive.

  • I’m still pissed about Wash dying. I think I would have been less upset if Mal had died, or River or her brother because it could have fit in their character’s arc. Wash’s death was just a WTF?! No fair! moment. Yes, war is hell and good people die for unfair, utterly random looking reasons all the time, but this is fiction not real life.

  • That’s okay, Misty, in my reality there have only been three Star Wars movies. 🙂

    One of the most shocking (and rudest) character deaths I’ve ever seen was the death of Henry Blake on MASH. The actors in the operating room had no idea what was going on, no one had seen that page of script. So the look on Radar’s face was real, not just an amazing acting job. I heard that Alan Alda almost quit the show in outrage over that decision. So there’s certainly something to be said for that being a character death that was not handled well.

  • quillet

    The first literary death that really hit me was in Where the Red Fern Grows (so still with the dog theme!). I was ten or eleven, and I cried my heart out — and I considered it the Best Book EVAR for a while.

    I’d say the deaths in the Harry Potter series really worked for me. They made me feel that no one was safe, and thus there were times during that last book when I was genuinely frightened for the characters. Great stuff.

    As for poorly done deaths…I’ll second the vote for Tasha Yar’s. I understand the writers’ desire was to give her a red-shirt death, i.e. random, thus making the universe seem more dangerous for the opening-credit characters. Unfortunately, the result seemed *too* random, and fell rather flat. Sure, it established that the puddle of goo was dangerous, but it didn’t affect the plot of the episode at all, nor of following episodes. Great intent, poor execution (gah, unintentional pun).

  • Razziecat

    I’ll tell you what ticked me off most about Tasha’s death: The fact that the series had created an interesting character with a lot of backstory, and never bothered to explore it. Maybe that was why it seemed meaningless: Because Tasha’s story never had a chance to unfold before it ended.

    In fiction the death that affected me most was the death of Rhys Thuryn in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series. I stopped reading and only went back to the book three days later. I’d also have to say that one really “good death” was, of course, the demise of Gollum! 😉

    In my own work, the first time I wrote a character’s death, I took a great deal of care with it. I wanted it to be sudden and unexpected, but also important to the story. It brings two other characters together, and is the catalyst that makes one of them find the courage to stop the villain. In the story I’m working on now, an important character dies in order to give the final boost to the spell the good guys need to stop the BBU and save the world. That took me hours (and at least one full pot of strong coffee!) to write, and I’m still not satisfied with it.

  • kwlee

    Hi there. First time poster, long time lurker… yadda yadda yadda.

    I liked this post, and I agree wholehearted with it. I think the first literary death that I read as a kid that I remember was Thorin at the end of the Hobbit. I always thought it was touching and poignant, even more so now that I’ve grown older. Now that I think about it, I’d have to say I really most of the Tolkien’s ‘Deaths’ are pretty good. Boromir, Thorin, Theoden. Another one that was memorable for me was Melanie’s death in Gone With the Wind.

    Not so good deaths? Deaths that were done for shock value. ‘Gotcha’ deaths. Deaths that happen, just because writers ‘can’. Wash… Chewbacca… Yar. Sure they can always argue that they’re trying to show that the world is dangerous, but its always seemed to me that in those cases it is more about the writer than the character… trying to be edgy, or showing that they’ve got the stones to do it.

  • wrybread

    I think Tasha’s death serves as a reminder that being “realistic” in stories isn’t always a good thing. A random death that comes out of nowhere, makes no sense, and cuts off a person’s story before it can unfold is tragically true to life. However, it’s a waste of good story and incredibly frustrating for the reader/viewer who has invested three seasons or 300 pages in a character. Unlike real life, where there’s often no one to truly blame for senseless tragedy, the reader/viewer absolutely does have someone to blame, and they will, and unless you can eventually satisfy the reader to understand why a character’s death was necessary for the story, you’re simply going to have a reader upset for no reason.

    That said, the death of Wash is one that some consider random and senseless that I feel made a lot of sense in context. Most importantly, as Whedon himself has said it established that all best were off; if one beloved character could die, then so could the other seven. The death established that the characters were going to have to truly earn any happy ending or victory they got, and that there was a very real danger of failure and death. Also, the decision to have Wash be the one to die made sense since as the pilot he would have been more or less just along for the ride once the ship was on the ground. His character really wasn’t missed, except as a catalyst and source of grief for the others, once the ship was on the ground. It was the right point in the story for that to happen. It tour my heart out, and eight years on I can still recall the tears and screams in the theatre when it happened, but if I could somehow change it, I wouldn’t.

  • You mentioned Old Yeller as a successful death, well, I’m going to claim that the end of Bridge to Terabithia was a Tasha Yar type death. If it had any follow-thorough it was a grown-up type of follow through where you were supposed to realize death is a part of life, sometimes things are unfair, and shit happens. This was not okay for me – at ten. The deaths that I adored – I would sob and sob, but I would be left with hope and purpose and not dread, were the ones in Brian Jacques’ books, where beloved characters would die heroically – or horribly, but there was always some purpose to it, and there was never a lack of follow-through.
    I’ve found that Joss does tend to gun for the emotional centers of the story. I had to stop watching Buffy in season 5 because after killing Joyce, he killed Tara and sent Giles back to England. Every character that had a strong moral compass, brought a sense of family, and could have stabilized things, was gone. This sent the plot spinning right where he wanted it, where everyone went off the rails, but it made me not really care if they made it back, because everything positive that had made their struggle worth it, was permanently erased.

  • Oh no–I’ve spent decades recovering from the trauma of Old Yeller’s death, and now you’ve brought it all back 🙂

  • quillet

    OMG Razzie, Rhys Thuryn’s death broke my heart! 🙁 It wasn’t the first for me, but oh my, it took me a long time to get over it.

  • Nathan Elberg

    I thought Tasha Yar’s death was a brilliant piece of literature. Death doesn’t come according to pre-existing paradigms. It can come out of the blue, hit someone you want to know, and be meaningless. Just ask any of the victims of the contemporary black goo, i.e. the mass shooters in Colorado, Connecticut. Those deaths didn’t fit the expected narratives, but they were deaths, nonetheless. So the reader feels invested in the killed-off characters? What does that mean? Only boring characters should be allowed to die?
    Tasha’s return from the dead was also brilliantly handled.
    Both physics and mysticism will tell you that death doesn’t have to remove a character from the story.

  • Razziecat

    Nathan, you make a good point as far as death not always removing a character from a story. I will agree that if a boring character dies, the reader probably doesn’t care that much. The problem for me with Tasha’s death was that I wasn’t really that invested in the character; I hadn’t had time to be. They hadn’t allowed it to develop much, and to me, her death threw the whole narrative off the rails. In life, death can seem meaningless; there isn’t always a purpose to it, or a lesson to be learned. But we don’t read (or view) fiction to experience a play-by-play of the real world; we instinctively seek deeper meanings in stories, a way to make sense of the tragedys and triumphs of real life.

    TL, DNR: Tasha’s death didn’t teach us anything we didn’t know, and so for many of us it fell flat. YMMV, of course 😉

  • ajp88

    The Red Wedding is the pinnacle in my eyes. The level of foreshadowing, foreboding, moody elements throughout the scenes that build into it, what’s going on outside of the castle with Arya and The Hound. It’s incredible.

  • John — Excellent post. And wonderful comments, Y’all. I was late to the party because the hubby took me paddling last week. But — Yeller was horrible. Just horribly horrible. SO yes. Death should matter.