Last week I read the second book in a series I’d become very excited about, only to be horribly disappointed by the end. My favorite character died, suddenly and somewhat ignominiously, considering what the character had been able to accomplish up to that point. Logically, I could understand why the author decided to kill him off, but emotionally it just didn’t work for me. Another book is coming out in a few months, but right now, I couldn’t care any less about reading it, because with the loss of that character, there’s nothing in that world for me. It’s not necessarily the author’s fault, either. The story he was telling required that character to be gone in order that the protagonist continue on his own journey. It was the way the character died that left me unsatisfied and cold.
If there’s one truth to the human condition, it’s that everyone, whether sooner or later, will pass from this life. If we get our vaccinations, eat healthy food and look both ways before crossing the street, we have a reasonably good chance of living into our eighties or later. But eventually we will end. The same is true of characters in books, although their precautions are overshadowed by the needs of the plot. Somewhere in the story, someone is going to die at the author’s hand.
Let’s talk about who to kill. It’s important to choose the doomed character with a reasonable amount of forethought. Most books have a stable of unnamed characters running around in the background, and you always have the simple option of choosing one of those folks to meet his or her death. My own novel, Mad Kestrel, has an actual cast of about 75 people, although only a tiny percentage of them have names or dialogue. The majority are pirates on the ship and townsfolk on the islands, all doing their jobs and not getting much in the way of Kestrel, McAvery and everyone else. I could easily choose to kill one or more of those people, but I usually won’t. Who’d miss them? Their deaths would have no measurable impact on the main characters. The only reason a member of the background cast should die would be to inform the main characters that something dreadful is going on. Finding a woman with her throat slit in a dark alley is a decent clue, but after the initial shock wears off, the main characters won’t be grieving over that person. Think about how you feel when you hear a news broadcast about someone in a neighboring town who was murdered. You’re sorry for a while, but in the end, it has only the most minor effect on your own life. In your novel, if you’re hoping to drive the story with an emotionally upsetting death, killing someone who doesn’t even have a name can come off looking like you were loathe to be brave and kill someone who matters more to the story.
Yeah, you heard me…be brave. Kill someone who matters. It may not please every reader (as evidenced by what I said two paragraphs back) but it’s right. You want to cause an emotional reaction in your reader. Kill a character the reader has come to know and you’ll achieve that rush of grief. I love a book that makes me cry, and it’s almost always because the author killed off someone I loved. You’ll know you’re succeeding if writing the scene breaks your heart. There’s a scene in Kestrel’s Dance in which a character many of my readers like quite a lot is murdered in front of everyone. As I wrote it, I kept having to stop for more tissue. It was painful to write, and the suffering I felt communicated into Kestrel’s own reactions on the page. I’m very proud of the scene (and I hope you’ll all get to cry over it yourselves before long.) The dead man’s murder is a catalyst for the entire final third of the book, and while I hated to lose the character, I knew he had to go. It was the right time in the story. George R R Martin is a master of knowing who to kill when. No one is safe in his world. Not to give anything away, but one of the strongest and most noble characters in A Game of Thrones is executed, even though the reader knows it’s wrong, I remember reading that chapter, whispering “No, no” to myself the closer the event came, and still not wanting to believe it when the man died. That was years ago, and it’s still as fresh to me today.
Of course, no character matters as much as the protagonist. Generally one doesn’t kill off the main character before the end of the book, if at all. For one thing, it pretty much ends the series. Not always, as the urban fantasy readers are probably well aware by now thanks to a very gifted writer of a very famous series (don’t give it away in case there’s anyone who hasn’t gotten that far along!) For another, editors don’t tend to love the idea. Then again, write it beautifully and you might change the editor’s mind. If you’re writing the last book of a series, or a stand-alone novel, you do have the option of killing your protagonist. It’s a courageous choice, and done properly, can leave your reader weeping and clutching the book to her chest with one hand while she wipes her eyes with the tissue in the other hand.
Next time, we’ll talk about the how of it all. For now, feel free to discuss deaths in fiction that worked or didn’t. I know that sets us up for the danger of spoilers, folks, so be prepared for that if you decide to participate in the comments.