Killing off a character

Hey folks,

First time here,

I've been thinking about this since I read an onion article making fun of an author for being too much of a wuss to kill his characters.

How do you know when it's time for a character to die? I'm really attached to mine, but I am considering killing one of them, if only to increase suspense in the story.

Thanks for your time.

If you're making creative decisions on anything besides "How does effective satire work?" based on things you read in The Onion, you're probably about to make a mistake, in my opinion.

When it serves the story. Many great works never kill anyone. It either is part of the story, or it's not.

As they say "Kill your darlings." If it's right to kill off a character, don't be shy. Punk the bastard. Peg him right in the back of the head or whatever you need to in order to give your story the right weight and momentum.

As to when, I know it's time for them to die when (for protagonists) they have worked their way through their baggage and will die happy, plus have nothing else to contribute to the story but a tombstone. Enlightened, over-power god characters don't make for fun reading or writing. Or (for antagonists) I kill 'em when they have done all their damage and it's time to get what they deserve.

The best character death I ever saw in a story was about I character I LOVED. Loved that gal..seriously...great character. She didn't die doing anything heroic or life-changing or even life saving. she didn't die in any great tragedy or disaster. She fell. Simple stupid accident. And it was the most memorable death I've ever read. If you are going to kill your characters, make sure it works for the story...and don't be too heavy handed with the pathos.

George R.R. Martin is a good example of how to kill characters off, and how not to.

When he does it best, it's a suckerpunch that you will remember for years. You loved that character, it subverted all your expectations, it made the story come alive. Anyone could die!

When he does it worst, he'd been treating an unlikeable character like you should care for half a book, you still hated them, and he made a big deal out of their death for no reason you could see. If the author kills a character but never succeeds in making you care about them first, it becomes a weird allocation of space. Showing the death of characters irrelevant to the story like they're someone you grew up with jars. Strangers, to be blunt, die all the time. There's only so much emotional energy to go around.

Thanks for all your thoughts everybody.

And E.D. Linquist. I could have sworn the quote about murdering your darlings was about the words themselves, not the characters.

Maybe I read it wrong.

You're right, it is about removing your words, no matter how much you like them, if it doesn't fit the story.

And despite the fact that the discussion is basically over, I thought I'd add my own perspective. For me, killing characters off is all about the tone and themes of the story. If I were wanting to create a feeling of randomness and danger, I might kill off characters and pay no attention to whether that character's personal issues were dealt with. The important thing would be that people are convinced that death could strike anywhere for any reason.

If the focus of the story were on following characters through a terrible experience, and seeing how they change as a result, I might not kill off anybody even if the story were set during a war. If I did kill someone off, it would be to make all the other characters respond to that. Alternately, I might do it at a thematically important moment where the character's death will drive home a point.

My general mode of operations is that "dead means dead" (no resurrections), so if I'm going to do it, I want it to mean something.

One of the biggest ways to make a death mean something, to me, is to be quick about it. Death, especially violent death, should be quick. One moment they are here, then BOOM, the person is gone. no long lingering death scene, no page and a half to get used to the idea, quick, brutal, shocking, and done. Disorient the reader, make the death hit them viscerally.

Good call Hollins! Short and sweet is the way to go.

As for what Jim said I'm a staunch believer in the "dead means dead" policy. ... except when I'm not :-P

If you can make a character's return believable and only do it once, I think it's OK.

But that of course depends on the story.

Hmm, I just realized something. I LOVE the, "faked your own death" plot. LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT. And I don't have a single story plotted that uses it...

"My general mode of operations is that "dead means dead" (no resurrections)"

I've been a fan of soap operas my whole life, where "death" is mostly used as a way to warn viewers that the character will return with a different actor (even if they DO end up waiting a decade before the character gets a chance to return).

I've absorbed some of that into my own writing, much to my delight. I've discovered that staying open to all possibilities helps keep things fun and playful for me.

So I tend to work with the idea that dead means dead...for now. If I want to bring the character back later, or if the plot would benefit from it, I'll go for it. I like to keep at least one character 'forever' dead, though, to keep readers guessing.

I agree with E. D. Lindquist -- some of the most touching deaths are not at all dramatic.

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins has a HUGE death count, but the death that affected me most happened offscreen and was never actually confirmed. It was just mentioend in passing that he was almost certainly death. Even months avfter reading the book I get more upset about that than by the probably hundreds of characters who died onscreen over the course of the trilogy.

I haven't killed anyone in my webserial yet, but in my NaNo novel I killed quite a few people. Probably half died of a) typhus, or b) stupid accidents. One got shot in the face. Another got stabbed in the gut. One died under the "water cure". Of course, I write in medieval/fantasy worlds, and it was so easy to die in undignified, random and completely pointless ways back then.

I love the "faked own death" plot too, hahaha.

I have a semi-related question: how tightly do you plot? Do you use all the characters you introduce for something important? Do you believe in the Chekov's Gun principle?

I basically throw all the elements I want, need or think are cool together at the beginning and then juggle like the wind and see what comes out. Very little 'I need this detail in book three so I'll introduce it in book one via plot subthread A.'

I do a mix of throwing all the elements together and seeing what happens as well as long term planning.

Basically, I put together the interesting stuff, but I've also got a long term general plan that I'm constantly revising in my head about what happens to what character and how they change. Also, what happens in the general plot.

So while I may not know when a particular important event happens, I am able to hint at certain things long before they happen. That being said, there are a lot of things that are there because they're there. Plus, sometimes I notice something that doesn't quite make sense (usually before readers do), and then explain it and use it to drive some part of the plot.

Thus, things tend to look better planned than they actually are.

Wysteria, I plot events that will happen, and sequence, but I often find that the actual writing changes the plot, as the characters say or do something, or I describe something, and suddenly the upcoming plot makes no sense. Sometimes I alter the story for the plot, and pray I don't have to alter if further. Sometimes, new plot.

And, I for one am a lover of Chekov's blank. That is, showing something in such a way that it seems unimportant at the TIME, but astute readers KNOW will be important. Showing it several times. And having it never be used. BWAHAHAHAHAH.

Stef, I killed off at the end of book #1, but she comes back - it's part of her character development, not me chickening out after killing the MC.

Other characters...haven't killed anyone major yet, and I do fear being the wuss that can't kill anyone, though it's more that I haven't found a reason to kill off anyone yet, and it's not something to take lightly. I have, er, "kill spots" lined up for a couple of characters, though whether or not I'll go ahead with it will depend on how that particular story goes. I also have a death scene written for a couple of characters - I know how they're going to die, but not when.

My main character has "died" twice already (he got better both times). I know that must sound like the crappiest crap of all Craptown, but it's all to a purpose (not that that precludes the possibility that it may indeed be crap). Ironically, another of my main characters is headed for a "for reals" demise soon; no "backsies". And I'm getting kind of nervous as that chapter creeps closer.

I plotted the entire series out. And that i'm planning to kill off at least two characters ... but I'm just not sure. It's a tough call.

I've been glancing at this post for a while, but hadn't yet thought of how to sum up my thoughts on character death. Since I work in dark fiction, a lot of characters get killed, usually the people you'd expect like bit character victims. But I have killed secondary and even main characters. If I've painted a character into a corner, and there really is no way out, then I have to let them go. We talk all the time in editing about being willing to killing our darlings, so I don't see much difference in the earlier stage with characters.

This does not mean it doesn't affect me, and I wrote a really long (utterly unpublishable) tragedy during the summer where the main character died at the end. I still can't think of the last line without going to pieces, and I still wish I could save him. But the story was a tragedy because he killed himself, and he didn't have to.

When I break down about it, I feel stupid. I tell hubby, "I'm silly for mourning a person who was never real." But hubby says, "They were real to you." And that's true, so I don't feel quite so weird for bawling about a dead character six months later.