Off With Their Heads?

Here’s a simple question for you – should your characters die?

It’s a complicated question and one authors seem to disagree on a lot. J.K. Rowling made sure characters died as something of a regular occurrence in the Harry Potter books because death was a regular part of life as we know it. The counterpoint to that, of course, is that magic isn’t part of normal life but that’s in Rowling’s books so why not omit something that normally is a part of life while we’re at it?

Writers have bandied this question about for quite a while and we shouldn’t pretend to there’s a perfect answer since each work has a unique writer, audience and purpose in mind. What a writer deliberating over the fate of a specific character needs to do is consider all the reason to kill off a character and not to kill off a character (unless you’re one of those people who uses the “I was writing and found this person dead!” technique, in which case this whole discussion is probably pretty academic to you.) Yes, this is kind of cold-blooded but it’s also a part of the art and you’ll never be good at it unless you master this kind of decision making.

To Kill

Reasons a character may need to go under the bus include the following:

  • To provide finality to a situation. Sometimes you just want people to understand the story is over and killing an important character can create that understanding clearly. To a lesser extent character death can also signal going from one phase of a story to another as it provides a clear and distinct point of transition.
  • To distinctly show the consequences of an action or decision. Be it the execution of a noble freedom fighter for resisting an evil government or a drug dealer bleeding out in a warehouse after a fierce gun battle with rivals, death is the ultimate price for the actions a character takes.
  • To provide clear, understandable motivation for a character. These days this use for character death is pretty well-worn territory and probably not the best use under most circumstances. How many cliched characters are driven by the death of a parent, sibling or significant other? But the fact is, in reality people do draw powerful motivation from the deaths of loved ones.
  • Verisimilitude. Rowling’s argument holds a lot of water, especially in stories that feature a great deal of conflict or poor general living conditions. People die under some circumstances on a regular basis and telling those stories well may involve characters – even well loved ones – dying.

There are probably other good reasons for a character to die off in a story but these are among the most consistent and the strongest.

Or Not To Kill 

On the other hand, while most of the reasons not to kill of a character can be written around that doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Plus the work of setting up a character for their death scene can demand more than your story can support. Many authors have told of characters who were always meant to die but never found the right time for their exit… a testament to how difficult a character can be to kill off. So why not kill a character?

  • It can break immersion. People come to entertainment expecting it to provoke an emotion. But if your audience notices you manipulating them to get to that emotional payoff they’ll be yanked right out of the story and that’s bad. Many character deaths feel more like direct emotional manipulation than true moments of loss or catharsis and then the audience notices you messing with them and they drop you – hard.
  • It takes away future stories with the dead character. Of course that’s a big part of what death is, an end to all opportunity. But you’re a storyteller not a character so be careful not to dead-end yourself when a character winds up dead. While dead characters can still appear in stories through various narrative devices the fact is killing a character will still close many doors to you – even if you think you’ve told all the stories you want to using a particular character there’s always more you could do. You might not want to close that door.
  • It can cause problems for other characters. Sometimes you sit down to write a scene and realize that it’s going to do things to your characters that will totally sidetrack your story. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes it’s more hassle than it’s worth. If you don’t want to sidetrack your story it’s time to ask yourself if you want your other characters to remain consistent to the character’s you’ve already created or change them drastically. There’s nothing wrong with a traumatic even changing characters in a story but if you do choose to do that you’d better commit or you’ll wind up with inconsistent and unlikable characters.
  • The audience may not like it. While I do feel that authors shouldn’t let their audience’s reaction to something prevent them from doing it I also recognize that entertainment is a two-way street. I don’t think you can make a solid argument for either authorial intent or audience interpretation reigning supreme in storytelling – they really need to meet somewhere in the middle. While an author does have an obligation to make his work as comprehensible to his audience as possible he doesn’t have an obligation to make them happy. On the other hand, authors do need audience investment to prosper, so this is a thin line to walk.

This Is The Question

A moment of real talk, if we may. Writing isn’t easy. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone who’s tried to write anything meaningful. That reality applies to any decision a writer makes but in fiction but, just like in real life, death in fiction is a very permanent thing. (Less permanent than in real life, let’s be honest, but still quite permanent most of the time.) It’s fair to ask if you really need to kill a character to tell your story. It’s just as fair to conclude that you do. But if you do keep in mind that working out that decision in your story is going to put your writing under an even higher level of scrutiny and be prepared for it.

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