Monday, April 1, 2013

Killing off characters

As an amateur and novice writer, I have somehow become known for killing off characters.   Not just any characters, but characters important enough to have a name and a personality and dialog, and sometimes these are main characters.  Now, I’ve only written a very small handful of stories, but I will admit, I do seem to have a lot of casualties.  

The first time,  it just happened...  although, in the interests of full disclosure, it did happen to every main character except the bad guy. (Oops.)

In my next story, I was trying to figure out how to make a point, and getting rid of the formerly main characters accomplished that.   Not only did it make a point, but once everyone was dead, I could quit writing... "The End" was pretty obvious.

But the time after that, I actually tried my darnedest to NOT kill anyone off.. or at least not anyone significant .. and I thought I'd succeeded… but then, to my horror, I discovered  that one of the characters - a character who I thought was going to be fine -  died. 

There's actually a WikiHow on how to kill characters, which lists 11 steps.  Eleven Steps??  Oh my gosh, one more step, and it would be akin to Alcoholics Anonymous ... If you want to kill a character, follow Nike's advice, and Just Do It!  It's not that difficult, actually.  Let's see, I've used an injection of poison made from catnip and lavender and other spices, I've used lightning, magnetism, and tattoo ink, as well as vague, undescribed  methods.  And as I said, I haven't written many stories.

If you never kill off your characters, the book/movie/tv show becomes predictable.  No matter how intense, dangerous, scary things might get, your audience stifles a yawn and thinks.. 'hey, that's a main character.. somehow, they'll get out of this mess.'  And I think authors owe it to readers to be at least a little unpredictable.  After all, if stories are always predictable, why bother reading to the end?  (By the way, dream sequences where the character isn't really dead, don't count.  Having the 'deceased' wake up and rejoin the story might have been interesting the first time, but by now, it falls into the category of predictable.)  And there have indeed been some notable - and very surprising - deaths in fiction.  The first that comes to mind, is Colonel Henry Blake, in M*A*S*H.  If you think about it, once Henry died, you were never quite sure that a character - even a major (pun intended) character was going to pull through.  And then, of course, there was Professor Dumbledore, in the Harry Potter series.  I suspect I was not the only one who was convinced that somehow it just wasn't so.  Yet it was.

But still, people seem a bit uncomfortable with the ease with which I kill my characters.... it's not as if these are murder mysteries I'm writing, where you need the murder, in order to have the mysteries.  So I poked around online, and found an article entitled "How Not to Kill Your Characters."  Aha!!  someone with suggestions on ways to save my characters!  .. but alas, the post merely suggested that if you were going to kill your characters, you should do so in a unique and  interesting way.  Well I already know how to do that.  I changed my search to "how to not kill your characters", but found nothing.

What’s my point?   When it comes to killing characters, either a) it’s an amateur’s way of dealing with problems, or b) sometimes it just happens. Not all books were made to have sequels. Sometimes, you're just supposed to turn the last page, return the book to the library, and move on.

... and have another cup of tea.


  1. I'm sure there are famous novels where important characters get killed off - quite a few of the Russian ones, I think. George RR Martin is well known for killing off characters readers love. So you're in good company.

    And I love your concept that once they are all dead you know you've reached the end of the story!