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Killing Characters

Snoopy

Normally, I don’t repeat announcements here if I’ve mentioned them on Twitter or Facebook.  This one deserves an exception.  Seanan McGuire was kind enough to e-mail me last night, and — after the prerequisite taunting — informs me that The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is #1 on the Locus Bestseller list!  It’s Snoopy-dance time!

#

So lately, I’ve been thinking about killing characters. Not the redshirts who die to remind us how dangerous the story is.  Not the villains who meet their just deserts in the final chapter.  I’m talking the central heroes.

I’ve read and watched many a story that killed off the good guys.  I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly.  Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings is marvelous.  He dies protecting the hobbits and earning redemption.  Well done, Tolkien.

Contrast this to Harry Potter.  I felt some of the deaths in the series worked, but after a while it felt like a publicity stunt.  “Book six comes out soon. Let’s start the betting pool on who she’s going to kill off this time!”  “Whoops, we’ve ‘accidentally’ leaked rumors that Snufflepuff the Privy Elf is going to off Snape!”

Joss Whedon is another one who’s known for killing off characters.  Sometimes, he does it to great effect.  Other times, it feels like he offs a character not because the story necessarily required it, but to show the audience that he’s willing to do it.  (The second death in Serenity struck me that way.)

So … when do you kill off a beloved character?  How do you do it well? The easy answer is that you do what’s right for the story, but what does that mean?

Among other things, it meant I couldn’t kill Jig off in the goblin series.  (I’m assuming that’s not much of a spoiler.)  The goblin books were light fantasy, on the fun, feel-good side.  I cheated a few times, and I killed off secondary characters, but to kill Jig would have been wrong for the kind of story I was trying to tell.

But what about more serious stories?  I’ve been struggling with this for a few weeks now, and here are some of the considerations I’ve come up with.

  • Is it realistic for all of the heroes to survive this adventure?  (I.e., would not killing someone destroy the suspension of disbelief?)
  • Choices and actions in a story have consequences.  Is death the appropriate consequence for the character’s actions in this story?
  • Am I wimping out if I don’t kill someone?  (Am I letting them all live because I like them too much to do what’s necessary?)
  • Will this death make the story better?

That last one is hard.  Does better mean more emotionally powerful?  More memorable?  More engaging?  More marketable (losing readers who want the fluffier stories, but gaining readers who appreciate the gritty)?

And when is it effective to cheat?  Theoretically speaking, imagine an author who killed off a character at the end of a trilogy, but deliberately planted hints that the character might not truly be dead after all.  A better ending, or a cowardly cheat?

I don’t have answers for this stuff, which is why I wanted to open it up for discussion.  What deaths in books and films have worked for you, and why?  What didn’t work?  When, as an author or a reader, does it feel right?

Obviously, there may be some spoilers in the comments.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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Comments

( 193 comments — Leave a comment )
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mtlawson
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
Congrats on making #1, Jim!

Now, if you could talk to Borders about getting more copies of your book in...
mela_lyn
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
Borders is failing on getting tons of good authors' books in... they don't have a single copy of Di's books in Medina. Now, I know they had some, but they sold out at least 2 months ago.
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bondo_ba
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
The master, of course, is George R. R. Martin. He seems to be hell-bent on killing off EVERYONE, and the Song of Ice and Fire is better for it.

The first couple of books were truly shocking.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC)
I am completely ashamed that I still haven't read Martin yet.

I know, I know. And I do intend to remedy this...
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nick_kaufmann
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
I don't have answers for you, but I'm never at a loss for opinions. ;-)

I feel like Joss Whedon has become kill-happy. At first, when the original school principal on Buffy died, I thought it was very cool that Whedon was showing us anything can happen in this world. But then it was like he got carried away. It got to the point where he couldn't mark a single sweeps month or season finale without killing off a character. It became rote and expected. After a while, that not only made me numb, it made Whedon's formula too visible, too predictable, to the point where even the end of Dr. Horrible came as no surprise to me.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
That's exactly it. It's no longer a part of the story; it's part of the writer's formula. I wonder sometimes if that's why there were two deaths in Serenity. I suspect many people were expecting the first, so you need to add a second to get that shock.
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mela_lyn
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
I hate the 'rule' "Kill your sweethearts" that some authors seem to live by. Sometimes they kill a series when they do that.

Rachel Vincent killed off one of my favorite characters in her Prey series but it was done well. I even teared up.

But there are a ton of series where charaters I love don't die and it doesn't feel like the author's cheating. I can't think of anyone overly significant in the Kate Daniel (Ilona Andrews) series dying. One in Mery Thompson (Patricia Briggs), but again, well done.

Killing a character I love doesn't make me stop reading unless it did feel pointless. Or like they were using that situation for a poor reason. But if it makes sense in the story, if it's a sacrifice or a motivation... I can understand that. I can deal with that. I can move forward with the character as they grow and deal with that.

I was heartbroken when the second character in Serenity died but at the same time, I don't think it hurt the movie that much. But it did suck big time.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
I don't know that death #2 hurt the movie, but did it help the movie? Did it add something to the story?

I think of all the character deaths, it's the pointless ones that most infuriate me. (Tasha Yar from Star Trek: TNG -- what the hell was that all about? I know the actress wanted out, but you can do better than that, people!)
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kyrielle
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
I prefer not to have the main character(s) die, and if they do die, I want it to be a death with meaning - a hero's death. Just offing them at the end as natural consequences, but without the death adding anything, leaves me bitter. Secondary characters can work, but the people whose heads I have been in, I don't want to see die. Real life has enough meaningless and/or inevitable deaths; it doesn't need more.

Having multiple VPC's and offing one at the end of a book is a good way to get me to stop reading a series because I don't want to watch another VPC die.

One exception is a very well-done villain perspective, where I want them to lose but have enjoyed them. (A poorly-done villain perspective will cause me to stop reading the book before I get to the end, anyway.)

The other exception is very rare, and is when you have a "hero" VPC whom I hate. This is also a good guarantee I won't read the next book, and will wonder why I read this one (if in fact I do finish it; I may not), but I won't be upset if this person gets killed in the course of it. (Getting rid of them won't get rid of the bad taste in my mouth.) There's a de Lint book that does this to me and sets me ranting, but sadly, he didn't kill the heroine in question, just my suspension of disbelief and my empathy for the character. (Hate to say it, but your second goblin book does it to me too - though I've no idea what happens there, as I didn't persist beyond the early pages. My husband loved it, though....)
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Agreed. I think this is one of the areas where I don't like my fiction to be 100% realistic.

In reality, sometimes death is random and meaningless and stupid. I understand that, even if I hate it, but I don't like it happening in fiction.

I assume you mean Veka in the second goblin book? :-) She really seems to have inspired a love/hate reaction among readers, and you're definitely not alone. If it helps, the third book is back to 90% Jig, with some short flashbacks in Tymalous Shadowstar's PoV. No Veka at all.
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asakiyume
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
Fascinating question! I fall back on childhood memories, and the author whom I remember doing it well was Lloyd Alexander in the Prydain series. Over the course of the five books, he had developed some very, very special secondary characters, and some of them did die, and it was heartbreaking, but it felt absolutely right for the story. I assumed (without ever articulating it, because at the time I was reading them, it didn't occur to me to articulate such things) that the main male and female character would survive to the end and probably marry, but I was unsure about ALL the other characters. It seemed possible that anyone else might die. It made the books very tense-making and very real.

I used to talk about fantasy worlds with my friends, and Prydain was the one that I felt most scared to visit (we always talked as if we could actually get to these places) because, like our own world, real danger, hard work, misery, unfairness, sickness--all those things seemed possible. In Narnia, I felt somehow I'd always be safe--but not in Prydain.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC)
That makes a lot of sense. Death creates that sense of danger and risk. There are some stories that feel safe, where you pretty much assume the characters will reach a relatively happy ending one way or another. It's not that one kind of story is better than the other, but killing off a character can definitely change the tension and that awareness of the danger.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
First up, congratulations on the sales' status.
I took some flack for the death rate in Living With Ghosts. There are a lot of deaths in the book, I know. But there's a reason for this. To me, writing doesn't work when all the pain is soothed and all the bad things elided, when the dead return to administer reassuring cuddles to the living, and only the unimportant characters die, because the leads are special. I don't believe in bloodless revolutions or wars where the heroes are invulnerable. It makes me feel patronised.
Which isn't to say that I like to kill characters. I hate it and I fight myself about doing it. But sometimes the plot and the feel and the overall shape demands it -- the reality of the world in which I'm writing, if you will. I hate it when characters I love die in other people's books, or when they betray each other. But I accept the necessity and when done well -- Boromir! -- it adds to my appreciation of the book and its writer. I don't read to be patted and pandered to, I read to explore and experience. Death happens in the real world and I can't believe in imaginary worlds where only the bad and the unimportant can die.
Kari
akiko
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
The second death in Serenity pissed me off. Sure, Whedon wanted to "up the ante," as he said in interviews, but you know what? Killing a character just because you can really sucks.

Many of the deaths in LOTR were well-done and poignant: Tolkien knew what he was doing, and none of them died Just Because. In battles in the period he was describing, lots of people died, commanders and grunts alike. (See also: WW1.)

Whereas the almost-footnote versions of character deaths worked in LOTR (Faithful servant yet master's bane, Lightfoot's foal, Swift Snowmane; offhand comments that Hama the gate guard or the Rangers died), in Harry Potter 7, it didn't. I can't explain why. Maybe because up until then, the books were light-hearted, relatively, and most people survived. The death in book 5 was pointless and stupid, other than as Harry's angst fodder. Book 6's was necessary as part of the Heroic Story. Most of Book 7? Not so much. Yes, similar to LOTR, they died in the fighting, but it's ALL off-screen. That's part of the limitations of strict Harry-POV. (I have to say, I'd rather read "Neville Longbottom and the Fight for Hogwarts" than "Harry Potter is a Whiny Git Again.")

On writers who haven't killed main characters (yet): CJ Cherryh's atevi books don't suffer the loss of any of the three principals (Bren, Jago, and Banichi), but several side characters do die in battles. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any of her books where the principles die, but the secondary character body count is pretty high. (I'm re-reading The Faded Sun right now. Forgot how much I loved that.)

I strongly dislike reading books wherein principle characters die, just as you start to like them. Or where they suffer and suffer and they're still miserable at the end (or dead), without even a glimmer of hope. Very much not my cup of tea.

Or, hell, anime. Take any entry in the Gundam franchise: they off main characters left and right, but it always makes sense. I was surprised in a Macross show when they killed a major character at the end: Macross is usually lighter fare, about pop music saving people (it's a silly concept, but it works.)

(As a writer, I tend to go the direction of books I like to read. My protagonist survives, but one of his subordinates doesn't. You can't have epic space battles where everybody lives, because that's beyond suspension of disbelief. But I haven't finished this book yet, let alone tried to sell it anywhere. We'll see how it ends up.)
zornhau
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:57 pm (UTC)
Survivor Fallacy
If you read hair-raising 1st hand accounts of war, e.g. Junger's "Storm fo Steel", you'll also find them unrealistic because the narrator survives to tell the tale.

So, you could take the atttiude that fiction does something similar; there are lots of potential characters in a story world, the author is merely picking a protagonist who survives until the end.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Survivor Fallacy
I do see what you're saying, and for a particular character in a particular adventure, I have no problem accepting that this is told from the PoV of the one who survived. But as you move into multiple books/adventures with multiple characters, the odds start to feel a bit more strained that *everyone* would survive all of these different dangers and encounters, if that makes sense?
cat_mcdougall
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:57 pm (UTC)
Matthew Reilly has killed off a few characters in his books. They were shocking, horrible deaths that added depth, character development and made me kinda wanna punch him. In a good way.

George RR Martin is notorious for this.

As for killing my own people off, I need it to be realistic. I need some reason behind it. I need it to make sense in the context of the story, and to move the plot along.

In my one, I kill off a lot of people that serve only as cannon fodder. I'm trying to cut it down, because it's unnecessary violence.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
"...and made me kinda wanna punch him. In a good way."

I think I would be quite pleased to have someone react to my own books like this :-)

I am horribly ashamed to admit that I still haven't read Martin. I really, really need to remedy this.
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saladinahmed
Jan. 7th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
Interesting question. 'Make your characters suffer' seems to go along with 'show, don't tell' and a lot of other hackneyed-but-often-true 'rules' that are part of the list of What's S'pozed to Happen in a Genre Novel. Death of a beloved character seems the ultimate extension of this rule. Especially in recent years, with 'gritty' fantasy arguably eclipsing 'high' fantasy in popularity. So much so that I found myself almost killing off an important character in the novel I'm currently working on just because I'm supposed to -- "see, look? realism! grittiness!"

I'm still conflicted. The novel would probably be more 'realistic' if SOMEONE the reader cared about died, given all the fighting-of-monsters that goes on. But then the question is: are readers going to come to this book for *realism*? Or do they want to get to know a fresh fantasy world's fantastic characters and enjoy their company?

While I love much of the current crop of gritty fantasy, I do feel like certain authors kill of characters just to show they Aren't Scurred To Do It. I don't want to be that kind of writer. But I also don't want to write a fantasy "A-Team" novel, where thousands of bullets fly but no one good ever dies. I guess writers have to think about what would bug their readers more: heroes who somewhat preposterously emerge from every battle unscathed, or writers who deal out death capriciously just to screw with readers' sense of security.

FWIW, The most emotionally resonant death in fantasy lit for me was probably Sturm Brightblade in the Dragonlance books.* The series was not littered with bodies, and his death had real meaning, so I delivered a genuine, satisfying shock. More recently, Eddard Stark's death in George Martin's Game of Thrones really hit home.

*Yes, I know it's not cool for 'smart' readers to like these, but I don't care. The first three books were remarkably well-written.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
"...are readers going to come to this book for *realism*? Or do they want to get to know a fresh fantasy world's fantastic characters and enjoy their company?"

I think that's a very important question, and I don't believe there's a right answer. I have no problem with the lighter, safer tone of my goblin books (to shamelessly use myself as an example), because that's what I wanted to do with 'em. Whereas the princess books get a little darker, so I have to ask the question again. I think it comes down to what kind of book you want to be writing.

Pbbt to what's cool. If a scene worked, it worked. I've had scenes in Star Trek books move me to tears before. (Damn you, Peter David!)

Also, "fantasy A-team novel" is a wonderful descriptor, and I wish I'd through of it when writing this post :-)
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mtlawson
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, and about the killing off a character part, I don't know whether it's a copout or not to not kill off characters. After all, Boromir was a minor character in LotR; Gandalf's death and rebirth would have been the only qualifier for major character death there. Now a certain character's death in Mistborn (trying to avoid spoilers in case someone hasn't read it) was critical to the story and a central character to boot.

Sure, Harry Potter had the "character deaths" in it, but not many were major characters. I'm also thinking of the character death in The Malloreon, where it may have been part of the story but it really felt ham handed.

If a character death is advances the plot and/or is central to the story, I don't mind it. When a death comes out of left field for no apparent good reason, I have to wonder. There was a book I read back in the 80's that illustrated poor character death well and left me wondering what gives, but man I can't remember the title of the book for the life of me.

I'm not big on the sort of pathos and character torture that is found in the Thomas Covenant books, nor am I a fan of the Quentin Tarantino style of killing characters; you can be gritty and realistic without leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. That said, if the story demands a character die you have to roll with it.
saladinahmed
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
"a certain character's death in Mistborn (trying to avoid spoilers in case someone hasn't read it) was critical to the story and a central character to boot."

Ah, yes -- that was a good, purposeful one. So integral to the plot in a way that totally surprised but satisfied me!
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seanan_mcguire
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
I tend to kill characters when I don't have another narrative choice. I walked away from a project once because someone I thought was going to live died in a way that I completely failed to expect. It was very powerful, according to my beta readers (and later, my editors), but it was very, very hard on me, and it was six months before I could recover from my "mourning" enough to get back to work.

I find it interesting when people go "oh, X means Y is safe." Like one critique of Rosemary and Rue said "you know the protagonist lives, it's first person." I can offer a dozen counter-examples for this statement, but the perception remains, and I have to wonder if this person takes first person POV deaths as a shock and amazement, or cheating.
beccastareyes
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
I remember when a friend loaned me Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein, which is a counter-example, depending on the edition*. Basically, Heinlein had written two endings because his publisher had objected to killing off a first-person protagonist and teenaged girl in a YA book. Either way, the book is a journal by the protagonist, with her brother occasionally leaving his own snarky comments -- several times, we get an interlude with him jumping in to correct something, or just gloat he broke his sister's diary code, and she'd never even find his comments, because he's smarter than her. The epilogue is delivered by the brother either way.

* Her edition was published with the main character living, but comatose. My newer copy (that I bought later) had both endings, with the 'death' one set in the proper place, and the old one set off.
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stormsdotter
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
I'm going to shift the topic slightly to comic books. I really, really hate how the Big Two refuse to kill characters, and then bring back most of the folks they kill off.

Then there's ElfQuest. Characters die in ElfQuest. One-Eye's death, his lifemate coping with it, and Leetah trying to bring him back made the story feel very real. So, having a character die in a large fight is fine, but the aftermath of the death can make the story much more "real."
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
It's almost a joke with comics, with death being nothing but a brief vacation and an excuse for the character to revamp his/her costume.
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beccastareyes
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
In Turn Coat by Jim Butcher... which is new enough and late enough in the Dresden Files series that I feel like it should have spoiler warnings...

The plot of the book is that Harry has to save Morgan, a wizard who has been a thorn in his side off and on for the entire series. Morgan had been wrongfully accused of being a spy, and was under a death sentence, so Harry both had to protect him from the other wizards AND clear his name. Preferably without implicating himself, since he already spent years under 'probation' for something he did as a young man. (Ironically with Morgan as a strong advocate for just killing him.) <spoilers>Harry manages to successfully clear Morgan's name, but Morgan is killed in the attempt to capture the real spy, right after we spent an entire book getting insight into Morgan's character.</spoilers> The book also contains several other Big Events, both good and bad, and is a decent example of 'characters getting what they need, but not what they want'. Butcher has also said Turn Coat marks the rough midpoint of the series and that things are supposed to get darker (and have, for a while). Even the titling pattern has changed for the next book.

It worked well for me on the first read-through.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
I've only read the first Dresden book, but I can see working really well. That feels like an example of a character who has come to the end of their story arc, if that makes sense. Especially if done where there's a clear purpose, and something is accomplished by the death ... it feels like it could fall into the redemption category, in a way.
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cedunkley
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
I guess one question that needs to be answered is: "What does this character's death accomplish?"

In my current WIP I kill off a character in the first chapter. While the reader has not had time to understand the importance of this character over the course of the book they will learn. His death has a profound impact upon one of the main protagonists and influences many of the decisions this protag makes. By the end the reader should realize this death was the first of many emotional blows that puts this protagonist upon a destructive path that slowly transforms him into a main antagonist.

As I'm writing this book I'm grappling with this issue of who should not survive the conflict. Since it does include land and sea battles death will be quite present.

It is a difficult balancing act. You stretch believability if no one dies but risk alienating the reader if too many important people die. Tolkien did it very well with Boromir's death. And I agree with asakiyume that the Prydain books used this to their advantage.

And there really isn't anything you can do if a reader becomes attached to a secondary character. Which characters you kill off will impact each reader differently than it will impact the writer.

For me, as an aspiring writer it all goes back to the question I posted above: "What does this character's death accomplish?"
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
"You stretch believability if no one dies but risk alienating the reader if too many important people die."

A very good point. The tone of the series, the foreshadowing and the expectations ... going from light and fluffy into a sudden bloodbath is going to knock people right out. (Harry Potter #4 did that to me, actually.)

One of the things I both love and hate about writing is that there's rarely a single right or easy answer :-P
barbarienne
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
First off--Congrats on the #1! Seriously, it was only a matter of time. I'm glad to see that time has come. (Now I'm waiting for DAW to put you into hardcover, so I can do the text design on one of your books...)


As to killing off characters...

I think the second death in Serenity is a perfect example of the right time to do it, actually. The scenes that follow have everyone's life at great risk, and by killing [major character], we were reminded that oh crap, Whedon doesn't necessarily spare his major characters.

One of the things that destroys tension for me is if I think the writer/creator is too in love with her characters to kill one, but a scene's tension is constructed around "will they get out of this alive?"

One alternative to "will they get out of this alive" is "will they get out of this without major damage?" where "damage" can be emotional, psychological, or physical. For instance, a scene where two friends get out alive but one learns the other betrayed him in the past can be HUGE in terms of changing the characters and plot-dynamic. I do enjoy that sort of thing.

The other common alternative is not "will they get out of this" but "how will they get out of this?" That's the dynamic all over, frex, Raiders of the Lost Ark. We know Indy and Marion are not going to be killed or damaged, and we're okay with that. We're entertained by watching Indy ride a giant statue through a wall to break them out of the chamber full of snakes.

I agree with you that the level of grit has to match the rest of the books. Consistency is important to readers. A series can evolve over time, but that does run the risk of losing some readers, and radical changes are kind of pointless. (If a writer wants to do a different sort of book, why not create a different series?)

I don't like the "dead...NOT!" situation most of the time. If a writer foreshadows it, then okay, it's clear that they knew what they were planning all along, and didn't just bring back Jean Grey Favorite Character because they were sorry to have killed her off.

Deaths in films that worked for me... Well, I already said Serenity. Thelma and Louise works for me, too, because the momentum builds to make that ending inevitable, and the alternatives would be either dystopian (jail) or unrealistic (escape). Thematically, death is inevitable.

Deaths which don't work for me are things like the end of The Departed. On balance with the rest of the film (which is wonderful), that's a "rocks fall, everyone dies" ending. Although it is a reasonable/realistic ending, it's not (for me) the least bit satisfying. It feels very much as if the writer had painted himself into a corner and didn't know what else to do.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I may gently float the hardcover idea when I pitch the next series. Don't know if my overall sales justify it or not, and it's obviously their call, but we'll see :-)

You've got a good point about the effect of death #2. I remember wondering who, if anyone, was going to make it through. So in that respect it was very effective. It felt manipulative as hell--I could feel Joss tugging the strings--but it still worked.

Thanks for this.

::Goes back to mulling over this and other comments::
defectivewookie
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
Character death in any story seems to come down to how it is handled. 300 works as a story, and _everyone_ dies. There is an impact felt by their passing, a mark left on the world that would only be carved that deep by them making a total sacrifice.

I feel like the opposite is true when death is not a fixed state. If the character comes back to life, or can somehow still effect the goings-on in the lives of other characters (Harry Potter fantastically does BOTH), I feel like there was no point in having the character die in the first place.

As a reader I like to feel that the author is being honest with me. If characters are in jeapardy, that's fine, but the world should reflect that reality. Some sense of foreshadowing would be nice, or, failing that, a sense of closure. The Serenity example you used has neither, and that seems to be why it sticks in our collective craw.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
"As a reader I like to feel that the author is being honest with me."

Yes. That. The story has to be true to itself, which is nice and vague, but sounds pretty, and darn it I know what I mean even if I have trouble explaining it.

Darn it people, you were supposed to give me a nice easy answer on how and when to kill off characters, not all of this intelligent, deep, thoughtful stuff!
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rarelylynne
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
For me it's a matter of whether a character's death makes sense in the story you're telling.

I know several people who threw Martin's first book across the room and won't finish reading the series because he killed off a fave POV character, despite the fact that that character's death had been foreshadowed, explained, and was integral to the development of ANOTHER character. (This is why Disney heroes/heroines have almost always lost a parent--no reason to do anything but stay home under their protection otherwise).

Bad example of a character death is the end of Xena: Warrior Princess. STUPIDEST. Ending. EVER. She had a brilliant, heroic death, and then CAME BACK AS A GHOST TO HANG OUT WITH HER BFF/GF just 'cause. My theory is that the writers couldn't bring themselves to have her really be gone, despite the fact that it was clearly the end of Xena's redemptive character arc and the beginning of Gabby's Hero(ine)'s Journey in a post-Xena world.

I'm also someone that thinks that Buffy should have ended at the end of Season 5, (but keep Once More With Feeling as a codan because I love it). The rest of seasons 6 and 7 were just taking up airtime.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
I wasn't aware that was how Xena ended, but it definitely feels like it falls into the cheat category.

I disagree with you slightly on Disney. I definitely see where the parent death helps get the character out into the world, but it also feels like they repeat it because writers get too lazy to come up with an alternative. I think a hero having to deal with familial conflict has the potential to make things much more interesting...
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rachel_swirsky
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
I feel like this question is really close to what the difference is between something being emotionally evocative and something being sentimental. Earned emotion is one thing, and is fabulous. Emotional short-hand that is done because it's a quick & easy way to get a reaction from your audience, like torturing a puppy, is obnoxious. Put in the work. Think things out. Be subtle and complex and fascinating. (This is not meant as a directive toward any specific you, but a directive toward emotional evocation in general.)

Unfortunately, I think Whedon falls strongly on the sentimental side. Complex, subtle and fascinating fall aside when he can simply manipulate without putting in the writing work.

sixteenbynine
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
I've done this very rarely, if at all, because the type of story I am drawn to tell almost never demands it. Of the novels I've written and released, only one ends with the death of the protagonist, but it's the kind of death where he realizes his death might well spare a great many other people a good deal of needless suffering -- and he's also been through and back from death a few times already, so it's not something he doesn't know in some form.

It's the sort of thing, then, that I feel is integral to the story you're telling. The constraints of the story are arbitrary - you choose them - so if they bracket the death of a character that's usually because his death is as important to the story as his existence was. It's not something to do just because you're bored of the guy.

I also have to confess that I have never written more than one volume of anything, which may be a big part of my POV on this matter. That right there could easily be an essay in itself: why I don't want to take more than one volume to tell any one story I have in mind. There were people begging me for sequels to Summerworld, and I told them flat-out that I wasn't going to do it because the story I wanted to tell had been told, and anything outside of that was going to be redundant. (And, ironically enough, one of the major characters in that story dies as well -- but it's because they're trying to buy other people time, and that person senses they are the only one who can pull off the gambit they have in mind.)

I think the "sequel or not?" question has a more than passing connection to the "kill or not?" question.
michaeldthomas
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
First of all, w00t!!!

Now on to the killing...

As you know, Jim, I'm as bloodthirsty as they come. I think some death is necessary in most SF/F/H novels. Here are my personal death exceptions:

1- Killing your protagonist. It breaks the contract with the reader. Throw that rule out if you have multiple protagonists (see GRRM).

2- The character's death serves no narrative purpose other than demonstrating that death can be arbitrary (see Serenity). It's a big F-U to the reader. Unless, of course, the entire work is designed to explore that theme. If you do it, you had better spend some time exploring the reactions of the other characters.

I'm not a big fan of cheating with A Get Out of Death Free Card. Dead is dead. If an author does it, they better have woven that cheat throughout the work.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks!

Re: #1, are there exceptions? I.e., if the death is foreshadowed, and the story is about how the character faces/flees that fate?
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celestineangel
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
This is one of those questions where I can't really make up my mind as I can see both sides.

Personally, while I may be sad or angry at a character's death, I'll never be angry with the author for doing it no matter their reason or non-reason. In reading, I definitely hold to the mindset that death happens, especially in dangerous situations, and it's unrealistic to expect everyone to survive, including main characters. However, in writing, I can understand wanting every death to mean something.

To me, it comes down to a larger question that affects more than character death: how much realism is too much?

Sometimes things happen in real life that just don't translate well to media meant for entertainment, especially books. I thought about this situation not too long ago when I reviewed a book, and the author didn't agree with some of my observations, stating that this is how it usually happens in real life, and she did it for purposes of realism. My thought was "but for a book, it just didn't entertain me for it to happen that way." In that instance, realism was the wrong choice.

Can a total adherance to realism be wrong for character death? Again, I personally don't think so when I read books. I haven't yet run across this situation for my writing, so I couldn't say what I feel as a writer yet. Obviously, there are people who strongly believe that yes, it can be. But I do think that's the real question here.
jimhines
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
I don't think fiction can be 100% true to life. Dialogue is a simple example. Our actual speech is littered with topic derailment, stutters, and the ubiquitous "like." Writing dialogue like that will usually throw me right out of a story (unless done extremely well and in moderation).

Likewise with death. In real life, death is often random and pointless. I understand that, but I don't want it happening that way in my fiction.

None of which gives me the nice, easy answer I was hoping for :-)
shanrina
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on making it to the top of the list!

I think one of the most important aspects of character death is the tone of the story. That's why Dr Horrible made me lose whatever faith I had left in Joss Whedon--I know his rep, there was foreshadowing, and I didn't even like the character who died, but the shift in tone was just so unpleasantly jarring that I came away from it feeling incredibly unsatisfied as a viewer. But then I'm probably not in his target audience anyway, since I hated Firefly and never bothered with Serenity or Dollhouse. So maybe my opinion doesn't matter when it comes to his work. In general, though, if you're setting me up for a fluffy story, then don't change your mind in the middle. Ditto if you start out gritty and suddenly switch to fluffy.

In my own stories, I try to limit character deaths because a little really can go a long way. I can have dark-themed, gritty stories without killing someone every few chapters, or even without killing anyone at all. I don't keep characters alive because I can't handle killing them, though. It's more that even in my grittier stories character death isn't always the best way to advance the plot or solidify the theme.

One character death that really stood out as a great one for me was the one at the end of Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker. It wasn't exactly foreshadowed (IMO, at least) but it made a lot of sense and while I had some issues with other parts of the book I thought it really wrapped up that particular character's story thread perfectly.
snapes_angel
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
I wrote something that I occasionally manage to get back to, to begin again. I created a character specifically as a red-shirt. He's not only managed to survive the original and subsequent re-draftings, but also, lately, I've thought seriously about making him sort of a main character when I manage to return to rewriting it.

There are some characters that, even with the worst intentions, manage to survive.

Go figure.
snapes_angel
Jan. 7th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
And grats!
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