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Killing Characters

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.



( 184 comments — Leave a comment )
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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...
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.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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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.
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...
(no subject) - georgmi - Jan. 7th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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.
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - manwe_iluvendil - Jan. 8th, 2010 05:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - manwe_iluvendil - Jan. 8th, 2010 05:54 am (UTC) - Expand
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.
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!)
(no subject) - mela_lyn - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
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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....)
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.
(no subject) - kyrielle - Jan. 7th, 2010 06:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - fatbaldguy60 - Jan. 7th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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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 :-)
(no subject) - melissajm - Jan. 8th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC) - Expand
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.
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(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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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.
(no subject) - archangelbeth - Jan. 7th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elspethdixon - Jan. 8th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
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.
(no subject) - akiko - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Jan. 7th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jim C. Hines


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