Sunday, May 15, 2011

Killing Off Characters

Photo from Warner Bros. films

Every now and then, I have to kill someone.

I never like to do it, and I have in fact been known to try to save them, in my rewrites, from that necessary if untimely end. In one case I created a character specifically to kill him later on, to give my heroine the push she'd need to launch her into action, but as the book went on I grew so very fond of him that, when the moment came for him to die, I really suffered. Tried a hundred other ways to write that scene, to let him live, but in the end it wasn't any good. The story simply didn't work unless he died. But I still mourn him, and I know that there are readers out there now who don't forgive me for that scene, and never will.

I understand. For me, there's always been a difference between killing off a character I barely know, and killing someone I have come to care about.

To illustrate: For years now I've watched countless Star Trek redshirts meet their ends without it making me feel more than passing sympathy, if that.

But watching this scene did me in completely. (Still does, even now).

It think that it's the level of the loss. The way it changes things. Because a death should change things, in my view, at least in fiction—it should never go unnoticed.

If you know me, then you'll know my books will always have a happy ending. Nothing ruins my own enjoyment as a reader more than having everything end badly, with the central couple torn apart by death or war or circumstance (unless I can imagine their reunion for myself, and "end" the story where I feel it should have ended).

But because I rarely plan my books, I sometimes never know myself just who will be left standing at the end and who, in rewrites, I'll be trying to revive. I only know that those who die (except for villains, maybe) will not die for nothing. And I know that if their death upsets me, then I've done it right. If that makes sense.

Have you killed characters yourself? Or do you know a character whose death, in your opinion, was unnecessary?

(Don't forget to come back Thursday, when the less bloodthirsty Julie Cohen will be posting..)


  1. I just finished rewriting my latest novel, because an agent suggested that it needed more tension at the end. In the original, the MC was the only person in danger at the climax, and the novel's in first-person. This doesn't amp up the tension much, because we're pretty sure MC will survive.
    so, I threw a few of my secondary characters into the fire. and one of them had to die.
    In the last iteration, he just disappeared off the stage. but now I realize it makes more sense for him to die, especially after what he does to help the MC. there was much sadness. but I think it makes the novel better!
    Also, Fred didn't need to die. It could totally have been George. FRED IS THE BETTER TWIN, WHYYYY.

  2. Totally agree with Ellen, although don't think either twin should have died! Why not one of the older brothers if it had to be a Weasley? Twins belong together somehow. But I digress...

    Killing characters - yes, I had to kill a baby in my novel, which was heartbreaking. It needed to happen in order to distract the villain from what the heroine was doing (it was his child), but I felt terrible about it and sorry for the mother. Babies did often die in those days though, and I think people were more stoic about it then. Still, like you, I tried to think of ways of saving the little one, but it was no good.

  3. Because of the nature of the fiction I've been writing, most of my fictional deaths have occurred offstage, often before the action begins, but I've tried to deal with the after-effects of grief.

    My next paperback is actually about grief, and someone very important to the heroine and hero dies. It happens before the story begins, but quite a bit of it is shown in flashback. It was very, very difficult to write and I still cry when I read it. But death and grief are part of life, so even in happy books, we have to deal with it.

    The heroine also spends most of the book play-acting, pretending she's in 1814, and there's a moment near the end when she realises that all of these people they've been playing at being, are dead. In that case, I didn't have to kill anyone off, but hopefully it's still a poignant moment because you've been led to care about these characters.

    I don't think Fred Weasley had to die either. I love me some Weasley twins.

  4. Love this topic, Susanna, thank you!

  5. Great topic Susanna...and i have a habbit of killing off characters(runs and hides...I drag people through hell before they get to the happy ending). In life we all deal with loss so it's natural that characters have to too.

  6. I haven't killed anyone yet... well not in the book. Some people have died before the story started. Am worried I might have to do some in book killing...

  7. The book I'm working on is the first one in which I've killed off a non-villainous character. It's still in an incomplete first draft, and the scene where he dies leaves me a sobbing mess.

    But it balances the book, frees other characters to their happy endings, and provides the necessary change from carefree game to deadly hunt.

    I had to do it, but I kind of hate myself for it. And I think he - the sacrificial victim - is an absolutely magnificent person.

    GREAT blog, Susanna!

  8. I understand why you had to kill him, Susanna, but I really wish it didn't have to be that way. He was such a lovely young man. And it is a testament to your wonderful writing that I feel that way about him.

  9. Wow, thanks for all the comments! I've been deep in a book (writing, not reading) and just surfaced and realized I hadn't kept up with this..

    Ellen, yes, the unpredictability factor can certainly add to a story's tension. And I know Julie shares your opinion on the Weasleys :-)

    Christina, I think the day we don't feel bad about killing a good character is the day we should start worrying..

    Karen, lol, and thanks. But it's taken you a few years, hasn't it?

    Julie, grief is certainly a part of life, and becomes so even more as we get older, don't you find? Fiction is my way of making sense of it, I think. (And I knew you were going to say that about Fred Weasley :-)

    Liz, I'm like that, too -- my books will always have a happy ending, but that doesn't mean my characters won't have to walk through fire to get there.

    Brigid, prepare for crushing guilt, then :-) (Unless it's a villain you're killing. I always cheer privately when a villain gets killed..)

    Anna, I know exactly how you feel. I cried like a baby when I killed that one character, and moped for days afterwards. The only comfort, really, is in knowing that if we care that much about him (or her), it's a good bet the reader will, too, so the main character's motivation will ring true.

    Sofie, I know. I loved him too. And it was terrible having to write him and grow to really like him when I knew from the beginning he was going to be killed *sniffle*. Haven't done that since.