When Characters Die

One of the crucial skills an author must develop is knowing which characters to kill off, when, and how. This is important. Fiction is not life, but it reminds us of it. Strongly. Or we wouldn’t spend our time on it. Fictional grief is not real grief, but it does remind us of the real thing, and if an author’s killing of a character isn’t justified (and I’m speaking in terms of story, not morality), we are offended. We are offended, because fictional death must do honor to the real thing, and the real grief that ensues when we lose someone.

In fiction, as in life, we have varying degrees of attachment. If a main character dies, it’s a big deal. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the term “shreddie.” Captain Kirk’s party is transported to planet surface, and there’s Spock, there’s Uhuru…oh, wait, there’s a new ensign or somebody I’ve never seen before. No sooner than we’ve noticed him, ZAP, something kills him, the defeating of which will consume the Enterprise’s efforts for the next hour. The previously unknown crew member is a shreddie. We have no connection to him whatsoever, but the plot required someone to die in the first scene, and we know they can’t kill off a regular cast member.

In murder mysteries, we have of necessity another sort of shreddie, the murder victim. More often than not, the victim is killed early on, and we have no opportunity to get attached. Sometimes, the author goes out of her way to make the character unlikable, or at least unappealing in some way. P.D. James does this with her victims sometimes. In any event, when we pick up a murder mystery, we know what we’re getting into, and we’re not the least surprised if the first character we meet is quickly dispatched.

In the same fashion, we expect characters to be killed in the course of novels about war, espionage, or adventure. These can be characters we like and have gotten to know. It is usually not the main viewpoint character. Usually. In heroic fantasy or heroic space opera, while there may be a sacrifice of one or two “good guys,” the main, number one good guy is expected to survive. But not always.

Sometimes, readers refuse to accept the death of a hero. Famously, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, readers revolted. The author was forced to bring Holmes miraculously back to life. Stephen King fictionalizes a similar situation inĀ Misery, in which fan Annie Wilkes imprisons and assaults novelist Paul Sheldon for killing off favorite character Misery Chastain, eventually forcing him to bring his character back to life.

The reader may not always win these battles, but the reader does have power.

If you do a web search on the subject, you can come up with some sites that ask the questions surrounding the killing of fictional characters. Some give answers as well, when it’s “right” and when it’s “wrong” to do away with a character. I’m not so certain it’s that easy. For every rule given, I can think of an exception.

Successful character-offing is more than rules, and more, even, than art. It is part of the greater conversation between author and reader that storytelling is. Storytelling is a conversation. The responsibility for the successful transmission of a tale is only half the writer’s job. The other half belongs to the reader. Most of the time, readers are happy for the author to direct the conversation, and to go along with the plot, but not always, and certainly not if they feel the author has violated what they feel to be the purpose and the spirit of the work. The character-killing readers resist most, I believe, is the killing of the hero of a series.

Harry Potter cannot die. Neither can Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Adam Dalgliesh, or Superman. They need to outlive everyone, including their authors. They are all supermen, able to hold back the forces of evil that surround us. They have been with us forever, surviving adventure after adventure to start over again in the next installment. They are magic. If they die, the magic dies. We lose hope.

In one wildly irrational corner of our brains, we need to believe that they are there, really there, just in case the wrongness in the world gets to be too much for us. We need to believe it is possible to outsmart death itself, just as they have.


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  1. #1 by seanjrankine on February 29, 2012 - 9:52 am

    Enjoyed this! Well written.

  2. #3 by onlyfragments on March 1, 2012 - 5:56 pm

    Dead on (no pun intended!). I just finished a series where the third book involved a lot of “and suddenly so-and-so was dead! isn’t that awful!” as a way for the author to show the horrors of war and that no one, be they a “main character” or not, is safe. Unfortunately, she spent so little time on the enormity of the death of those who had been important characters that I did indeed feel cheated, like she had decided they suddenly didn’t deserve more than half a paragraph about their untimely demise. Authors should never be afraid to kill off a character, but they better understand the enormity of the decision and treat it accordingly.

    • #4 by speculativemartha on March 2, 2012 - 8:57 am

      Yes. If the author sets it up properly, and if the death changes the other characters (which is the same as moving the plot), then it should be done.

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