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Death as a balancing act

Something that came up in my writer's group recently was the question all fiction writers face: when and if to kill off a character. Death is a part of life. And really, if there is no risk in a situation, there is no tension either. Unless you're writing a romance, any character should be fair game to get killed off, right?

Maybe not. When you write a story, you're asking the reader to invest time and a certain level of emotional involvement in that story, and that means making them care what happens to the characters. Killing a character for a good reason is one thing, but killing them off just to show that you're willing to do it can leave your reader feeling betrayed, almost like they've invested time in a relationship and then found out it could never have worked out.

So what constitutes a good reason? I heard a writer at the Pikes Peak Writer's Conference (and I wish I could remember her name!) articulate the best rule I have ever heard: you kill off a character to change the motivation of another character. That works for me. But I would also say that if possible, it should not be as simple as their death making the protagonist mad for revenge or anything like that. Certainly you don't want a female character to get horribly slaughtered just to motivate the male hero to a blood rage (a.k.a., "Women in refrigerators syndrome"). I always thought killing off the First Lady in Independence Day was really just a milder variant of shoving her body into a refrigerator. She wasn't seen as necessary to the story (she didn't fly a jet) and her death, conveniently staged in her husband's presence, motivated him even further to kill those nasty aliens.

I think it works better when one character's sudden, abrupt absence actually changes the other character's circumstances. Maybe now they have to support themselves, rule the country, face their fears, go on a quest, whatever.

Of course, in spec fic, an added complication is that magic/advanced technology may make it possible to bring the dead back to life. I don't mean zombies (I am pretty much sick of zombies already, and they are just now posed to be the new vampires. Ugh!). I mean that spec fic writers have to be careful they don't make death meaningless. That happened on STAR TREK TOS a little bit and TNG even more so. The damn transporter got too powerful! If it basically copied a person's molecules and could spew out a copy on demand, no character ever needed to stay dead.

So, have you ever read a book and gotten really angry at the author for killing a character? Or have you seen an instances of too-powerful-transporter syndrome? Alternatively, have you ever ready a story and thought (as was said at my writer's group recently), "Really, the author should have just killed off x?"

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( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 17th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
I think there are a lot of reasons an author kills a character, but I often find it's usually as part of some plot device, which is the same as saying to motivate another character. Not that it's wrong, but I do think it's the result of more plot-driven work that typically ends up being trite and cliched. If your events are happening only to advance a plot, then I think the story can suffer from it.

I tend to take the more organic approach. Characters die in stories for the same reasons that people do in real life. And it doesn't always have to make perfect sense either. Take for instance the final battle in the Harry Potter series. Rowling created a veritable blood bath, killing off mainstay characters left and right, with no real rime or reason to it other than to illustrate that in battle, people--even the ones you've invested your time into caring about over seven books-- are vulnerable and can and will die. That is, I think, a far more effective way to evoke emotion and make your story unforgettable to your reader than to simply say "Character B must die to motivate Character A."

When writers treat their characters like living, breathing beings, they may find that those beings are subject to all sorts of things life throws at them. Love, pain, and yes even tragic, senseless death.
Nov. 17th, 2009 03:57 pm (UTC)
Certainly realism has its place. War stories where no one dies are very unrealistic, which tends to make the story lose any power it gains from the action. But I don't agree that death in fiction should be random, even though it often is in life. One character's death can be the price another character had to pay to achieve something, but if it's just a bolt from the sky, it puts the reader through loss with nothing gained.
Nov. 20th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)

Interesting. I've often been surprised when one of my characters dies in the course of a story, or suffers some debilitating injury or illness that's going to alter how I frame the rest of the story.

I have in the past considered introducing random stupidly accidental death into my fiction - what's the odds for any given person will die in an accident? Roll the dice, see if it happens. But I'm not sure I'm a good enough writer yet to make the story survive my POV character getting hit by a bus.
Nov. 20th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC)
I would still ask, what would the story gain by that, and what would the reader gain? In a mystery, where the object is to give the reader a puzzle to solve, killing off a character is sometimes a way to give clues. Even if the reader had grown fond of that character, they at least gain some insight from his/her death. If the story is intended to make the reader think about the uncertainty of life, then throwing a character under a bus might do that. I have come to admit to myself that one reason I write is because it allows me to play God. I create the world, the people, and the situations. I decide who lives and who dies. The one thing I don't get to decide is who READS the story, so I have to woo the reader by giving them something, and one thing I'm wiling to give them is the assurance that in my worlds, people don't die for absolutely no reason. They might not like my reasons, but at least I have them.

Nov. 20th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)

What would the story gain? That remains to be seen, I guess. But it might be interesting to see how the other characters react. How do they deal with their grief while they scramble to fill in the hole left by the unexpected death of the other character? Perhaps their shock and lostness can be better shown when the author is feeling the same way?

I think it would be an interesting experiment (for me - I'm not saying people should do this as a general rule). I don't know what it would achieve, but after all, that's the point of experiments.
Nov. 20th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
Nov. 17th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
This is a great post, but I'm danged if I can think of a good answer :)
Nov. 17th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
You are almost the only person I know who uses the word "danged" regularly. And it's funny because I think of that as a very American word, and you are (or at least were) British.
Nov. 17th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
It's my way of blending in with the natives :)
Nov. 17th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
I've killed off characters for many, many reasons and in many, many ways. I have to say that, imo, when it comes down to it, even the random-reality deaths serve as character motivation. Some deaths are felt more personally than others, but all have impact of some kind on the motivation of the characters, or the world in which the characters live.

Killing off a character simply to make your readers cry is kind of a cheap shot, but as always, it all depends upon how skillfully you do it that makes all the difference in the world.
Nov. 17th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
Well, of course, you can break any rule if you do it well enough. -) As you say, true for pretty much anything.

It reminds me of a tad of opening of the series CASTLE where the writer says that there are two kinds of people who sit around and think of ways to kill people-- murderers and writers.

Nov. 17th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
Ha! I love that opening! After seeing Castle for the first time, I wrote it down and pinned it up on the corkboard next to my writing computer.
Nov. 17th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
If I was going to pin anything up on my corkboard, it would be a photo of Nathan Frillon in the bulletproof vest that says "WRITER" instead of "POLICE"
Nov. 17th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
Hahahahhaa! Yeah, that's pretty funny too. Though if I were going to pin up a pic of Nathan Fillion, he wouldn't be wearing the vest...or pretty much anything else. ;)
Nov. 17th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
But how would you get any work done?
Nov. 17th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Ah, the woman is wise. I suppose I'd have to put him behind a drape and open it up only after certain milestones have been crossed.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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