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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Writing Wednesday: Killing Off Characters

I can guarantee that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make me hate an author more than if he/she kills off my favourite character. However, sometimes you need the reader to hate you. Sometimes that poor protagonist you've been dragging through hell (literal or figurative -- your call) and pushing to the limit needs to be tipped over the edge into action. And what better way to do that than to brutally and heartlessly murder someone they love? That will motivate them to finally assassinate the evil dictator!

Killing off characters is something you can very easily do wrong. In either direction. Some of us (um...me) get so attached to our characters that they become our best friends and our babies all at once. Suddenly you can't possibly kill Bob because even though that would be great for the story, and losing the love of her life will definitely get Beth to shake her tail bone, get off her high horse and avenge Bob, which could either be the main story goal or could serve to get her stuck in some other sort of sticky situation, such as trapped in the dungeons under the castle. So you can see that the occasional bit of cruelty in your writing is useful as a plot-pusher, and you want the reader to feel something, don't you?

That said, so many authors take it to the other extreme. They kill everyone. They have no mercy. Bob needs to die, yes, so then why not kill of Beth's brother, Billy, while she's out trying to avenge Bob? Let's rack up the guilt! Let's have a massacre! Right?

Umm, no. Because you'll end up having to constantly replenish the cast with new characters, which is confusing both for the reader and for you. Confusion = bad. You may also end up killing someone you need later, and then you'll have to bring them back. Which works in a few rare cases if done well, but usually, I'd say it's a no-no. The reader can and will be able to tell when it's a cop-out and they will not be happy.

Racking up the guilt is something which works, obviously. Maybe you can kill Bob and Billy in one book, but then I wouldn't advise losing any more main characters. Killing characters the reader loves will ensure an emotional response, yes. Let's think Titanic -- a film I love to hate and hate to love. (Spoilers ahead.) Lots of people die. That's a given basically from the start, because who doesn't know the infamous story? It's when Jack dies that the twist comes. We care a lot about Jack. Some of us even love Jack. Jack is smart. Jack is selfless. Jack is gorgeous. In short, Jack is as perfect as a character can be without being too perfect. So that's why when Jack dies, it hits us right in the gut, like a freight train zooming at 500mph. It barrels, unseen, out of the tunnel and it physically hurts, it's so sad. I literally -- not figuratively, not practically, literally -- cried for an hour the first time I saw that movie. We all know Rose was the one who deserved to die the most out of the couple. Rose was a pretty annoying person before Jack came along. And yet Rose lived. Because of Jack; because Jack selflessly let her get on the raft-thing (even though Mythbusters proved there would have been enough room for both of them. Just saying.), even though he knew it meant he'd freeze to death in the water. That made us love Jack more, which made his death even worse.

Titanic is one of my saddest examples. I won't lie and tell you I wasn't furious, initially, even though the critical part of my brain was pointing out all the smart things about the story ("Make it count, meet me at the clock") and trying to calm the emotional part that just felt like it had nothing left to live for. Titanic only killed one main character, and look how much impact. Like cliffhangers, and setting, this is another instance where less is often more. Overdo your killing, Jigsaw-style, and you will either desensitize your reader or annoy he/she so much she vows never to buy another one of your books again, because it's just too much emotional trauma. Neither of those things is particularly desirable if you want to actually sell books and have readers that actually like you, as opposed to readers who want to meet you just so they can punch you. Tell me, are you writing a novel or a script for a slasher movie? I rest my case.

Another point is that, if you're writing something vaguely fantastical (sci-fi, paranormal, fantasy, you name it), you have the luxury of thinking of new and original alternatives to killing. (Mockingjay spoiler alert ahead.) Having Peeta hijacked was a very smart move by Suzanne Collins, because having him there but not himself made it even worse, both for the reader and Katniss. And of course, then she could have fun taking it either way: will Peeta stay nuts or will he recover? Read the rest of the book or you'll never know! And she made use of her own quotation "Hope. It's the only thing stronger than fear."

So pull a Lili St Crow/Suzanne Collins and do something worse than death to your main character's loved ones. Rack up the stakes without racking up the death count. That cool new brainwashing-meets-zombification thing you came up with is sure to stay with your reader much longer than a mere death. If your genre permits it, of course.

I am still of two minds about killing off characters, and how much is enough vs. how much is too much. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Till Friday, friends and readers.