Saturday, March 05, 2016

Should You Kill Off Your Characters? (And When)

Not long ago, I was ask to participate as a panelist in the day-long event "Get Published! 2016" at the Herrick District Library in Holland, Michigan. The event was put on by MiFiWriters and was the first such event they've hosted. I spoke as editor of a small press alongside the editors of MiFiWriters and Caffeinated Press -- all Michigan-based small presses. I'm hopeful it was of use to those attending -- I know I was tickled to talk to a near-full room -- and I'm certain it will only become a better and stronger event if MiFiWriters choose to run another one in 2017.

The programming mainly focused on the mechanics of publication, so that's what I'd prepped for. But there were a couple of questions that arose from the interests of the audience that I hadn't prepped for and, consequently, really got me thinking.

One such was about killing off characters. Should you kill off characters or should you avoid it?

We live in a post-Game-of-Thrones world.

The immediate response from the panelists showed me one thing: We live in a post-GoT world.

We welcome Game of Thrones (GoT) being Game of Thrones, but anything else that's as savagely death-happy we're . . . well, we're over it. Which is funny when you consider that in Dexter (the TV show not the books) you had at least one murder per episode carried out by the protagonist and frequently another murder occurring under other circumstances. What Dexter didn't have was the continual, perpetual killing off of primary characters, characters we'd grown to care about, although many did eventually get the ax, it wasn't constant. That's pure GoT.

One panelist even said that he'd been all murdered out by GoT. So many interesting characters had been killed off on GoT that he'd lost the ability to bond with or care about any new character he met in that world. A perfectly normal coping reaction. If you're constantly being tragically abandoned, sooner or later you develop a defense mechanism and assume it's better to not get invested in anyone, because if you do, they're only going to leave you and hurt you in the process. Even if they're just a character in a book.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the sort of stories where everyone lives no matter what.

Stories where, as ridiculous and implausible as it might be for a person to live through Situation X, the characters miraculously do. Further, they tend to survive these scrapes without a scratch on them, certainly not without the months or years of medical treatment normally associated with living through a physically brutal event. So much so that by the next episode they don't even have a limp or a sling or a residual pain that leads them to a pill addiction. Nope. Everybody lives. Everybody's healthy. No need for "scraped and bruised" makeup in the next episode even though it's supposed to just happen a few days later.

Dude. Let me just say, I've had bruises from running into the coffee table that have lasted longer than most lived-through-a-car-accident-on-a-TV-show bruises.

If the above examples represent the two ends of the spectrum, where should a writer try to fit his or her story? 

The simplest answer I can give is: Probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

Of course, the nuanced answer is . . . well, nuanced.

It depends on your plot, world building, and character development. Don't kill off characters willy-nilly just because you can, or because you don't know what else to do with an extraneous character.

True story: I had a friend in high school who, whenever we were asked to write a creative story in English class, would kill off every single character by the end of the story. She wasn't a terribly macabre person -- actually, she was quite bubbly and cheerful -- she just didn't know how to end stories, and admitted as much. If everyone died, then the story had to be over, so everyone died. Honestly, next to her, GRRM looks like a spring pansy.

If a character dies in a story, it needs to serve the story. Or -- what I probably said at the conference this past weekend -- the death needs to serve the plot. 

Then -- boom! -- the following infographic appeared in one of my social media feeds a day or so after the conference. (Or maybe it wasn't serendipity, maybe it came to my attention because I was looking for it, consciously or subconsciously. Or is that in and of itself a precondition of serendipity? But I digress.)
Nifty infographic from on what's a good or bad reason for killing off a character.
Nifty infographic from on what's a good or bad reason for killing off a character.
The infographic comes from the K.M. Weiland article "How to Successfully Kill a Character," and opens with the utterly provcative statement, "I love killing people."

On the panel we discussed how a character's death can re-frame a narrative. [Hunger Games spoilers, this paragraph only.] How nearly reaching the end of Hunger Games only to have Prim die -- when avoiding Prim's death was more or less the inciting incident of the trilogy -- helps solidify the ultimate narrative outcome as not one of triumph or accomplishment but one of futility and the cyclical nature of human greed and suffering, power and rebellion.

Proving you've got the chops to mete out death.

In a podcast, Carrie Vaughn has described her killing off of a character in Kitty and the Midnight Hour as an act of proving it wasn't another happy-go-lucky world where everybody lived. Indeed, it was more serious than that, more deadly, more dangerous. Like some sort of literary hazing ritual, killing off a character can be a moment when a writer decides they want to prove themselves as someone not to be taken lightly.

But tread cautiously. Carrie Vaughn was still using the character's death in service of the plot. She could have reworked the plot to not need that death. It would have been a different book if everybody lived. And what she's talking about is making that choice to not be the book where everybody lives . . . [read the full blog post on]

Highly Recommended