On Character Deaths

A thread on weblit.us got me thinking about character deaths.

There is something intensely satisfying for me in the death of a character. But then, I have always been a glutton for punishment. I love books that make me cry, and killing off someone I like is bound to upset me (duh!).

I’m not talking about killing off minor sidekicks, those characters you put in the story knowing they’re going to die, like how the new recruits in Star Trek were doomed to bite the dust before the episode’s end. I’m talking about real blows, about characters you’ve grown to love that unexpectedly leave, about Sirus’ death (sob! I think I took his death harder than Harry did.).

From a reader’s perspective, a death like that pulls me into the story on a deeply emotional level. Perhaps because it is a safe way to mourn for the little deaths in my own life — the stresses and worries and losses — as it provides a catharsis of sorts. Or because it feels real, far more than any happily-ever-after.

But as an author, killing off your own character is a whole different ballgame. The perks are that you can really dig down into the other characters, because it is their story that matters, their coping with loss that we need to read. The problem is, by killing off a character, you’ve cut off his story. Was it his time?

It’s so tempting to kill someone at the end of a story, where you know it couldn’t have gone further. But, during some recent outlining, I realized that one character needed to go, that maybe their story wasn’t yet told, but life and time waited for no one. So, in my outline, I wrote down that scary four-letter word. (No, not that one. I’m talking about ‘dies’.)

I am steeling myself for when I eventually have to write that scene, because I know it’s going to be a tear-jerking ride. But when I’m done writing, I know it’s going to leave me with that strange satisfaction of the beautifully tragic.

What do you think of character deaths? And when you’re writing, how do you decide when it’s time for someone to die?

19 thoughts on “On Character Deaths

  1. Character deaths are an extremely important part of writing and personally something which I believe is extremely difficult to get right. It mustn’t seem lamented or over produced, but must feel entirely natural, even if the ending is a total shock.

    Though I love my characters immensely, during the writing of Emblem Divide, I was more scared of finishing the book than ending a single characters life. A death can give a character a whole new meaning, a whole new purpose in life. It’s not just about the next step in the story, it’s also about providing motivation and substance for the rest of the tale to continue.

    During the preview readings for Emblem Divide, it was exceedingly satisfying when several members of the panel shouted at me for killing a character. It gave me the feeling that I had affected them in the way I intended, that I had not only shocked them, but left them feeling empty and angry.

    • Yes good point – I hate it when it feels like an author just killed someone off for no good reason. But when done right, it propels the tale onwards.

      Weren’t you afraid of angry readers coming after you for killing a character?

      • Not afraid exactly. I think in some ways people actually enjoy characters they really love, dying. It’s a way to preserve them. It ends their history. Sometimes when a story ends people’s lives are at a loose end. This actually ticks me off sometimes to great lengths. I don’t always want to “imagine” what happened to them after the end of the story. Plus, it often makes a characters life mean more if they die.

  2. Pingback: On character deaths « Emblem Divide – Free serialised book for charity

  3. I enjoy a good character death, as you say, they bring another level of depth to a story and can emotionally connect the reader. Funny you mentioned Harry Potter, I felt like he didn’t mourn enough! In fact that particular death felt to me like it was brushed aside pretty quickly, only to be drawn on when it suited the story line.

    I’ve killed quite a few fairly important characters in books, all for valid reasons (well, I think so anyways), and it IS sad, but necessary at times. Pays not to shy away from it, which I think a lot of people do.

    • Yeah – it really annoyed me that Harry didn’t properly mourn Sirius. But *I* mourned him, a lot!

      What kind of a reason do you think is a valid one for killing a character?

      • Well, one was a euthanasia type killing, it was really the only option for the two characters involved, pretty tragic, but the best outcome for the situation.

        It annoys me when you find a death that is kind of like the writer has thought ‘hmmm, how can I really upset the reader’, or ‘this character has kind of done their thing, lets kill them off cause I can’t figure out what else to do with them’.

        Valid, for me, means it fits into the realm of things the characters would do in the situation, and fits in with the story. When its out of place it just annoys me.

  4. I do think about character death often. A lot of people die in IAR, but none of the main characters do. I thought about killing off the characters but I can’t do it. It’s not necessary. In some spin-off stories, people die. I figure there’s enough death in IAR that I don’t need to kill off any of the main characters. Maybe severely injure, but not kill.

  5. “There is something intensely saisfying for me in the death of a character.” -SADIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I am actually the same type(wow, we match). I gravitate to depressing fiction more than anything else as I love the feeling of sadness and the slight obsession that occur after experiencing the death of a character. When you go floating around apathetic and somewhat condescending towards pain, it is nice to be able to feel so sad.

    However, my written character deaths are, when they actually do occur, more symbolic and literal which to me hurts so much more. It is more depressing to see someone broken and no will than one who has died doing something they believe in.

  6. I must admit I tend to wimp out of this one more often than not, and since Toby Frost is killing of people left right and centre I can’t even claim that the conventions of comedy limit my opportunities.

  7. I killed off a character in the second chapter of my sci-fi novel. The character is like Laura Palmer in ‘Twin Peaks”- she has no direct participation but her death and lingering presence incites the main action

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