Like most readers, I really hate it when my favorite character dies, whether it’s in mid-story or right at the end (though the longer the character has been around, the more I’m invested and the more I hate losing them). But there are some stories that I love in spite of the fact that my favorite died, and others where the author kills off a character and my reaction is, “Oh, just no, nope, I’m done.”
This past week, I’ve read a couple of interviews with writers who discussed why they’ve killed off a likeable reader-favorite character in the course of their story. One of the most common reasons was the one-scene viewpoint, where the likeable character is only present in the story as a victim viewpoint, to “show” the reader the horror of being attacked by a serial killer or a werewolf, or to provide a first-hand look at the Evil Overlord’s destruction of a town. This almost always makes me want to pitch the book across the room, because it is almost never truly necessary and it feels to me like cheap manipulation. The only saving grace is that it’s only one scene, so I’ll keep reading for a while if the author is good enough. If the author does it a second time, though, I’m gone. Even if it’s in a different book.
A couple of writers said they killed off likeable characters deliberately, to demonstrate to the reader that nobody was safe; that anybody could die at any moment. For me, that’s simply an advanced form of the one-shot victim-viewpoint, because in most of these cases, the likeable character was only present in the story in order to be killed off and shake up the reader. None of the characters who had a real function in the story died, only the ones whose “function” was, like the serial-killer victim, to demonstrate that death and violence could happen anywhere, to anybody.
The problem with using character deaths to “prove” that a serial killer is dangerous/horrible or that nobody is safe is that the writer doesn’t actually need to kill off a character on-stage to do either of these things…and in fact it is frequently more effective not to kill a character directly on-stage. As evidence, I offer the first chapter or so of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, in which two detectives are looking at evidence collected from a crime scene. By the time I finished that chapter, I wanted to get up and make sure all my doors and windows were locked (and it was the middle of the afternoon!)…and not only were the killings not onstage and not of any characters we’d met, the stuff the detectives were looking at was never described in detail.
And then there are the writers who kill off characters in the final battle “because it isn’t plausible for all of the main characters to come through something like that alive.” It’s funny how many of these are one-half of a couple who just got engaged the night before…
One guy actually bragged about rolling dice to decide which characters would die at certain points in the story “because I wanted it to feel real, and real-life violence is random.” There are a bunch of things wrong with that statement, but I’ll stick to the writing-related ones, the biggest of which is that fiction is a model of real life, not a newspaper story. Randomly killing off characters doesn’t necessarily make a story feel realistic; in fact, it almost always has the opposite effect on me. It makes me think the writer doesn’t know what he/she is doing.
Another couple of writers killed off characters near the ends of their stories, not because they’d planned to all along, but because they suddenly realized that by doing so they could provide a situational parallel to the opening of the story, or because they decided their protagonist needed that final revenge motivation or angst. Sometimes this does work for me – but only when it doesn’t feel forced.
What does work for me are the character deaths that have an actual story-related reason behind them. The first sort are the ones where the character earns it – that is, the character’s death comes about because they did something that is totally in character, something that they couldn’t not-do without turning to cardboard or becoming someone else. Greg pushes his beloved brother out of the way of the deadly curse; Janice runs back into the burning building to rescue her father; John and Annabel make the suicide run to destroy the incoming asteroid and save the world.
The second sort that works for me are the “random events” that have significant story-related consequences. By that I mean more than “Susan got hit by a truck and everybody grieves;” I mean that the seemingly random event has ongoing, significant ripples through the plot and characters. Because Susan dies, Sam goes out and gets drunk and spills important plot-beans, Meghan is at the funeral home making arrangements instead of being at home when the letter bomb explodes, and Joanna takes over Susan’s job and finds the heroin hidden in her office supplies, none of which would otherwise have happened. The death of Christian in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings is an example of this type; it is shocking, random, complicates the plot wonderfully, and provides for a bunch of characterization and motivation for other characters. And it’s the result of a bunch of different factors that all make story-sense, no one or two of which would have resulted in her death, but all of which together made it happen.
The telling phrase, for me, is when a writer says, “I didn’t want to kill off X, but I had to” – in other words, the story required it. By “the story required it” I do not mean that the plot has Jennifer dying in Chapter 13, so off she goes – plots can and do change radically as things move along, and forcing any plot development to happen simply because one decided on it six months and 60,000 words ago is usually a mistake. I mean that no matter how shocking or unexpected the death, something in the story will not work without it. I still hate it when a character I love dies, but I don’t feel manipulated and I love the stories in spite of it all.