Six impossible things

Killing them softly…

“He was already dead when I got there” is a common claim in mystery novels, but all too often it’s also the answer when fans ask writers “Why did you kill off my favorite character?” And as with mystery novels, the claim is frequently disbelieved, especially when the death happens to a major or recurring character in a long-running series.

But for a lot of writers – even those who plan ahead (or try to) – it really is true. You get to a certain point in a story, and you realize that George is going to throw himself on that unexploded grenade. It’s what he would do. You thought he’d duck and run with the rest of the gang, but he’s not absolutely sure that everyone else will get far enough away in time, and…well, it’s what he would do.

So you go back over the last chapter, hoping to tweak the fight some, but no, this is how it has to play out. That grenade is getting chucked into the room as the villain leaves because that’s what she would do.

You then have two choices: #1- You can change George’s behavior, or the villain’s, so that there is no grenade or George doesn’t jump on it, and the characters will turn instantly to cardboard and magically lose most of the personality and sympathy (or outrage) you’ve spend many chapters building up on their behalf, or #2 – You can go ahead and write the scene where George throws himself on the grenade and dies heroically.

When that happens, the choice is obvious (to me, anyway) – you do what’s best for the story, and cardboard characters are never best for the story, so RIP George.

Sometimes, it happens the other way around. In my second novel, I had a brief scene planned in which a spear-carrier was supposed to show up, do something that I and my readers knew was a mistake, and end up dead. He showed up…and I liked him. Really, really liked him. So my short, two-page scene extended itself and extended itself as my other characters tried to talk him into changing sides, but he had principles and wouldn’t. And the more he explained his principles, the better I liked him, even if he was wrong and headed for extinction in short order.

Eventually, I and my characters ran out of arguments, and he still hadn’t changed sides, and he was still going to make the mistake he’d been ordered to make, because he was honorable and had principles and so on. So I let him, and I killed him.

My crit group gave me hell for it, but even they couldn’t come up with a way for me to do anything different without wrenching the story out of shape and making it implausible to boot.

When a character earns his or her death – when acting absolutely in character will, in that situation, lead them inevitably to their end – it is next door to impossible to justify doing anything other than letting them die. Doing otherwise does violence to the story. Sometimes, the writer has known from the start that Jennifer or George was doomed; sometimes, it becomes obvious when one is writing the scene that a particular character cannot possibly survive (or that they couldn’t have survived something that happened offstage). Either way, they’re dead.

There are, however, a whole lot of bad reasons for killing off a character:

1. To prove that you, the writer, are not afraid to kill off a character that you are sure everyone is going to like. If you feel like you have to prove something, write the death scene and then pitch it. Stuff goes into a story because it belongs there, not because the writer needs to show off.

2. To provide an emotional, heartwrenching scene. Mind you, the death of a well-liked character should certainly be emotional and heartwrenching, but if you’re deliberately killing off nice characters just to get a rise out of your readers, and for no other reason, you need a bigger repertoire of heartwrenching and deeply emotional scenes. And if you’re just doing it to add angst…no. Just no.

3. To make the reader feel unsafe; to let the reader know that no, really, anybody might die in this book, nobody’s safe. This used to be more likely to work (though I disapproved of this kind of reader manipulation even then), but these days, “the nice guy dies” is so common that it’s become a TV trope. If you insist on doing it, it’s going to need exceptionally careful handling to work, and you probably still won’t get the shock value you want unless you actually kill off the main character him/herself in the tenth chapter or so.

4. Because you can! You’re the writer, bwa-ha-ha! (Similar to #1, but more extreme.) You may be the writer, and you can certainly write the words, but if this is the sole reason the character dies, you’re highly unlikely to end up with a good story.

The interesting thing is, you actually can do all those things, or any one of them, and still make it work, if one of two things is true: either the character’s death is plot-important (in addition to being heartwrenching or proving anyone can die or whatever), or the character’s death, however random and senseless, has serious consequences for other characters, emotionally and (again) plot-wise.

For instance, there’s a scene in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings in which a moderately important and extremely likeable character dies unexpectedly, randomly, and senselessly. It works because it is shocking and unexpected; because the way it happens makes it abundantly clear that nobody is safe, but most of all because it has repercussions throughout the entire rest of the five-book series. The characters are as shocked as the reader, and their shock reverberates through both their emotions and their actions. Things would have gone very differently if that character hadn’t died just then, in both the short-term and the long term.

In other words, when you kill off a character, it has to matter. To the other characters, to the plot, to the readers.

19 Comments
  1. This is so true. I had a critique partner ask me if they needed to throw in more deaths to make things seem more emotional and I had a hard time explaining to her this concept to her. Sigh.

  2. I’m trying to think which book and character you’re talking about in the part about the spear-carrier who got killed off. Was that Ranlyn in The Seven Towers?

    • Emily – No, that was my fourth book (third by publication date; took me a while to sell the actual third). Second book was DAUGHTER OF WITCHES, and the guy that died was the Temple guard who caught up with them and was dumb enough to go up against a Cilhar.

  3. HEY! Careful with that! Don’t you know better than to post a TV Tropes link without a warning? That stuff is highly addictive.

    What about the Western trope of “He needed killing.”?

    Now, you’ve got me doing it!

  4. Oh, yes, of course! Thanks.

  5. In regards to GRR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, David Carlile said “Death in fiction should have meaning beyond the author’s desire to be unpredictable.” I have to say, for many of the deaths (and there are indeed many), George doesn’t seem to have much more of a motive.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley, in in the penultimate chapter of Stormqueen, killed in a rather pointless way not just an important character but the viewpoint character for the entire novel. I’ve never forgiven her for that.

  6. It’s a tricky balancing act, since you can both kill and spare for unaesthetic reasons.

  7. My feeling is that the death should be appropriate to the character. A major character shouldn’t just disappear with “and the entire village was slaughtered”.
    And you couldn’t have “As he chased Moriarty up the Swiss Alp, Sherlock Holmes’s heart gave out.”

  8. I love you! You’ve read my favorite writer of all time, Dorothy Dunnett. That aside, thanx for this post. I’m questioning my motives for killing off a character. ;-j

  9. Patricia’s point 4 is very important. If we knew that a character could never die, yawn. Sometimes, characters die, but going for the cheap shot demeans. The author might get an emotional reaction, but “I’ve been ripped off!” is not a good one for future sales.

  10. Katherine Kurtz kills off so many nice characters that I always peek at the last chapter before I dare like someone.

    In my current WIP (in P again after literally years) the protagonist’s best friend dies in chapter 2, and she spends much of the rest of the book finding out how and why in between her other activities.

  11. You then have two choices: #1- You can change George’s behavior, or the villain’s, so that there is no grenade or George doesn’t jump on it, and the characters will turn instantly to cardboard and magically lose most of the personality and sympathy (or outrage) you’ve spend many chapters building up on their behalf, or #2 – You can go ahead and write the scene where George throws himself on the grenade and dies heroically.

    Could you invoke realism, and the odds of the grenade being a dud?

  12. houseboatonstyx, invoking deus ex machina too much is another problem. It makes the characters’ efforts of little value.

  13. further to Gene: I’m afraid that the odds are so poor that it would amount to a DEM rather than seem real. Modern ordnance, unfortunately for George, is very reliable, and grenades are probably at the top of the list because they suffer so little abuse. if it’s old enough, there is a chance that it will detonate prematurely and kill the villain as well, but that’s about the best that you can hope for.

  14. One character I liked was the captain in Pratchett’s Nation, sailing to his death on a tidal wave, singing hymns, adapting them, and worrying about whether he’d picked the right words.
    Unfortunately, he was only brought in to die in Chapter One (or maybe Two).

    There is (or was) one mystery writer who would kill off people we thought were permanent recurring characters.

  15. You can make the grenade a dud if there are consequences. If everyone else is ashamed of themselves for failing. If they, in their heart of hearts, blame George for showing them up as cowards beside him. If George is snatched away for higher duties since he proved himself.

    And, of course, if you establish for whatever reason that some percentage of grenades are duds.

  16. Hmm. Short version of that:
    Put any silver lining inside a good dark cloud.

  17. @Mary. Yes. It sounds like George is a possibly major character but not the main story hero, and this isn’t the climax of the whole book. So just how much build-up has this had, how important is this incident to the plot, etc? And how realistic is the story so far? If a realistic amount of Murphy’s Law has been happening all along, random malfunctions and fumbles, ‘grit in everyone’s wheels’, then maybe….

    If the author didn’t want this, it was just some lines of causation coming together, and not intended to be so important … then maybe the hero and villain can show their character, with some realistic fumbling as to the result.

    Okay, maybe a grenade is foolproof, but on lesser unintended perils….

  18. Put any silver lining inside a good dark cloud.

    Yes — the momentum of George’s sub-plot goes right on to the next consequence, and the grenade thing isn’t dwelt on.

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