Kill Your Darlings: Why Primary Characters Deserve to Die

2012-Feb-10 -> from the 29-days-of-fantays department Tags:

Today's guest hits on a topics that is near and dear to my heart. There may not be many character deaths in The Time Weaver, but over the course of 20 years of gaming, I've had my fair share of characters die. It's not always a bad thing. I've had characters go down in a blaze of glory, or in an epic battle to the death. Some have died as a result of a tragic accident, and still more were premeditated, executed in order to advance some great scheme.

Jeff Pfaller has written a fantastic piece today that will hopefully help you, as a writer or a reader, understand character death, and possibly even accept them as vital to a good story.

Writers abhor slaying their favorite character.

Some popular excuses include, "They've got so much left to live for! I can't kill them." Or "I just really, really like them. The reader does too. They can't die. They just can't!" After slogging through months of a draft or shedding blood during rewrites, it's easy to become attached to the people you write about. After all, that's what you want the reader to do, isn't it?

But killing off a beloved character can be the single best thing you do for them.

Death is a Shared Experience

One of the biggest challenges in fiction, and especially so for fantasy, is finding a way to connect emotionally with the reader. Dragons, castles and magic are all things of the past - so writers have to rely on things common to the human condition to make their worlds and characters something that readers want to care about.

Death is a powerful tool to make that connection. Everyone has had an experience with a loved one or friend dying. And even if they haven't, they've worried about it. There are countless, complex emotions attached to death. Fear, regret, longing, relief and anger are just some of the ripe areas to explore.

But it has to be a major character to have an impact. Think about your own life. How would you feel if a secondary character in your own life died? A distant cousin, or a friend you see three times a year? What about your father? Or your daughter?

Avoid Predictability

Even though death is a necessary part of life, readers often expect the main characters in your book to make it through in the end. Fantasy worlds are rife with dangers, but the good guys are always supposed to win in the end.

But if you remove a key cog in the middle your story, (Boromir, Lord of the Rings) it forces the reader to ask, "What the heck happens next?" And if it happens in the end, (John Coffey, The Green Mile), it's often an outcome the reader was afraid of all along, but stuck with you to see how that character might avoid that fate.

Transform Characters

People and characters are creatures of habit. They like to resist change, and it's a writer's job to show transformation and to tell a story. The death of a main character leaves a massive void that prods others to step up and fill.

And since death is such a transformative experience, it's a believable motive for change. Think of Viserys' death in Game of Thrones. That scene wasn't merely to inject justice into an otherwise ruthless world, it was done to let the reader know that Daenrys was the focus and to give her room to be free and grow into a queen.

Death Raises the Stakes

Nothing is worse than death. Period. In fantasy worlds, you win or you die. But if every single character in your book is safe from perishing, why should anyone care what happens to them?

Unless, of course, you're making a statement that a character's way of life is worse than death. That introduces a powerful dynamic, where the stakes of staying alive become just as dangerous for the character as any type of mortal peril a writer can put them in.

Steer Clear of Resurrection

One final note on death -- never ever resurrect a dead character. It feels cheap, and as if a writer is trying to have their cake and eat it too. Even the great ones do it -- but think of how different Lord of the Rings might have been if Gandalf had stayed dead. Or if Harry had truly sacrificed himself in Harry Potter. The moments when they come back to life are unemotional and unsatisfying, and water down the development of the other characters in the story.

Keep in mind, there are good and bad ways to go about killing a character. These are all good reasons to consider killing a character, but by no means touch on how to go about it.

Killing someone off for killing's sake feels hollow and unsatisfying to the reader. It's the underlying reason most writers fear offing a character -- because they feel like it will destroy them. Done without thought or purpose, it will. But a literary death, executed properly makes that great character immortal in the mind of the reader.

Convinced? I can tell you from experience that these are wise words.

Thank you, Jeff, for participating in 29 days! And thanks to all my readers for continuing to come back each day. Tomorrow I have a special guest coming over from her usual weekly column on Fantasy Faction, and she's going to take us back to school about mining the classics for characters.

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.


By Ciara Ballintyne on Fri 10 Feb 2012 09:19:13 pm [ Reply ] I disagree on a few points. I don't believe in killing off primary characters. As a reader, I'm a lot less likely to read that author's next book. I'm not satisfied if my favourite characters are dead. However, it's possible we disagree on the definition of 'primary character'. I wouldn't consider either Viserys or Boromir to be primary. Viserys thought he was but was wrong. Boromir was too unlikeable, and in fact, his death made him MORE likeable because he sacrificed himself.

I also like to see characters resurrected - as long as it's a) planned when the author kills the character and not a bending to an outcry of reader disappointment and b) it's appropriately foreshadowed. I don't consider Gandalf to be a resurrection. He never truly died. It's not clear from the books, but the wizards were types of angel beings. Gandalf returned as Gandalf the White and not the Grey because he has kind of ascended to a higher level through his actions. It wasn't a death as we know it and I believe it was always planned by Tolkien anyway.

By Dan Wright on Mon 13 Feb 2012 07:48:54 am [ Reply ] Strangely enough, I do actually agree with this post in many ways. Character death can be a brilliant plot device - IF it's done probably and add a lot of tension to the story.

I think it really depends on whether you care about the character enough to make their death memorable. I actually think Boromir's death in Lord of the Rings was actually a powerful one, because he was trying to reedem himself after being possessed by the ring. Even though he knew he couldn't win, he put his body on the line to save the hobbits. So his death had meaning because he was trying to protect someone.

However, I do agree with the whole "bringing them back to life" thing and this is why I kinda hate comic book deaths - as they often get ressurected years later by another writer if the fans request for it is strong enough.

Great post!

By Emilia Quill on Tue 14 Feb 2012 01:35:03 pm [ Reply ] As long as you don't use a Resurrection Scroll...

Also slaughtering several characters takes the strength from death. Visery's and Eddard's deaths were great, but in later books there were scenes where it felt clear that heads would roll and they did.

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