Friday, June 17, 2016

The Art of Killing Characters

by Katie Bucklein

It's no secret if you know me or my books that I kill characters, and I enjoy doing it. But something I've learned over the years of writing, over years of reading books and watching movies and TV shows that have deaths abundant, is that there is an art to killing characters. 

There is a difference between killing characters for shock value, and killing characters to further the plot. And there's a fine balance between them that many don't get right. I can promise I didn't understand it when I first started out writing, and it took some trial and error to understand when and how a character should be killed. 

There's that old saying that if you don't know where to go in a manuscript, kill a character. I disagree. While killing a character could definitely throw a wrench in your narrator's story and untangle a plot knot, killing characters every time you encounter a plot knot would likely result in a manuscript riddled with deaths. And by killing characters that often, you risk causing your reader to no longer worry over or care for your characters' plights. I remember seeing someone I follow on Twitter talk about how often characters are killed in TV shows nowadays, and that it's lost its shock value. You go into a speculative fiction book or show or movie, and immediately begin to wonder who is going to die first, and how. 

I think a lot of this arises from Game of Thrones. It's no secret that GoT is infamous for killing characters, often in gruesome ways, but there comes a point when a character is killed and you simply just shrug. "I saw it coming when I started watching," you may think, and move on with your day. (Not counting Jon Snow's death, because holy painful.) 

Killing characters for shock value is not enough anymore. You shouldn't create a character for the sole purpose of killing them. While you can know from the get-go that the fate of this character is death, they absolutely must serve a larger purpose to the plot, and their death absolutely must impact your other characters, the world, and/or the plot (bingo if it's all three!). Shock value is never a reason you should have for killing a character. Shock value only gets you so far. Lopping off the head of a character just for kicks is pointless. 

Before I get into examples of good ways/times to kill a character, I want to share some advice from one of my critique partners. He and I have had many conversations about the art of killing characters, and he always has brilliant things to say. So directly from the mouth of Dylan Matthews

"I think it's less important that they die compared to how they die. Many years ago, nobody killed off characters. Now its en vogue because GoT and Walking Dead and a bunch of other popular media. It's almost to the point where not killing characters is cool again. 

At this point, readers are wary. The only way you can shock them with a death is to kill an important character. If you set up a character with the intention of them to die, then they're going to have a pretty complete arc - something that SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN WITH CHARACTERS WHO DIE. Seriously, that's the biggest thing for me. What saddens me about deaths is the potential of those characters. Say one of the characters is a prodigy who is bound to do great things. Important to the story, valuable, and has limitless potential. Then, unexpectedly, he's killed off. It's all that unfilled potential that really makes me cry. But seriously, isn't that what makes death sad in real life? All the things they were capable of accomplishing but never had the chance to? So many side characters that are destined to die aren't fleshed out. They're never vital to the story because if they were, the writer wouldn't kill them off. However, if the writer were to kill them off, it would plunge the story into a whole new direction. Writers don't do that. That's why their deaths aren't terribly sad.

Killing characters is cool in the writer's mind. But readers nowadays are expecting people to die, and they're looking for characters who have the potential to be knocked off. If I was giving advice, I'd say don't foreshadow a death, don't mock up a character from the start with the intention of having them die, don't kill off characters to make your story edgy, and kill off the character sooner than you want to (as in, if you slate him to die in chapter 20 with the big battle scene, kill him in 15 somehow - one, so the characters have to adjust without that that guy, and two, because nobody's expecting him to die in 15 with the scene in 20 looming). 

Best way to put it? Only if it shocks the writer will it shock the reader. The reader's going to see the set-up otherwise." 

So, with that in mind, I'll end with some good ways to kill characters: 

1) A character shouldn't die from old age. A lot of people won't view this as sad, since it's just a natural course of life. 
2) Never have them complete all of their goals before they die. It's painful and heartbreaking when a character isn't able to fulfill their goals, whether that be to fall in love, save the world, or find the final object they need to break the curse. 
3) Make sure they have strong relationships with at least one other character. It'll be sadder for the surviving character--and thus the reader--to say goodbye when they're not ready to let go. 
4) Make them fight against what ultimately kills them. If the villain succeeds in killing the hero, chances are you'll cause a few shed tears. (We all remember when Augustus Waters died, right?) 
5) (Reiterating what Dylan said) Don't let them reach the end of their character arc. Kill them before they complete the journey they're on.
6) If you're going to kill a minor character, ensure that the reader knows something about them, even a small thing. That guard who gets killed by an arrow shot over a castle wall? Introduce him earlier on in the story (with a defining feature if he's a nameless character) and make sure we see him talking with his little brother, the two of them smiling and joking. When his death is witnessed by the narrator of that story/scene, make sure they recall seeing him with his little brother. 

Of course, not every death must leave an impact on the reader. Think of Lord of the Rings. If every character who dies in the Battle of the Hornburg was well-known to us and meant to cause an emotional impact, we'd have sensory overload and likely lose interest in the movie right then and there. (But can you imagine Legolas dying? Or Gimli?! THE HORROR. That would definitely cause me to shed a few tears.)

My final piece of advice is this: There are fates worse than death. Being able to find and hone those fates will make the story all the sweeter. 

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