By Douglas Owen
You spent days building a character profile. Drew pictures and even tried to speak the way they would. Even fell in love with them. But now, you need to kill them.
It is something that we all face at one point, regardless of whether you are a writer or illustrator. How do you kill the character that you fell in love with? And how do you do it and make your audience not want to kill you? Will it be as random as a bolt of lightning or just a toss of the dice when crossing the street? Will the reader understand that it had to happen or will they just hate you from that point on? Maybe the character developed a habit and can no longer live? Perhaps they are just a bad person and you no longer want them in your story.
Could it be that you’ve just grown tired of trying to explain that they look like a Napoleon Mastiff or that the chiselled chin needs to go? Either way, you need them dead.
What are the real reasons to cut a character out of a story? Did they do a Joey on you and say they write their own lines? Probably not; that only happens in sit-coms. No, the reason to kill them is to push your plot forward, clear the air, and/or give a reason for another character to move forward. With the possible exception of the game of roulette, which could be a useful metaphor to explain the randomness of life, why, and more importantly how, do you actually get away with it?
A Little Secret
George RR Martin has about 100 named characters in his fantasy series, Game of Thrones. Some of them were dead before he started writing the series; others, he killed along the way. Heck, almost all of the House of Stark are dead, and others are still falling. He has a plan, but something tells me he is really a pantser (a person who writes a novel without the aid of an outline). His stories are largely driven by the characters, and it means some characters decide when others need to leave the page.
I don’t always agree with his method, but sometimes it does add an extra dimension—especially when Joffrey is murdered with poison.
Most of the time, a character of his will die in order to give a dramatic effect. Maybe it is easy for him to hang a character until they are dead, or have others stick knives into them, but that is just not my personal style. It’s hard to say goodbye to a well-developed character, but sometimes it must happen. And, as authors, we have the privilege to perform vicarious murders, even if we want to keep a character. So don’t be afraid to slay by the masses, and here is how to do it with impunity.
Murdering Your Darlings
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch coined the phrase, “Kill your darlings” in On the Art of Writing , originally given as a lecture delivered at the University of Cambridge from 1913–1914, and widely reprinted since. His instructions have been cited by other many other authors, from Ray Bradbury to Stephen King. When something is touted so highly, it must be right. Basically, he is just telling you that characters die. They could be your favorites or they could be the villains, but sooner or later, they will end up finished, one way or another.
It does mean you will take the life of someone who you created. And yes, literally created. Be sure of your intentions. Don’t just murder them without any forethought. You need to be an empathetic writer, suffer that hunger or drowning, or plummet to that death from the mountainside. Feel the pain, and thus, make your writing come alive.
Take the downs with the ups, because you did grow with them when they found the treasure, rescued the girl, saved the world, and so on. They did the heroic deeds, and then travelled to an exotic world, only to be done in by a lonely little tsetse fly. So suffer with them.
And don’t just have a death happen because it’s expedient to the plot. Plan it out and make sure the reader knows what happened, for the story’s sake. Never kill someone for a lesser reason.
How to Kill Them
• Fully rounded characters gain empathy from the reader. Their death needs to be required by the story. Some pantsers may kill off less-developed characters than the planner, but I’ve seen it both ways. Don’t just kill off less-developed players because it is easy.
• If you don’t rely on shock, then don’t randomly kill characters. It usually turns readers off of your work unless, that is, the character is getting under everyone’s skin.
• Illness is a good way to kill off a character. If they are sick and struggling to push forward, it will not be such a shock to the reader when they pass away.
• Kill a character who everyone believes needs to die. That way the reader nods and says, “You got your just deserts,” instead of putting the book down in disbelief.
• One method that is favored by a number of writers is the homicidal act. Have an antagonist actually get one last shot in.
Think of all the novels you’ve read that had a main character killed. Did you really enjoy it? How did you feel about finishing the story or picking up the next book in the series? The only way to get away with that is to have more than one main character. Take the books of George RR Martin. We call him the hero-killer. If it wasn’t for the love we have for most of the characters, a majority of readers would not read the books. Heck, he had seven main characters introduced in the first book and killed several of them. He then introduced more to keep the number high. That is his trick, and you never know who will be next to face the axe.
In closing, be mindful of your reader’s reaction to the killing of a character, and make it real if not for a good reason.
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