Sometimes, it is true, writers have to commit murder.
Some stories require us to kill off characters. I get that. It can make a story more real, more believable, even more satisfying, if it's the right character. Even if it is a character whose death we grieve rather than cheer, it can feel "right" and perfect the story.
Sometimes, however, a character dies in a book I'm reading or movie I'm watching, especially if I was taken by surprise, I feel like, "Damn, I don't need that extra dark in my day right now, thanks much."
If I see a movie about the Holocaust or read the memoir of a Rwandan refugee, as I often do, I go in knowing what to expect, and I can decide ahead of time if I am up to something heavy. But if the story has been billed as a light romantic comedy and then suddenly Mommy and Daddy die in a car accident and it's all weeping orphans, I am not a happy camper. As an example, take Stepmom which was billed as a comedy but [SPOILER] ends with a dead woman and weepy kids. Excuse me, but that's a cheap shot. Television and books do the same thing all the time. Hm, story growing stale? Let's kill someone off. Yeah, that will be deep.
Guess what? Just killing off a character does not make your story deep.
Making your character live is what deepens your story.
This is much on my mind as I work on the revisions for Book 3, The Unfinished Song: Sacrifice. As you might guess from the title, one or more characters might bite the dust. And I'm trying hard to make sure that no death is gratuitous, or there just to serve my plot rather than my theme. I am trying to ask myself, "How would I feel about this as a reader? Would I throw the book across the room?"
Of course, in fantasy, it's also easy to bring characters back from the dead. I guess that can be cheap too. Fans of realism in fiction (when people laud "realism" they always mean "pessimism") will argue that it cheapens death if a character can simply wake up a vampire or be brought back by a resurrection spell. I grant the point. It's also something I love about the genre.
There are some books that can pull off a character death, and even a character resurrection, without making it tawdry. One of my favorites is Passage, by Connie Willis. The book is about a team of scientists who are studying near-death experiences by simulating death chemically, so it makes sense that someone dies for real, as a contrast to the simulated experience... and it is one of the gripping questions of the book whether it will be a death experience or a near-death/resurrection experience. I won't spoil this one. What's wonderful about the book is that either ending could have fit her theme, and so I was prepared to believe and weep either way. Beautiful book.
I fear my book won't be in the same league, but I hope it makes sense. Also, still to come, there's Book 4, The Unfinished Song: Roots.