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May 4, 2011

Killing Off Characters

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.


Unknown said...

I know what you mean about movies. I still have not seen Old Yeller.

As for characters in novels, if it's a character I really don't know. I've killed off characters in just about every story I've ever written. Only story I didn't was a flash piece, but that was too short of a word count.

Anonymous said...

This is a really lovely post, Tara. I haven't yet had to deal with a truly upsetting death in one of my books. One character dies in "Unicorn Girl" but I don't think anyone is mournful when he gets it. I've only yet killed off peripheral characters. But I've got an idea for a book that I think HAS to have one of the major characters die. I think it will be a tricky book to right as it feels like it will be hard to end on an upbeat. But the story is the story and each one requires different things to make them perfect.

Ban said...

I couldn't agree more - it's almost like they're thinking 'it needs more realism I gotta kill someone.' One of my favorite series killed a bunch of people in the end. I didn't mind the deaths of those that made sense for the plot but there were one or two that seemed more like after thoughts - 'hmmmm, I better kill a few more so people don't think I'm writing fantasy or condoning happy endings' *grumble*

scott g.f.bailey said...

There's this thing Mighty Reader calls the "dead mother movie" where sympathy is established for the protagonist by killing off the mother in the first scene. It's really common in Disney/Pixar films and it's just sentimentality and cheap. I also see films where someone gets killed off in the 3rd act to make the tone more "serious" and that's also just sentimentality and cheap. Maybe people are afraid of making a straight-up comedy? Maybe reviews (and ticket sales) are better if something is "bitter sweet?" I also think maybe Joss Whedon created a weird expectation in SF stories that main characters will be killed off. I can just see him plotting out "Serenity" and asking himself every few minutes which crewmember was going to be killed at the end of Act 2.

I've yet to write a book wherein someone didn't get dead, but one of my themes is that life is finite. I don't see that as pessimism, by the way. People die and they stay dead (unless they're the Messiah, I guess). It's just honest. All bets off in SF/F, of course.

But I agree with you about making your character live. I've read books/seen movies where someone dies and it's supposed to be heroic or sad but mostly I'm just thinking yeah, whatever, we never knew him anyway so let's see the next scene.

Unknown said...

I agree with your whole post, Tara, but particularly this:

Fans of realism in fiction (when people laud "realism" they always mean "pessimism")

I've always wondered why joy, peace and good luck are implied to be fictional concepts that don't exist in our "real" world.

Tara Maya said...

@Darke Conteur. I haven't seen Old Yeller yet either. One of these days...

@milegette. If the story requires a death, then that's how it is. As long as it's necessary.

@Ban. I agree, the latest trend to "gritty up" sf/f just for kicks annoys me. Again, it's not that I don't mind a gritty fantasy, but I think the reader can tell when it's forced and pretentious.

@scott. My husband is a pessimist and I'm an optimist, but whenever I tell him so, he replies, "I'm not a pessimist, I'm just a realist."

Yeah, yeah. I've decided I'm going to start telling people, "I'm not an optimist, I'm just a realist. I can't help it if life is awesome." ;)

Disney Dead Mother syndrome, check. Last minute third act death for pathos, check. Dickflicks have their own equivalent: rogue cop/detective/spy/vampire badass usually has a dead wife or dead partner in his past. That's supposed to make us feel sorry for him and excuse his general rampage for vengeance.

Ok, I admit, I use that trope in Initiate for Rthan.

And don't forget, Love-Triangle-Neatly-Resolved death.

Another trope in Hollywood is that if a character kills an innocent, that character has to get killed in the end to be redeemed. Frex: Darth Vader kills the Emperor, and is allowed to become a Jedi ghost.

Tara Maya said...

@ Heidi. I was just arguing with Scott Bailey over that very issue. ;)

scott g.f.bailey said...

Yeah, the "you have no idea what I've seen" detective.

I think realism/pessimism creates an ethical imperative for people to treat each other better, so I'm pro-pessimism.

Tara Maya said...

The idea that we could keep in mind the finality of death and use that as a reminder to treat each other compassionately seems awfully optimistic to me. :)

Ban said...

gotta admit, I'm having a private little chuckle here ... for the record, I've always been a glass is half full kinda gal :)

Edward L Cote said...

I averted one obvious death in Violet Skies, but did indulge in others. The important thing is not even so much to avoid the obvious as it is to avoid the gratuitous.

Violet Skies is fantasy, but I expressly banned resurrections (along with mind control and time travel) right in the first book.

I also think there's a line between surprising and ridiculous. I understand that sometimes death is sudden and senseless. It often is in real life, and in ASOIF, a series I love. But I think Martin generally manages it better than Whedon does.

I just don't want to do anything gratuitously, whether it's sex, violence, controversy, or even humor. I try to have a good reason for everything.

I don't really plan everything out, but if it looks like I have to kill off a character, I will think about it at length.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"The idea that we could keep in mind the finality of death and use that as a reminder to treat each other compassionately seems awfully optimistic to me."

I agree. Which means that I (a realist) am an optimist.