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Say Goodbye to All of This: The End of a Good Character

We had a house party this past weekend for Husband’s birthday (happy birthday, Husband! :-D) and at the end of the night, I got into a pretty nuts-and-bolts writing conversation with my neighbors about important questions like how to write fight scenes (conclusion: don’t let your characters think about anything besides the guy or gal who’s trying to kill them) and how to get past the fear that what you’re writing is garbage (conclusion: write it anyway. Garbage is easier to revise than a blank page). But I think the most thought-provoking piece of the conversation had to do with killing characters.

I’ve never had a problem killing off my characters: my bad writing always tends toward the angstiest of angst, and the earliest piece of writing in my childhood scribbles file has the main character dying at the end. In fact, my never-finished “first novel,” a quasi-reboot of Black Beauty written when I was 11, had my narrator shunting from disaster to disaster because the only reason I could think of for her to move to a new home (which was the main plot thread of the story) was to bring violence and death to all the other horses in her barn. As my writing’s gotten better, though, I’ve started to realize that just like everything else, there are good ways to kill a character, and there are bad ways (of course, as with all my writing rants, these are open to debate).

As I’ve said before, in my own writing, because of my crazy levels of outlining, I tend to know a character’s fate right from the beginning of the book, even in early drafts. What that means is that for the most part, my job is to make my redshirts lovable — because in my mind, if you kill off a character whose death will have an emotional effect on your protagonist, it’d better be designed to have an effect on your reader, too.

A few of my favorite strategies from “real books” (including A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and Star Wars) after the jump (in case there’s anyone out there in my universe who doesn’t know those yet… in which case, you’ve got some reading and watching to do… also talk about Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House, but I do that in a more anonymized way…)

A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin: GRRM is, IMHO, one of the masters of this, and I think the TV audience’s reaction to the death of Ned Stark at the end of the first season of GOT backs me up here. People didn’t see it coming; I didn’t see it coming; because it breaks one of the rules of fiction, TV and books. As a general rule, the protagonist is safe. When John Crichton is getting blown into vacuum on Farscape, or Harry Dresden is being threatened by the horrible monster of the week, our only question is “Oh, boy, how’s he gonna get out of this one?” We never actually fear for the protagonist, because sure, they can be traumatized; they can be forced to compromise their principles, or to have their young son thrown out a window and paralyzed, or to know their best friend was murdered and be unable to act on it. Really, for most protagonists, all that would’ve been enough — but Ned Stark is GRRM’s warning to the readers. You have to play the game by the real rules, or the real players will move you out of the way. I don’t know about you, readers, but even after all the signs, I didn’t believe he was really a goner until the moment Arya was told to look away.

A double emotional punch for the reader, that one, I think: Ned’s a viewpoint character, one that we’ve sympathized with for two-thirds of the book at that point, so we’ve got our own attachment to him, but filtering it through his daughter was a fabulous touch. Saves us getting hung up in goriness (in a book that has no shortage of it in other scenes) and lets the emotion sit on its own. Say what you want to about some of the plotting decisions made later in the series, that first book is pretty tight, and the biggest ::gasp:: moment in the first book comes off seamlessly.

Black House, by Stephen King and Peter Straub: This is a horror book, obviously (and it’s also the second in a series, so if you haven’t read The Talisman, you should go back and do that one first), so you’d expect that no one is safe… and although I don’t know Peter Straub’s other work at all, this book uses a technique that I can say with some confidence is a King trademark. He gives us a supporting character early on who is clearly too cool to live. This is my favorite character in the book, by far, and one whose plot arc amply demonstrates a point that one of my writing teachers makes to students like me who have a tendency to play our cards too close to the vest: suspense doesn’t come from the reader not knowing what’s going to happen, it comes from the reader waiting to see if the character is going to figure it out. Loyal King readers know this person’s doomed from the moment they part ways with the protagonist for the last time — if only because they’re too close to figuring out who the murderer is — but the death itself is a brilliant bit of cat-and-mouse that’s drawn out just long enough. And where GRRM keeps us at arm’s length, King has us in the character’s body as the lights go out, and it’s a bloody, horrifying, touching, sad scene all at once.

A side note, here: although the above case is an exception, I usually don’t like drawn-out death scenes in fiction. People don’t die that way in real life, particularly those who die in the “interesting” ways favored in fiction; more often than not, especially in combat, the man beside you falls and you barely have time to see him hit the ground before he’s gone, and the fight goes on. Which brings me to my last 2 examples: Sirius Black in Harry Potter and Obi-Wan in A New Hope.

For me, the deaths of these 2 characters feel very similar. They take place in the middle of a big battle where there’s lots of other stuff going on; they happen very suddenly and with minimal fanfare (Sirius’s death is so quickly stated, in fact, that I almost missed it in my first rapid-fire race through Order of the Phoenix); and there’s no body left at the end. When the heroes get time and safety to grieve, there’s nothing to grieve over but empty space. While I’m all for a good funeral-bier scene (which both series do well with other deaths), I think that in these cases — the first mentor figure cut out from under the hero’s support structure — it makes sense to remove the mentor from the physical plane in one fell swoop. After all, sudden, unexpected death is kind of like that.

The meta-point in all these deaths, after all, is that they serve to further the plot of their stories. Killing Ned Stark shows us that being honorable’s not enough to keep you safe in Westeros, and provides the final spark that flares into the War of the Five Kings; killing the character from Black House demonstrates that the good guys can’t win without taking a few hard losses along the way, and gives our hero some information about the killer; killing Sirius and Obi-Wan brings their respective young charges one step closer to having to face the Big Bad Guy on their own, a necessary step in the coming-of-age story, and gives the heroes a bit more personal motivation to keep going. If you’re going to off a favorite character, just like if you make any other plot decision, make it tug at the readers’ heartstrings, if that’s what should happen — but don’t let that be the only reason.

Conversely — returning to the advice I gave my neighbor — I’d say that writers shouldn’t be afraid to end a beloved character, if you think it’s what the story needs. My favorite story about this comes from Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, in a quote where George Lucas describes how he realized he had to write Obi-Wan out sooner than he’d planned:

 As I was writing the third draft of Star Wars, I realized that after they escape from the Death Star, there isn’t anything for Ben to do, and I struggled with finding things for him to do, and finally gave up. I figured I’d just write that part later on. When I came to the next draft, it became obvious that he was just standing around, and that was not good, especially for a character of his importance. So it was really in the last draft, the one I wrote before I shot the movie, that I finally came to the decision that I had to do what I had to do. In a way, I knew I would have to do it from the beginning, but I went back and forth about it. The difficult part of that decision was that I had already hired Alec Guinness, and I had to tell him that his character was going to die halfway through the script. he didn’t like it very much; he was upset about it until I convinced him that it was best for the movie, nothing personal. I knew that I would have to bring him back somehow if I made the other movies, and at the time of Star Wars I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish that. At that point I had to make Star Wars work, and killing Ben was a logical decision. (p. 81-82)

I guess, in the end, my biggest advice to my neighbor would be to listen to what your story’s saying. If it’s telling you that a character needs to go, then maybe it’s time to send them out the door. Just make sure you give them a good send-off.

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4 Comments

  1. Nice blog entry…character’s will definitely be dying frequently in my series. I’ve planned who is going to die, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. It’s a scary thing. I want to make sure I give them a good send-off as you say. I’m glad I have the good ole’ Fantastifiers to give me feedback when the time comes!

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    • diana2261

       /  October 14, 2012

      Yeah, I hear you — it’ll be a while until someone consequential gets the ax in my current series (may not be until Book 2, actually, I believe), but I have a tendency to over-plot my characters’ backstories to the extent that I tend to know how people end up even if their end doesn’t appear on screen. The 4 heroes from my space opera book all survive for at least 35 years after the end of their space opera adventures, but I know what happens to them in the end, too 😉

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  2. Double coincidence! I was just reading about perceptual distortions during combat over at Science in My Fiction. http://scienceinmyfiction.com/2012/09/24/realism-in-combat-perceptual-distortions/ (too lazy to figure out how to hyperlink, sorry)

    ALSO I totally think about character death too much. I wrote about it, even made a graph, over at my book blog two years ago ( https://nisababepraised.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/character-death/ ). See, I generally find Joss Whedon’s deaths pretty manipulative compared to other writers and I needed to figure out why! I hypothesized that there are two axes: emotional/cathartic and thematic/narrative driven, and that the “best” deaths, at least for me, lean towards the thematic axis, but are still somewhat high on the emotional axis.

    While I still think there’s something of use there, I’ve been revising in my head since I wrote it, as ya do. I’ve most lately been considering the timing of the deaths. Whedon often kills characters in the lead-up to the climax. He kills as a way of ratcheting up tension. It feels to me like he’s fridging all those characters (Wash, Coulson, Tara, etc). The death serves as motivation and makes the climax seem at least partially (in some cases, wholely) revenge-driven. Rowling, as a counter-example, kills (usually? always?) during the climax. Her deaths are the consequences of the characters’ actions and choices, or something. Obi-Wan’s death is interesting – it is early enough that, while it motivates Luke, it doesn’t feel as manipulative to me. There are probably examples of deaths that are in the immediate lead-up to the climax that don’t bother me as much as Whedon’s, but I can’t think of any. (An example of a Whedon death I love is Joyce, Buffy’s mom. Gah, so good.)

    And of course, I realize that all fictional death is there to manipulate me in some way – that’s what fiction is for, after all. But I don’t want to feel like it’s mainly there to manipulate me and secondarily motivate the characters to commit revenge killings! I don’t want to feel the puppet strings, goddammit! 😛

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    • One of my writing friends calls the puppet strings thing “showing the bones” (of your plotting); that you want all the pieces of your story to fit together seamlessly so that your reader/viewer doesn’t see a) that you’re emotionally manipulating them (Lookit this redshirt! Don’t you love him? Isn’t he your FAVORITE? ok… bang!) and b) that the story is, in fact, something being hammered into shape rather than a series of events that automatically lead to each other naturally.

      This is a problem I’m having with my current piece right now — my project these days is joining a big fat piece of new plot onto something that I’ve already got plotted out pretty thoroughly (the latter being the part you guys have already seen), and the problem is that now the character is not precisely in the same place he was when that first bit was originally drafted. So I have to figure out how to lead him from point A to point B without the readers going “baaaaaaaaaaah! what about everything you just spent 100+ pages setting up?!”

      It’s fun, though. And so satisfying when it works well 🙂

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