In our last post we talked a little about how we decide when it’s appropriate to kill a character. You could scroll down a little and read the original post, but just briefly, here are the three criteria we use:
1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?
2) Is it dramatically the right choice?
3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?
One of the problems with killing a beloved character is that the downside is immediately apparent—you feel bad, and if you’re doing it right, the reader feels bad, too. These three questions help focus the mind on the potential benefits of killing the character, as well as the potential dangers of leaving him alive.
If you allow pity to stay your hand, and you let a character live when he ought to have died, you run into three problems, each of which corresponds to one of the three questions.
1) If you let your character live when it’s intellectually dishonest to do so, your character will develop obvious plot armor, and the reader or viewer will no longer believe the character is ever in jeopardy. We both love Vampire Diaries, but since pretty much every major character has died and been brought back to life, death has rather lost its sting on that show. No matter how hard the writers try to convince the viewers that this time, for once, a character might TOTALLY DIE FOR REALS, the viewers’ reaction is to shrug and think, “Meh, he’ll be back next episode.” The other side of the same coin, as noted in our last post, is that your bad guys lose credibility. If an important good guy doesn’t get killed every once in a while, the villains start to look incompetent. Even the most diehard Star Wars fan, when re-watching the original movie, snickers a little when Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” since we know Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a bantha stable. When the Empire’s elite first blast their way into the Tantive IV, they’re awesome and frightening. By Return of the Jedi, when they’re getting their plastoid-armored butts handed to them by teddy bears, they’ve lost any semblance of menace.
2) If you let a character live when it would have helped the story to let him die, then you obviously run the risk of not moving the plot forward, and of having a superfluous character. In other words, your story treads water, with this character just sitting there, taking up narrative space, doing the same things he’s always done. For example, we are fans of the Harry Potter books and movies, but let’s face it; for much of that series, Harry is the brave one, Hermione is the smart one, and Ron is…present. There are a number of places where Rowling could have killed off Ron, starting all the way back with the chess match at the end of the first book (though that admittedly might have been a bit too dark that early in the series). There would have been tears and drama, the series would have moved forward, and Ron’s place could have been taken by Neville and/or Luna, who are frankly much more interesting characters, anyway.
3) If you let your character live when it would have made other characters more interesting, then obviously you lose an opportunity for character development. If a mentor sticks around too long, for example, the reader/viewer will wonder why the hero, rather than the more skillful, more experienced mentor, is the one taking on the villain. The best example of this involves a character neither of us wants to see dead, and a movie that has lots and lots of other problems: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Shia LaBeouf’s character was clearly supposed to be the new, up-and-coming hero. But the audience never warmed to him. This was for a host of reasons, of course, but looming over them all was the simple fact that as long as Indiana Jones himself was there, no one was going to care what “Mutt Williams” did. (One hopes the people making the new Star Wars sequels have learned this lesson).
Here’s an example of how we apply our three criteria in practice. In one of our novels, there’s a character we’ll call Susan. (Names and genders may have been changed here; we still entertain hopes of getting all these books published someday, and we don’t want to give massive spoilers.) Susan is a fun character, sexy and hilarious. She is also a romantic interest/mentor/surrogate mother figure for the hero, Bob. (Yes, they have a very complicated relationship.) At a certain point in the story, we had always planned on killing off Susan, but when it came time to do it, we were reluctant to pull the trigger (or plunge the knife, rather).
So we went through the three questions.
1) Was it intellectually dishonest to let her live? Yes. This was a war story, after all. And while we had accumulated a vast pile of dead red-shirts, and while some of these red-shirts had died in very sad and moving scenes, we hadn’t killed a major character yet. It strained credibility to imagine that Bob, our hero, could keep going on these deadly dangerous missions and never once lose someone he genuinely cared about. Moreover, we had spent a lot of time establishing that Susan is particularly brave and daring. She routinely does the sorts of things that ought to get her killed, and Bob often worries for her safety. Having set all that up, it would have been a cop-out to not have Susan’s luck run out sooner or later.
2) Did it make sense, dramatically, for her to die? Yes. We had an outline for the rest of the story, and most of the plot from then on was supposed to be driven by Bob’s desire to get revenge for Susan’s death. The person who kills Susan also turns out to be the major antagonist for the second half of the story, so if we had let Susan live, we would have lost that deeper, more personal motivation for our hero to fight the antagonist. In addition, Susan is a romantic interest for Bob. Killing Susan helped resolve an on-again, off-again love triangle, which would have gotten pretty old if we had tried to spin it out for the rest of the story.
3) Were there interesting repercussions for the surviving characters? Yes, yes—a thousand times, yes! As noted above, Susan’s death drives our hero’s actions for the rest of the story. It forces Bob to grow and prompts some soul-searching on his part, particularly after his attempts at revenge end up getting another of his best friends killed. It helps resolve his messy love live, as well. Finally, as we head to the climax of the story, the final apocalyptic showdown between our hero and the bad guys, Bob is firmly in charge of the good guys. He’s an active protagonist, making the decisions that drive the plot forward. If Susan were alive, the reader would naturally wonder why Susan wasn’t there. And if Susan were there, our hero would naturally defer to his old commander and beloved mentor. So we had to get Susan out of the way.
When we considered Susan’s fate in light of those three questions, it was obvious that she had to go. sniff Poor Susan. At least we have the comfort of knowing that she died to make a better novel.
To sum it all up, there are much worse things than death for a character—like becoming boring or pointless. Or worst of all, becoming an actual roadblock to the plot, preventing the hero from moving forward and developing. Let your characters go out on a high note, rather than keeping them around until the reader is grumbling, “Why is this guy still here?” Don’t be afraid of killing characters that you like. You’re just saving them from the indignity of becoming characters that you hate.
J and S