Thou Shalt Not Kill

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Thou Shalt Not Kill

One author once asked me how casually an author should kill off his characters. He pointed out that one of our favorite authors has a penchant for killing anyone who looks as if he will be a protagonist, anyone who is likeable or decent. He says, “I find that in my book, I'm killing off some good characters too and wondering, 'Uh oh. Is this a bad idea? Will my audience hate me?' I think it can be pulled off, but it has to work well for the plot. Any thoughts?”

Oh, I have lots of thoughts. In most of my novels and short stories someone dies. I tend to write tales about life-and-death situations.

So people die in my stories, but I think that to have them die without causing an uproar among fans, perhaps it is best to look at them by “category.” There are lots of different kinds of characters in your story—heroes, sidekicks, lovers, villains, jesters, and so on.

Some “types” of characters can be dispensed without your audience becoming upset at all. For example, if you have a villain—say a corrupt politician, a serial killer, or mugger—your audience may actually cheer when that person is killed.

Similarly, if you have a heroic young protagonist whose father dies early in a tale, your reader might shed a tear if the father was drawn well, but something in us expects that father to die. As Tom Doherty has pointed out, there is only one “great story,” the tale in which a young man or young woman loses his parents and is forced to grow up, accept responsibility, and take the parents’ place.

Another character that might die without too much trouble is the sidekick, particularly if there is more than one. Thus, if you have a band of adventurers who go into battle, any sidekick can die with ease, though the truth is that we would like to see that these characters die FOR something. In short, they die in support of a great cause, or they give themselves nobly for a hero, or something like that.

It is almost mandatory to kill a sidekick if he or she happens to become too powerful. Thus, Gandalf had to die in the first third of Lord of the Rings, because Frodo couldn’t really grow into a hero on his own so long as he stood in Gandalf’s shadow. You’ll see the same with sidekicks who are fearsome warriors, gunslingers, or persuasive preachers.

Yet an author risks much if he allows his protagonist to die. The reader, you see, has come to you as a storyteller seeking entertainment—and as I have pointed out in other posts, entertainment only occurs as you put the reader under stress in a safe manner and then negate the stress. So you create a protagonist, a character that acts as a surrogate for the reader, and you make that character likeable, someone that we admire, care about, and perhaps even envy a little.

As we read a story, our subconscious mind is swept into the tale, and incidents that occur vividly in the tale affect our readers’ emotions. In effect, the reader “becomes” the protagonist on a subconscious level, and since the reader is performing a safe emotional exercise, you’re probably violating the reader’s trust if you lop your protagonist’s head off.

Similarly, you can’t kill off a character’s love interest without incurring a bit of wrath. There are different types of heroes. In an adventure story for males, for example, the hero survives the tale and lives on so that he might engage in more adventures.

But in a woman’s “hero journey,” the woman tends to bring her story full circle by creating life, by ensuring the continuance of civilization. You can’t really do that very well if your author has whacked you.

So beware of killing off your characters too lightly. You WILL lose readers over it.


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Live Workshops: We also have some live workshops happening later this year. October 3-4 in Indianapolis, we have the Write that Novel! workshop. October 10-12 in Atlanta, we have the Greenlighting Your Novel workshop.

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