Every Tuesday, the team I work on at my day job goes out to lunch. One of the topics this week included the death and return of Superman and the recent rant by Max Landis. Ann recently has become highly involved with a Harry Potter community and we’ve been re-engaging with the storyline, which, of course, is steeped in death. (And okay, look, I’m going to spoil the Harry Potterseries somewhat, but if you haven’t read them or seen the movies by now… well, you really ought.)
So, of course, I figured I could turn this into a Story Papers article.
Although I have never been able to get into the books, I understand that George R.R. Martin slaughters characters all over the A Song of Ice and Fireseries. He is not alone in that, of course. Joss Whedon isn’t afraid to kill off characters, and, as I mentioned, J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus focuses a great deal on mortality.
Killing off a beloved character is something of a gamble, but only a little one. It can turn your audience against you if you handle it poorly, but the potential upside in audience retention is worth the attempt. Assuming yours is a story where character death is plausible, showing that you are willing to kill off a character can further help to capture your audience.
When the fifth Harry Potter book came out, in which J.K. Rowling announced a beloved character would die, we all threw ourselves into the book to see who it would be. She did well to keep us guessing, with multiple near-misses throughout the book, but ultimately she lived up to her word and killed off Sirius, one of the series’s most popular characters. She did it again in the next book, with Dumbledore. And then, well, all hell broke loose in the finale and lots of people died.
Yes, the last book was a bloodbath, but by then each individual death became less and less shocking. Why? Well, there are several reasons. First, it was a bloodbath. One death is a tragedy. Ten deaths is a statistic. Second, it came at the end of the series. We expect genre fiction to climax with battles and deaths, so delivering those merely lives up to the expectations of the audience. Third, it was no longer a surprise. By then, Sirius had died. Dumbledore had died. Multiple bad guys and just-introduced characters all died. We had become somewhat numb to it.
Now, I’m not saying she “did it wrong” by killing off so many characters, only that their deaths were not individually as impactful.
If you’re writing genre fiction with lots of violence in it, characters should die. You might be tempted to kill off just the bad guys, or maybe only newly introduced characters your audience hasn’t bonded with yet. That is a mistake.
You might also consider just bookending your story with death. Also a mistake. Killing off characters at the end of a story, during the climax, is totally expected. You will surprise no one. And the beginning, too, is a pretty standard place to introduce and eliminate some characters; look at how many protagonists are orphans, after all.
It’s the middle of the story, though, when the audience maybe isn’t expecting it, that a character’s death becomes profound, meaningful, and horrifying.
Donald Maass teaches to constantly up the tension in your stories. Every chapter should put the protagonists in a worse situation, or at least a new stressful one. As our friend Geoff has said before, “Think of the worst thing that can happen to your characters and do it.” (I might be paraphrasing but the idea is sound.)
And basically, what is the worst thing that can happen to any mortal being?
Now, a character’s death should in some way make things worse for the survivors. Killing off an annoying sidekick none of the other protagonists like doesn’t increase the tension in your story (it might make your readers happy, but you don’t always want that… a lot of times you want your readers scared for the protagonists). You want your audience to remain engaged? Let that annoying character live and kill off a favorite character instead.
Your audience might not thank you, but it will almost certainly remain engaged just to see what happens next.