Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who dies in your story?

It's an important question to ask. We used to make a joke: How can you tell the difference between a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy? In the comedy, everyone gets married at the end, and in the tragedy, everyone dies. This is, shall we say, a bit of an extreme difference. But what about your story? How do you know whether people should die or not?

Age group is, of course, an extremely important factor in your decision. Generally, the younger the story's audience, the less likely it is that anyone will die. Deaths in books for young people have to be very carefully decided upon, and very delicately handled.

Genre is also a huge factor. Murder mysteries begin with dead people, naturally. Thrillers often have a huge body count. Romances tend to veer away from death, for the most part. In science fiction and fantasy, there isn't a necessary expectation one way or the other. So I thought I'd take a look at some options.

1. No one dies
This one always makes me think of children's books, or children's animated shows. There's something weird about it, because no matter how dramatic the attack (and those are pushed to the heights of drama), there's never any gruesome injury or death, even when those might be the most natural result. Odd disappearances often substitute for death. The reason I bring this up, though, is because a lack of death can be handled badly or well. "No one can die" is a tricky arbitrary rule to enforce, and if you try to find easy ways of doing it, like having people coincidentally or luckily just not be injured or killed, it's going to look really weird. On the other hand, if you dig deep into how to handle it, it can also be very interesting. There's another way in which death is a too-easy way out - you can ditch a character and not have to do much except have people mourn and react. Sometimes it would be a lot tougher to figure out what might happen if the character didn't die. A non-death solution requires some ingenuity, especially when the character in question is the Big Baddie. It's never a good idea to avoid plausible and necessary injury or death out of a sense of squeamishness. However, having to deal with the real consequences of an attack that was supposed to be fatal and wasn't can be really interesting.

2. People you don't care about die
I'd also refer to this as "Only extras die." Maybe in the past, people took less umbrage at the idea of only extras dying, but at this point I think audiences and readers are pretty critical. If your story includes fighting and death, don't put a force field around your main characters. It's hard to kill off a point of view character, but it can be done. If you really feel you can't do in a point of view character, do consider important secondary characters. In the end, what you're trying to avoid is a situation where tons of extras die, but nobody in the main group takes a scratch. That would likely be seen as an authorial conceit (or, put less nicely, a cop-out).

3. The people you care about die.
This one is both tricky and interesting. We often care about the bad guy, enough at least to want him to get his comeuppance. So having the bad guy die is often a good thing - but depending on how violent and chaotic the story is, having him/her be the only one to die can be a problem. Please be aware that I'm not advocating killing a lot of people off. Let me say here that I was surprised and pleased when in The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdinck didn't actually get killed. But let's say you want to have deaths in the story which may or may not include the bad guy. In recent years, it's become more common and acceptable to have characters you care about die in stories. The first time I encountered this was in the film Serenity, and I'm pretty sure you are all aware of George R. R. Martin's tendency to make you love characters and then kill them off. The hazard of killing off characters people love is that readers need people to invest in who can carry them through the entire story. Kill the character and you may kill the reader's interest. Now, Game of Thrones has been enormously successful in spite of this, but I know at least one person who put down the books saying, "Every time I start to care about someone, they die." Kudos to George R. R. Martin for keeping so many people enthralled  - but don't assume you can pull off the same thing without some careful planning. Make sure you leave someone behind to carry on the drive and momentum of the story.

I know some authors who get gleeful on Facebook when they are about to kill someone off (not always the bad guy). I remember being thrilled when a character I hated finally got to die. It can be difficult, though, especially if the death is wrenching. Think through whether the death is necessary. It can be necessary for logistical or plausibility reasons, or for emotional amplitude reasons. You don't want to be holding back out of fondness, or squeamishness. On the other hand, you don't want to be needlessly brutal. Once I read a book where the main character was constantly getting injured - so constantly that after a while it became almost comical. I was pretty sure that any normal person would have been dead or hiding out somewhere licking wounds. In any case, you'll want to look at the emotional dynamics of the story, and make whatever happens fit in to match your intent.

The last thing I'd like to mention here is the issue of minorities and death. This has come to my attention in the form of Facebook posts from some respected friends critiquing modern media and literature. Be careful who you kill off and try not to fall into discriminatory patterns. For example, black men who achieve romantic relationships are highly likely to be killed in movies, as are minority supporting characters who sacrifice themselves for the success of the white lead. There is also a tendency for women to be killed off, often in order to provide motivation for a male character (sometimes called "manpain"). Whenever I see examples of this, or see it discussed, I can't help but shudder. When I was writing For Love, For Power, I set up a love triangle between Tagaret, Reyn, and Della, with Tagaret in the middle. I knew that I could not in good conscience resolve the triangle by having Reyn die - because killing off a gay character to make it possible for another character to have a heterosexual relationship would have been despicable of me (!!), not to mention an authorial cop-out. It's far more interesting and valuable to tackle the issues that come up as people work out their differences, even if it can be more difficult.

Take questions of life and death seriously.

It's something to think about.


  1. A great post.

    I killed a few characters in my book. Their deaths had a purpose in the grand scheme of things. Reminds of Galaxy Quest--I love that movie--the side kick character that just knows he's going to die. Spare them, please. lol

    1. Great to hear from you, E. Arroyo - happy new year! It's so important for deaths to have purpose in the story, even if they seem random on some level. I err on the side of sparing people when I can.

  2. Excellent post. I especially like that you included the concern about minorities. There used to be a thing (I think it even has a TVTropes page) where gay and lesbian characters, especially if they had romantic relationships, always died before the end of the book. I haven't seen that in any recent books, thankfully!

    Reading this made me think about whether or not to kill any more characters in the novel I'm currently working on, and if so, who. (One character has already died--there were multiple reasons to have one member of the group killed, but they mainly boil down to raising the stakes for the main character.) I'm definitely in category #3! I think I've now decided that one more character should die before the climax, so that the main character can wonder why that character and not a different member of their group was the one to be attacked.

    1. Sounds like you're thinking it through logically. Make sure you're also thinking through the nature of these attacks and how far they go. I'm thinking about a situation in a planned novel of mine where having someone be put in the hospital for a few weeks might make things far more difficult for the protagonists than having the same person killed. Good luck with your project!

  3. Oh, Wordpress, why must you be so inconsistent about names? Just FYI, Juliette, I've commented here before as Clare K. R. Miller--I'm not brand-new!

  4. I never thought about it much when writing, but seem to be keeping some sort of parity: three people die during the book, 3 new people are conceived and are born - with the attendant drama.

    People die if it's necessary - but it should be non-trivial.

    It's another trope that scads and scads of (usually) male bodyguards must die in some types of stories - all I can think about sometimes is that each of them may have a mother who grieves. I think it may be protective for those who identify with a main character.

    And say nothing about the quality of the deaths, if quality is the right word. The sidekicks die quickly and conveniently and without a word - and the main character, if she dies, does it slowly, with plenty of time for last words...

    It is, as you say, something to do carefully, by design.

    I knew Firefly wasn't coming back when three characters died, including two of the ensemble 9. It wouldn't have been the same without them.

    I remember being rather unhappy that they picked one of the successfully married people to kill off.

    1. I totally agree that death should be non-trivial. That's one of the reasons that the "only extras die" option is so unrealistic, because when only extras die, there is less emotional impact. I would personally be devastated and horrified if anyone died near me, whether or not it was a person I knew.

      It's also hard to make the deaths seem truly random in fiction. So easy to construe messages out of something like killing off a successfully married person, etc.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. I saw this post just after wrestling with this dilemma.

    The POV character thinks her life is so unfair. Then she foils a murder. Then she realises the almost-victim might just have things a little tougher than she does.

    The POV character is physically capable of killing the murderer. But she finds she isn't psychologically able to do it (but those agonising seconds before she makes her choice scare her).

    The original idea was to make the failed murderer take his own life rather than rot in jail.

    But if he lives, he can come back to haunt Our Hero later on...

    1. Sure - having the bad guy come back is a tried and true option. :) Good luck with your project and thanks for the comment!

  6. Haha, great article. I love someone mentioned Galaxy Quest. That's always one of the things I find funniest. When you've got that black guy or sidekick who thinks their going to die first and they end up surviving.

    My WIP I've got several deaths planned. The first of which I've got a character who I do a lot to make him a "nice guy" right before he gets publicly executed, which disgusts the protag.