Killing off characters

J.D.Rajotte

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Me and my girlfriend were watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the other day, and when Sirius Black died we both took note of how strong our emotions of heartbreak were for both the character and Harry. I update her on my current book frequently and one thing that she noted was that while some characters I've introduced have died, none of them are very connected to the reader, (non-main characters). She said that if I killed a main character that it would have a strong affect on the reader and that it might be beneficial. I'm on the fence because I really like all my main characters and plan to build on them all, but I do love to twang on a reader's heart strings and put them on an emotional roller coaster. Any thoughts or opinions on killing main characters?
 

The Judge

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Well, GRR Martin seems to thrive on it...

Killing a main character because the story requires it is one thing, doing it just for the sake of provoking emotions is entirely different -- you can easily lose the reader's trust, as well as interest. It's certainly not something I'd do lightly.

Anyhow, this is really a matter for Writing Discussion, so I'll move it over there.
 

sule

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My thoughts on killing off major characters is that you should do it because their death would mean something for either the plot moving forward or for the arcs of one or more of the other main characters and not just because you're trying to make your readers sad (i.e.--Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,
Dumbledore's
death serves to create more tension as they are no longer there for Harry to lean on, and now he must face his challenges alone).

If I could divert the conversation slightly: you don't need to kill off major characters to make your readers feel strong emotions; in my opinion writers can achieve that effect when killing off minor characters if we give the reader reasons to care about those characters. I would try putting more individuality into your minor characters--make them pop, give them something they're trying to achieve even if their quest never actually comes up in the prose. In short, make them feel like real people. In reality, there are no minor characters. Everyone is the hero of their own story. If you can pull off that same effect in your story, you won't need to kill off major characters to make your readers care (although it still remains a viable option).
 

Biskit

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My first thought was what @sule said, but as question - why don't your secondary characters engage with the reader?

It sounds like you need to work on how you present those characters. They might not be around for long, might not have much word-count attached, but if they still ought to resonate with the reader.
 

Luiglin

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I went to a David Gemmell signing once and let him know that I liked his books because he killed off characters. His reply was quite enlightening. He said even though he wrote fantasy, his characters went into danger and in danger, people die. He said there was nothing worse than reading certain sought of thriller books where the main character was put through hell but you just knew that they'd survive. To him, that just didn't seem right and lessened the tension.
 

Ashleyne

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Good advice from Luiglin and Gemmell. Also, if you writing a horror or dark fantasy and you want to evoke fear, the easiest to do it is to kill someone important. If an important person can die, anyone can.
 

tinkerdan

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I think in my own work I stumbled across one answer to this.

It has to do with making the connection between the MC and the soon to be dead whose name we won't mention

I built up the trust and dependence that the main character has for this character. Though at sometimes it is fragile.

I also built the reader trust in this character. He also has a bit of a past that he's not entirely proud of and feels what he's doing for this other character is helping him atone in some ways.

However, the biggest thing was that there is a direct result that increases the challenge to the MC because of this character's death.

And, lastly, if he didn't die then the story would be totally different.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I’ve killed off a few in my time... in a way it makes the danger to others feel more real. On the downside, youve invested heavily, and readers might not like your other characters as much and lose interest.
 

Mouse

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All writers kill off characters. My published novels are romance and characters even get killed off in that. It's not a big deal, it just needs to be done for the right reasons - as sule says, for plot progression or character arc. If it's done for shock it gets dull super fast. I stopped reading ASoIaF because the character deaths grew old.

And as @Biskit says, your secondary character deaths should still matter.
 

msstice

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I’ve killed off a few in my time... in a way it makes the danger to others feel more real

I like Faulkner's quote (The Nobel Prize in Literature 1949):
... the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
 

Eli Grey

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Me and my girlfriend were watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the other day, and when Sirius Black died we both took note of how strong our emotions of heartbreak were for both the character and Harry. I update her on my current book frequently and one thing that she noted was that while some characters I've introduced have died, none of them are very connected to the reader, (non-main characters). She said that if I killed a main character that it would have a strong affect on the reader and that it might be beneficial. I'm on the fence because I really like all my main characters and plan to build on them all, but I do love to twang on a reader's heart strings and put them on an emotional roller coaster. Any thoughts or opinions on killing main characters?

But the point of writing is not to kill off characters but to entertain. You can tell just as engaging a story with characters who are still breathing than telling a story where someone dies. Like, Han didn't have to die in the force awakens in order for the audience to be emotionally invested. Han was there and that was enough. The writers did their job (fan service). I won't speak on the travesty of the sequel trilogy here as many others have already and are much better at articulating the general consensus of fans that it's utter trite.

Understand that there just needs to be truth in what characters are doing. In the subtlest or grandest of ways make their actions, motives, beliefs or lack thereof clear to the reader. But the truth in fiction is the human element, good or evil. It will shine through and readers will react.

And if you really like your characters, expose their dirty deeds to the reader in hopes that the character will acknowledge them and commit to being a better human being. Treat your character development over the course of the story like therapy for the character. Let them come into a little bit of shame when their flaws are exposed, then give them the opportunity to make better choices.

And remember, if progression is organic, it won't be the author killing off characters, it will be characters killing characters. Your job will be to rationalize the act of killing in the character's mind. You plant the idea and let the potential killer follow through with the act if they so choose.

In fact, what would be just as tantalizing to the reader is if someone is moments away from death but the killer stays his weapon and the almost murder victim is never made aware. Or, maybe they find out ten chapters later that someone lurked in the dark ten feet away with the intent to do harm. Or perhaps there's a scene where fate seems to push a character out of a deadly situation. When the character is removed from the hidden danger, the danger is exposed and the character is shocked and relieved and becomes an emotional wreck.

What I'm getting at is maybe put your characters in grave danger after their value to those around them is well established, then pull them to safety.
 

Boneman

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Understand that there just needs to be truth in what characters are doing. In the subtlest or grandest of ways make their actions, motives, beliefs or lack thereof clear to the reader. But the truth in fiction is the human element, good or evil. It will shine through and readers will react.
Eli Grey wins the Internet. This is perfect.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it's just one of a number of tricks that can be used to improve the story. As with all these things, it can get tired or distort the story if overused or done badly. It's probably worth mentioning that if characters can be brought back from the dead or are rescued by unfeasible authorial intervention, death loses its meaning. And it does inevitably have meaning, even if the meaning is "life is cheap and death can come from anywhere".

Also, be really careful when killing off beloved characters to get the readers involved. You have to balance out the one-off effect of the death against the continuing benefit of the character being alive.

The dynamics and atmosphere of a story (especially a classic fantasy story with a "party" of characters) is often based on having everyone around. Not only will characters be missed, but they may have to be replaced if they have a specific function. I had a discussion with @HareBrain about this a while ago: while it was quite likely that a mercenary captain in a story I wrote would die, he would have to be replaced by someone else, who would have less time to develop as an individual character and would have, by definition, to fulfil the "tough, shrewd mercenary" character that his role in the story dictated. In the end, it was just easier to keep him alive than replace him with a similar, weaker character.
 

The Big Peat

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There's about a thousand and one things that can be said about killing characters and some of them will be true or false depending on your intended audience. Point in case - Mouse got bored with the deaths in SoIaF, and so did I to an extent, but tons have lapped it up. And I think can argue with every point here if I so chose. Another point in case - Ashleyne says if you kill an important character, there'll be a sense of "anyone can die", but it can easily lead to a reader assuming the author's shot their bolt and that's the end of it.

So, ultimately, do what you like. Do what feels right. Think about what that fan letter you'll get in ten years says, and what you'll feel proudest about that fan saying. And all that jazz. The choice of To Kill or Not To Kill is not the crucial one here, it's what you do with it, and there are other ways to pull at heartstrings that don't involve death.

The biggest issue here I'm seeing is that your secondary characters don't connect. Sirius Black would be what I call a secondary character - why did his passing emotionally hurt your gf, while yours are just "meh"?
 

Wayne Mack

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if I killed a main character that it would have a strong affect on the reader and that it might be beneficial. I'm on the fence because I really like all my main characters and plan to build on them all, but I do love to twang on a reader's heart strings and put them on an emotional roller coaster.
I suggest that if the writing does not already have a strong effect on the reader, then killing a main character will not create one. I usually find that it is a secondary character that is often killed, primarily to remove the character from a supporting role to the main character. I would also argue that the characters killed off in Harry Potter were all secondary characters outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
 
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