Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Killing off Characters

I came across this post by Jennifer Fallon, the fantasy writer who runs the Reynox Writers Centre, on different ways to kill off your characters. They're all so good I had trouble deciding which were my favourites. Here's a couple:

  • Energy weapons. Useful because they can also be set to stun and apparently nobody ever has an adverse reaction to being knocked unconscious by several thousand volts or pretty green lights. Be warned though, energy weapons should — theoretically — cauterise a wound on the way through, not make it bleed. Only useful if you don’t want buckets of blood splashing about for people to slip on and sprain something…
  • Childbirth. The most popular way to remove an unwanted female character.
  • Zombification. A very useful tool. Removes the character but leaves you with an evil minion to wreak havoc on your heroes. Sort of what happens to people who join political parties.
And here we have 100 ways to kill your characters, from someone who likes making lists. Right down to the other end of the spectrum with 8 ways to kill your characters.



Perhaps we should be asking - when should you kill a character?

When ...

the reader cares about them
it is most effective for the plot
it creates a moving scene
it forces the main character to make a choice
the choice creates a moral dilemma
the choice the main character makes revels something about him/her
when you want to show how dangerous a situation is
when you need to raise the stakes
when you can achieve two or more of the above


It doesn't have to be a person who gets killed. I read one of Dave's pieces where the main character had to kill their dog and that moved me to tears.

Have you had to kill off one of your characters? When and how did you do it?

16 comments:

C Kelsey said...

I wrote a novella years ago featuring a colonization fleet and it's escorts being ambushed by a massively superior force. Given the circumstances, people and minor characters were dropping like flies. The difficulty then was to do something that would provide weight to all this other stuff going on. The POV characters, being mostly necessary for the plot, weren't good candidates for this. However I had a captain of one of the colony ships who had his family onboard including his son and his son's new wife. So of course a railgun round went right through their cabin. I didn't off the POV character, but I sure did use his feelings.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Absolutely, Kelsey.

It has to have meaning for the character to make an impact with the reader.

MataPam said...

Your Characters let you kill them off?

Wow.

I mean, I had one who, right from the start was slated to redeem his past evils by dying to save the main character. He not only refused to die, he got the girl.

Umm, yeah, I've got a scene that's stopped dead in the middle because I can't bear to write it. I _like_ my characters and this is going to be tough on them.

Jim McCoy said...

I have yet to kill of one of my main characters, although I'm working through a massive attack on my protagonists hometown and minor characters are dying like flies. This isn't as useless as it sounds. The protagonist, who is very young in the terms of his society and race (he's a dwarf) is suffering over this because he's been forced into a leadership role he really didn't want.

But err...can I go off on a rant for a second?

Thanks!

One of my pet peeves is when authors off characters in useless ways.

A good example of this comes from the Battletech saga.

Grayson Carlyle is a survivor through all of his appearances in the stories. His father is killed and he rebuilds his father's mercenary unit into the much bigger and better Gray Death Legion, which fights for pay and also, and this is big with me. stands for something. He defeats numerous enemies when outnumbered and always comes out ahead.

So how does he die?

Of leukemia in a hospital bed. WHY? It could have been an assassin. It could have been a training accident. It could have been in combat. I get the fact that he had to die for the story to work, but not that way.

The same goes for Ben Raines at the end of the Ashes series by William W Johnstone. He died of a bio weapon. I guess that wasn't AS bad, but dude...

Why can't our heroes go out fighting?

Anonymous said...

Hellborn Dragon: With a controlled hydrogen explosion

Evil Alien Smiley-Face: Popped

Negligent Stepfather: Vampiric butterfly attack

Beloved Cousin: Sentient alligator attack

Sexy Alien Man-Imposter: Futuristic gun

Hellborn Black Entity: Light

Dust Globs: Ray gun (it's supposed to be old school)

Ship's Crew: Sinking the ship by stopping the song that powers it

Old West Posse Members: Snakes

I enjoy killing off characters though they do not drop willy-nilly in my stories. It's a nice frustration vent to create a villain and then kill it. Other characters, too, get the ax, but they're more work. I've noticed a lot of dying in a story happens off-page with me, also.

And I must say, I am now reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch and I'm totally pissed off at the death of some characters...errggg. I see that he has used them as a motivational tool for other characters, but still.

Linda

Chris L said...

And then, once you've killed them, there's the 'How do I bring them back?' dilemma.

Don't get me wrong, I hate when stupid people bring back dead characters, but it happens all the time. If you can't think of a sensible way to bring back a favourite character, the currently favoured option is to write a prequel.

Personally I favour the middle ground. Meaning the "MC-thinks-she's-dead-but-reader-knows-she's-still-alive-and-about-to-save-his-ass" option, a-la Romeo and Juliet -- minus the tragic ending.

I did enjoy the star trek TNG solution. When Lt Yar suffered death by mutant oil slick, it was so pathetic, they brought her back via time travel and killed her off again in a really excellent episode called 'Yesterday's Enterprise'.

Of course it later transpired she hadn't died in the battle but been caputed and raped by Romulans but still...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, in my T'En trilogy one of the characters was meant to be a 'bad guy' but he refused.

He kept insisting that his motivation was pure. He committed lesser evil for the greater good. In the end he almost had me convinced.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim McCoy,

Joss Whedon killed Buffy's mother using a brain tumor. He wanted to make the point that sometimes no matter how hard you try you can't save the people you love.

Buffy can kill vampires and save the world but she can't save her mother.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Linda,

Looks like you're he Queen of Character Killing!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

'Of course it later transpired she hadn't died in the battle but been caputed and raped by Romulans but still...'


LOL Chris.

A prequel is a great idea if you can still make it exciting. I've heard people say they don't like prequels because they know what's going to happen later.


I guess it depends on how far you go back.

Kate Paulk said...

I keep a stock of expendables to be killed in "interesting" ways - this is one of my preferred stress-busters.

Major supporting characters - if it has to happen, it happens. As those who read Impaler will discover... (No, I'm not saying more than that. It matters to the plot and to Vlad's motivations. You have to buy it and read it to find out why. Neener neener neener.)

Stephen Simmons said...

Teenage would-be author: The overly-realistic serial killer she was writing came to life. Thus creating a crime strange enough to present a challenge for her world-renowned detective character ...

Phenomenally-conceited inventor: Applied stupidity (his own), forming the climax of the story.

Fiance, left in the path of the sniper's bullet as the heroine is rescued in the proverbial nick of time, thrusting her into a showdown between vengeance and her higher principles.

Father-figure neighbor, shot in the back while heroically fighting off the assassin who attacked the heroine.

Pompous-ass noble's son leading the company of soldiers, spectacularly obliterated by magic while the guide is trying to get him to shut up and retreat, thus convincing the soldiers the boy rates listening to.

I seem to kill bit-players off-stage, but my Characters seem to insist on dying where you can see them.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, I'll be downloading "Born in Blood" for my wife (late V-Day gift) as soon as I figure out how to get it to her Nook. (And then "Knights" for me ...) When will "Impaler" be ready?

Kate Paulk said...

Stephen,

Impaler is scheduled for March, so probably another month. Amanda would be able to give you more detail.

I hope your wife enjoys Born in Blood, and you enjoy the Knights.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate said:
I keep a stock of expendables to be killed in "interesting" ways - this is one of my preferred stress-busters.

I guess we all have to have some sort of stress buster!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Stephen, you seem to have a flair for ironic deaths.