Killing Characters

Normally, I don’t repeat announcements here if I’ve mentioned them on Twitter or Facebook.  This one deserves an exception.  Seanan McGuire was kind enough to e-mail me last night, and — after the prerequisite taunting — informs me that The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is #1 on the Locus Bestseller list!  It’s Snoopy-dance time!


So lately, I’ve been thinking about killing characters. Not the redshirts who die to remind us how dangerous the story is.  Not the villains who meet their just deserts in the final chapter.  I’m talking the central heroes.

I’ve read and watched many a story that killed off the good guys.  I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly.  Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings is marvelous.  He dies protecting the hobbits and earning redemption.  Well done, Tolkien.

Contrast this to Harry Potter.  I felt some of the deaths in the series worked, but after a while it felt like a publicity stunt.  “Book six comes out soon. Let’s start the betting pool on who she’s going to kill off this time!”  “Whoops, we’ve ‘accidentally’ leaked rumors that Snufflepuff the Privy Elf is going to off Snape!”

Joss Whedon is another one who’s known for killing off characters.  Sometimes, he does it to great effect.  Other times, it feels like he offs a character not because the story necessarily required it, but to show the audience that he’s willing to do it.  (The second death in Serenity struck me that way.)

So … when do you kill off a beloved character?  How do you do it well? The easy answer is that you do what’s right for the story, but what does that mean?

Among other things, it meant I couldn’t kill Jig off in the goblin series.  (I’m assuming that’s not much of a spoiler.)  The goblin books were light fantasy, on the fun, feel-good side.  I cheated a few times, and I killed off secondary characters, but to kill Jig would have been wrong for the kind of story I was trying to tell.

But what about more serious stories?  I’ve been struggling with this for a few weeks now, and here are some of the considerations I’ve come up with.

  • Is it realistic for all of the heroes to survive this adventure?  (I.e., would not killing someone destroy the suspension of disbelief?)
  • Choices and actions in a story have consequences.  Is death the appropriate consequence for the character’s actions in this story?
  • Am I wimping out if I don’t kill someone?  (Am I letting them all live because I like them too much to do what’s necessary?)
  • Will this death make the story better?

That last one is hard.  Does better mean more emotionally powerful?  More memorable?  More engaging?  More marketable (losing readers who want the fluffier stories, but gaining readers who appreciate the gritty)?

And when is it effective to cheat?  Theoretically speaking, imagine an author who killed off a character at the end of a trilogy, but deliberately planted hints that the character might not truly be dead after all.  A better ending, or a cowardly cheat?

I don’t have answers for this stuff, which is why I wanted to open it up for discussion.  What deaths in books and films have worked for you, and why?  What didn’t work?  When, as an author or a reader, does it feel right?

Obviously, there may be some spoilers in the comments.