On Killing Characters Effectively

I finished reading some pretty fantastic spec fic novels over the past couple of months, including Steelheart by Brandon Sanderon, Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook and Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry. One of the things that I noticed in these particular pieces – which I’ve noticed in a lot of my favorite novels – is that there are authors out there who really know how to kill off characters. As I’m building my novel-writing skill, I’m trying to take note of the different aspects to a truly awesome spec fic novel, and one important aspect is how you get rid of your characters. Below are a couple things I’m going to be keeping in mind as I go forward with my new projects.

1. Make it unexpected

The best character death, I think, is the one that the reader doesn’t see coming. There are certain set-ups that have been used in novels a lot that are best to avoid if you want to catch your reader off-guard. The Obi-Wan Kenobi set-up is one to avoid, for example. If you have a character with a mentor that they rely on (or who introduces them to a new world) odds are that mentor is going to bite the dust at some point. As much as it’s an essential part of the protege’s development – Luke needed to lose Obi-Wan to become a hero in his own right – you need to be careful not to follow the same formula that other writers have used. And yes, that is a prime example of easier-said-than-done in the writing world.

In the prologue of Steelheart, Sanderson does an amazing job of keeping you on your toes regarding a character’s fate. I think there are four different moments when you’re sure that David’s father is toast, and then something gets in the way and keeps him alive. Sanderson does it so masterfully that when David’s father is finally killed, it comes as an absolute shock.

2. Make it matter

A character’s death is only important if losing that character means something. One of the best ways to do this is to create dynamic characters that your reader will get attached to – losing any of them will be painful, especially if you have a small, tight-knit team like in Steelheart. It’s very easy to become so attached to your characters that you don’t want to kill them, but in certain types of books it’s unavoidable. The last thing you want is something like the cast of characters that sticks around in The Wheel of Time.

One of the risks that comes up, maybe more so in TV or movie writing, is that the character who gets killed off is the one that didn’t really have much use anymore. They’re story had been told or their major conflict resolved, and so instead of coming up with something new for them to do, you might as well sacrifice them to keep the other characters around. It’s sort of what The Walking Dead TV series did when they killed off Hershel; if the group was going out into the wilderness, there was no way the one-legged old guy was going to make it. That said, Hershel’s death was also suitable as development for the other characters, and the show’s writers orchestrated it really well. However, killing off the “safe” character doesn’t make for good writing. Sometimes, one of the most pivotal characters in the book should be killed, to make sure that the readers are kept on their toes. Think George R.R. Martin, maybe.

The point I’m trying to make here, I think, is that you need to be very careful with how you kill off characters. If the reader doesn’t care, or sees the death coming two hundred pages before it happens, then you might as well just keep the character around. Or, in the time-honored traditions of mystery writers, cripple and/or retire them, and bring them back later for an encore.

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