Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Killing characters

I happened to see a comment, in a review of PURE MAGIC, about how the reader didn’t have to worry about anybody important dying in this book, but probably someone would die in Book III.

Hmm, I said to myself. Actually, it’s true, isn’t it, that the body count was a lot higher in BLACK DOG than in PURE MAGIC. I’m not sure whether it’s really *so* plain that no one is at risk in PURE MAGIC . . . I would hope that the reader entertains some doubts about that from time to time, in fact. But the truth is, I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to kill anybody important in Book III, either.

Of course, I’m not envisioning this as a trilogy, but as a five-book series with short stories in between each pair of novels. So to me, Book III has never felt like the ending. I am practically certain one important character is going to die in the 4th or 5th book. I really don’t know myself whether some of the other characters will die. Maybe, maybe not. That’s the kind of thing that I only know for sure when I get there.

At the moment, I must say, I really don’t *want* to kill anybody. I really like the whole cast! If, as the plot unscrolls, it becomes reasonable not to kill anybody, then I won’t force it.

To me, sometimes it looks an awful lot like an important character dies because the author is determined to kill them, not because the plot leads to or through a necessary death.

I’m not talking here about the GAME OF THRONES kind of thing, where the body count is so very very very high and practically no one is safe. I’m talking about the author deliberately reaching into the plot and stabbing an important secondary protagonist in the back, so to speak, in order to manipulate the reader’s experience. IMO, if you can spot the author’s hand holding the knife, it’s a serious failing.

I stopped reading Stephen King novels because at some point in his career, it became clear that King was deliberately inserting The Nice Character in order to kill her. I say her because The Nice Character seems to be, usually (always?) female and usually (always?) she is someone the other characters particularly want to protect. We saw that in CELL, if I remember correctly, and even more blatantly in DUMA KEY. Once you see the author doing this, you can’t unsee it. Then the death of the character becomes so obviously manipulative it’s almost offensive.

For me . . . and by now everyone’s read THE HUNGER GAMES, right? Because here comes a spoiler:

. . . the death of Prim at the end of MOCKINGJAY also feels blatantly manipulative and seems to oppose the natural shape of the plot. I realize other readers may not feel that way. Opinions about this series are highly variable. But some deaths grow naturally out of the plot and this one did not feel that way to me. It felt like the author reaching in and using Prim to stab Katniss in the back.

To take one obvious counterexample, this is not the case at all with Aral Vorkosigan’s death, which was actually necessary to the shape of the Vorkosigan series. That is what I mean by the death of an important character arising from the plot. It would have felt quite different if Bujold had let, say, Bel Thorne die.

In contrast, it was awfully convenient that Ekaterin’s first husband died. I really didn’t think he was going to; I thought Bujold would do something else, something less obvious, to get him out of the way. Of course that’s not a death to manipulate the reader; it’s a death to clear the way for your protagonists. That doesn’t feel offensive to me, just a bit pat.

Anyway. As I said, I’m almost certain that at least one important character in the Black Dog series is going to die, though probably not for a while. I really don’t know about some of the others. It’s a dangerous universe and the challenges everyone’s going to face in Book III are pretty serious. But I hope that whoever dies, their death will feel like a natural part of the plot rather than something imposed from the outside, as it were.

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3 Comments Killing characters

  1. Mike S.

    Continued Hunger Games spoilers:

    I have mixed feelings about Prim’s death. It felt very wrong and arbitrary. But I felt like that was intentional, in a way that dovetails with making Katniss’s role in much of the war being symbolic and propaganda fodder rather than actively fighting. (And her being sidelined by injury early in the climactic battle.)

    Collins seems to be saying something about how big a role even a skilled and motivated person can play in what’s ultimately a large, impersonal conflict, and how exercising agency isn’t the same as controlling events.

    Katniss began her journey to save Prim, and ultimately failed. (Albeit in a way that meant Prim herself went out heroically, trying to save people, rather than a helpless victim of the Games.) Katniss’s decision wasn’t irrelevant, it literally changed the world… but it didn’t achieve what she’d primarily intended.

    I find it unsatisfying and tragic in the way that a lot of history is. And I’d prefer a more straightforwardly heroic story in which Katniss herself is more victorious than exhausted and burned out and used up. But I felt as if Collins was capturing a certain truth about big, violent events and the often arbitrary costs they exact. It didn’t quite feel the same as, e.g., the diabolic hand of Joss Whedon killing a selected character during an apparent lull, to tug at the audience’s heartstrings.

  2. Elaine T

    Bujold’s handling of whathisname’s death was a bit pat, but at least she set it up well. He was established as a careless fellow and died for it. If it had come totally out of the blue I’d have been more upset with it.

  3. Rachel

    Mike, okay, fine, yes, I expect you are right. But if I wanted that kind of ending, I could read history instead of fiction.

    Why was Prim in position to be killed? Because Collins put her there. It’s not like it was impossible to place Prim in that location given the way her story was structured. But out of a universe of things Prim could have been doing, she was doing that, right there, right at that moment? That’s awfully convenient for the author who wants to kill her off. To me it feels like: she didn’t fall, she was pushed, in order for Collins to make her point. If you see the author deliver the push, it just doesn’t work as well.

    Elaine, it’s true, Tien Vorwhatever was definitely established as careless before he died of carelessness. That does help.

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