How to Kill a Character; Also, a Silver Circle Poll

Here’s a post at Writers in the Storm that caught my eye via The Passive Voice Blog: How to Kill a Character Without Enraging Readers

The death of a popular character has caused more than one angry fan to send email to the author and unfavorable reviews to chat groups and review sites. So, when you absolutely must cause a character’s demise, how do you do that without enraging your readers?

When and how you choose to kill off a character can make or break a story. It’s quite difficult for authors. The characters are very real. Permanently dispatching them is a bit like purposefully ridding oneself of an ally.

Characters should be killed off when the purpose of their demise will be the most impactful. Death may occur near the story’s end such as in John Steinbeck’s Of  Mice and Men, once we really feel for the victim. Or, like in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where deaths frequently happen with no warning, establishing the theme that the characters are never safe.

Okay, let’s talk about character death. Warning: I’m going to mention specific character deaths in real books. But it’s only a moderate warning because, with popular books over a decade old, I doubt the character deaths will come as a surprise. Still, here comes a spoiler for a popular series!

Here it comes! Ready?

All right:

I was pretty thoroughly enraged by Prim’s death in The Hunger Games trilogy. I considered that gratuitous — no. Worse than gratuitous: an utterly transparent manipulation inserted as a deliberate and unnecessary tear-jerker. One other aspect of the ending struck me as even worse, a complete missed opportunity, but this post isn’t about missteps in the ending, but about character death, so let’s stick with that.

I can’t offhand think of any other character death that made me madder than Prim’s but I can think of an author whose transparent manipulation of reader emotions via character deaths turned me off: Stephen King. For a while there, every single time I picked up one of his books — this was some time ago, so I mean books published maybe fifteen years ago — early in the story, a female character would step onstage and I could instantly peg her as the tear-jerker death that would happen at the end. Every time. Didn’t matter how contorted the plot needed to be in order to kill that girl / young woman. She would die no matter what. That happened in Cell, in Duma Key, I don’t remember which others, but it was one after another of the books published around that time. I quit reading anything by King at that point and have never since picked up any other book of his.

That’s what I mean by “transparent.” It’s fine to set up pathos, but the reader shouldn’t see you set it up, certainly not the first moment that character steps on stage. For crying out loud, that’s a huge failure of craft!

A character’s death ought to be inevitable or at least strongly justifiable given the plot. The plot shouldn’t need to undergo contortions to kill the character, because the death should arise naturally from the plot. And the death should be thematically right for the story. Elizabeth Bear didn’t infuriate me with the character death at the end of the Eternal Sky trilogy. That was tragic, but fine. It wasn’t gratuitous, it wasn’t shallow, it wasn’t manipulative, the tragedy arose naturally from the story.

Let’s see what the linked post suggests for this topic:

1. Make the Death Meaningful

2. Foreshadow the Character’s Death

3. Avoid resurrections.

4. End on a Positive Note

#1, make the death meaningful, sure, that’s definitely a good idea, unless you’re creating the sort of grim, nihilistic story where life is cheap and lots of people die and nothing means anything. I guess some readers like that, but ick.

I’m blinking at #2, since I just said I absolutely can’t stand it when I see the author set up the death of the character. But of course successful foreshadowing isn’t the same as a failure of subtlety when setting up the end of the story. The death in Bear’s trilogy was foreshadowed in the right way: by making the reader feel in retrospect that the death was inevitable and necessary, not by adding big neon This Person Will Die arrows pointing at the character in the earliest scenes.

Okay, #3, avoid resurrections, well, I sort of didn’t follow this rule at all in [gestures vaguely] that one book. I’m sure that by the time [this or that character] died, the reader was pretty sure I wasn’t going to leave everyone dead. This is something I’m only going to be able to pull off once. No doubt some readers don’t think I did pull it off, though hopefully most readers followed along and accepted the way all that stuff happened and the way it all worked out. But my point is, if anybody ever dies in a future book, that’ll be a final death, no resurrections.

I agree you probably want to be cautious with resurrections. I was fine with bringing Spock back to life because I wasn’t okay with his death in Wrath of Khan. But in general, the comic-book style death-and-resurrection is just silly. You definitely don’t want your readers to think your story is silly unless you’re actually aiming for that kind of silly tone in the first place.

And #4, end on a positive note, strikes me as a reprise of #1, make the death meaningful. The way you make the death meaningful is to bring positive value to the world by means of that death. That is what makes the death meaningful AND it means that you’re ending on a positive note, that something important has been saved or something important has improved. Not sure you can do one without the other.

Okay! This is all reminding me of a conversation I had with Sharon Shinn, about how letting every important character survive is often not at all realistic, yet we sometimes can’t bear to kill anyone. She said she faced that dilemma with her Twelve Houses series. Oooookay, I’m rolling my eyes pretty hard at Ace. This is a five-book series, but Ace has Amazon showing it as two unlinked two-book series plus an unlinked standalone, and I’m like, Really? Really? For your convenience: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4, Book 5. It’s a good series; my personal favorite is the fifth book, which stands alone perfectly, by the way. The first four comprise a single overall story, then the fifth book takes place after that main story has been concluded.

But back to the topic of character death. I’m thinking about it again, and in Sharon’s case, I’m not sure that’s really a dilemma. Her books are so often romances, and these are. Once you set up a series where every book is a romance, it’s tough to kill anybody in the main set of characters. Granted, you can set up secondary characters and kill them, but protagonists, not really. Therefore, if you’re following romance beats, no matter how implausible it might be to have all the pov characters survive to the final denouement, probably that’s what’s going to happen.

In non-romance, it’s harder. Now that I’m finally working on SILVER CIRCLE, naturally the Black Dog world is back in my mind. Obviously a whole lot of people died in the backstory of Black Dog, and then various named characters died during the course of the story. No pov protagonists, but I hope characters that people liked and were sorry to see die. Ever since, few if any named characters have actually died, though a few, yes. Also, plenty of characters have had a tough time now and then. But … is it plausible that all the pov characters will live to the end of Silver Circle? Really, that is not very plausible. This is a dangerous world. The backstory establishes that death is likely. And here we are, going into the endgame against powerful enemies.

So let’s have a poll! This is the first time I’ve ever tried to embed a poll, so we’ll see if it works.

This is, I should emphasize, strictly for fun. In this series, there are characters I know for certain aren’t going to die and other characters who might in theory die if the story goes that way. I do know which of these characters are in which category. I’m not going to tell you, obviously, but I think it’s likely you can guess for some of them.

Alternatively —

I bet some of you are now thinking that even if a certain character’s death is (a) meaningful, and (b) foreshadowed, and (c) not a cheat with a resurrection, and (4) the story ends on a positive note, you would NEVER FORGIVE ME. I wonder if everyone agrees about which character(s) should most definitely survive? Emphasizing again that I do already know who is in which category! Some characters are FOR SURE not in danger of death, though they may, of course, have a difficult time.

But one point here is that NOTHING ON EARTH could make you accept the death of certain characters. Isn’t that right? I’m sure that’s true. It wouldn’t matter if I had foreshadowed that during all four of the previous novels, made the death meaningful, and brought good things to the world by means of that death.

This is absolutely for sure true for many characters in many novels. If Cajiri died in the Foreigner series, that would be totally unacceptable. If Dr. Mensa or Ratthi died in the Murderbot series, no. Ludvic in The Hands of the Emperor, no. Huge numbers of characters occupy that kind of role where they can’t possibly die.

It’s a bit amusing for me to think about this, because how many of you would have been fine with it if Ryo had died at the end of TASMAKAT? What do you suppose the star rating would be in an alternate world where I had done that? Even if I’d set it up perfectly, wow, I bet I would have gotten tons of mail and also the star rating would be two point something. It’s funny to me to think of what reader reactions would have been if that had happened because there was never the remotest chance.

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13 thoughts on “How to Kill a Character; Also, a Silver Circle Poll”

  1. Grayson is getting older and might be the logical one to take the final fall, setting himself up to save everybody, but I hope he will die sometime quite a bit in the future, as his stature and insight are still needed and his lieutenants are not quite ready to step in and take over without creating too many problems. So I hope he doesn’t die yet.
    Some of his lieutenants (like Ezekiel) would take that jump for him if they could, but they will be needed in future to take over for him and keep the black dogs on a track that is compatible with human civilisation and an at least semi-civilised life for themselves (i.e. when in their human form).

    As there are several romance threads wound through the stories, some progressing well and some just starting, those set up an expectation for the partners to have a chance of happiness in the future together. But as the overarching series does not follow romance beats I can’t exactly count on it holding true.

    Thematically, if Justin and Natividad (maybe with Miguel’s help) are going to find a way to destroy all the grimoires and/or seal the world against any future demon temptations that could turn people into witches, and Michael through his previous interactions with witchcraft would be the one remaining loophole, I could see him needing to die to seal that loophole.
    But I don’t want him to, he’s been doing his best to help, and I’d much rather he became an aspirant monk undergoing purification and being watched over by a saint or something like that, to purge that taint and close that loophole.

    If not just demon temptations but all demonhtx,x incursions get blocked, would that mean no more black dogs can be born? What happens to future black dog babies? What happens to already-extant black dog demons, do they all die? Or do they stay in this world, free to roam after their black dog human body dies? That would be bad!

    Or would their black dog demons be sucked back into the hell dimension as part of the sealing-off, and the extant black dogs revert to their human parts?
    What happens with the vampires then, who are apparently something different from demons, and against whom the black dogs are necessary to keep them in check? Sealing off the demonic dimension probably won’t do anything to the vampires, or their ability to spread.

    You’ve got quite a tangle ahead of you, trying to solve the worst problems without unravelling the world into bloody chaos.

    More than one of your pov characters would throw themselves into mortal danger to save their friends and their world, so their deaths could be made meaningful and important, even crucial to solving the problem; but I just don’t want those good people to die.

    It wouldn’t be unforgivable, as the series has skated ever closer to my limits for horror (and a bit beyond, truth to tell, in the last book) and I still want to read the finale – I’d accept it as narrative necessity if if turns out that way, but probably not reread those books, though it won’t stop me from buying the next ones you write and publish.

  2. In the Scholomance trilogy, in the 2nd book there was a character who had been really important in the 1st book who was really, really backgrounded. We spent so little time with this character that I could tell something was up. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t really mad when they apparently died at the end of the 2nd book.
    If they hadn’t come back in the 3rd book I would probably have refused to ever read the series again. I’m still not sure what I think about that whole arc.

  3. Kathryn, I think I know who you mean. I think Novik had to use someone important that way, but … hmm. I don’t think I’m ready to re-read that trilogy again just yet, but I think I will like it even better the second time because I will know how various things work out. And I’ll also be paying more attention to setup. I know for certain nothing in the Scholomance trilogy struck me as anything close to as outrageous as Prim’s death or various other things in The Hunger Games.

  4. Now I’m curious about what else you think about the ending of the The Hunger Games :)

    The latest Dresden Files book had a very divisive character death (I don’t want to identify the character because of spoilers). I was actually surprised how okay I was with it, but I realized it’s because I trust Jim Butcher to make good choices (there have been things that I’ve found iffy in earlier books that were resolved well in later books).

  5. Elizabeth Bear likes to kill off major characters. She’s found a different way to make it not work for me: cutting out the heart of the series and then expecting you to keep reading.
    The Eternal Sky Trilogy – yes, that was sad but it fit, and the death was at the end of the trilogy. But in her science fiction trilogy Jacob’s Ladder – there were two main POV protagonists in the first book, and I really liked their relationship, the way they played off each other, and I was more interested in one than the other. And she killed her at the end. The next two books just felt like they had a big hole in them… the emotional balance was off and I wasn’t very invested in the remaining one. (And then she brought in another character in a similar role to Dead…. and killed her too!)

    Edda of Burdens, similar – she killed off (well, removed…) the protagonist at the end of the first book.

  6. GGK killed off Paul in the Summer Tree then resurrected him- that might have been the first book that ever made me cry and cry. Then Kevin!!! Then Tigana!!! Since then, most of his deaths have seemed a little contrived and manipulative to me. I hope you don’t kill Greyson off. He’s one of my favorite characters. I believe you have pointed out each of the younger characters as potential leaders after Greyson: I would like to see an heir declared, but without war and without Greyson dying. I know Natividad is very young, but I almost see her as a better fit for Greyson than Ezekiel. I love the family and character dynamics in this series, although I agree with Hanneke, the series skirts a little close to horror for me.

  7. Ack! Do not scare me like this! Strictly for fun—ha! I’m glad you put the NO ONE CAN DIE option in all caps, because that’s how I felt about it! They are all my squishy (scary) marshmallow babies and nothing bad can ever happen to them again.

    [Puts serious hat on.] One of the things I like about all your work, but Black Dog in particular, is that death isn’t actually the scariest thing that can happen to someone. Your stakes aren’t crazy high because everyone might die—it’s because of all the other horrible things that might happen to them, and to the rest of humanity, if they fail. It makes for a book that’s more interesting, and more nail-bitingly intense, than a book with a high body count.

    So there is ABSOLUTELY NO NEED for anyone to die in order for the plot to be tense and satisfying. Just saying!

  8. Even if it’s thematically correct, I hope you don’t kill any of those characters. Thar said, I can certainly imagine either Grayson or Thaddeus dying heroically. Killing Amira would be gratuitous, a central character or their love interest just doesn’t fit the feel of the series….. Now I am worrying about Ethan!

  9. Tasmakat spoilers ahead…

    It seems like the whole book was setting up that …he might have to die …then he probably has to, how could this end well otherwise? …then oh it’s so sad but now he really has to die. I was totally expecting it. I trusted you as an author to make it all ok anyway (I guess to make it meaningful and end positively), but I did NOT see the real ending coming. I was so relieved and happy!

  10. I’m having trouble figuring out who we’re talking about in the Scholomance books.

    I thought the deaths at the end of the Song of the Lioness were well earned (Pierce).

    Was really annoyed by a pov death in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chamber’s- it turned me off of her a bit.

  11. @SarahZ, yes! I was thinking of both of those too. I will never get over that death in the Song of the Lioness. Also, I was cheering for that character in Record.

    And let me say I totally cried at that part in Tasmakat; and then the subsequent complication was *brilliant*.

  12. I’m more of a fan of “seriously injure the older authority figure so the kids have to do it on their own” myself.

  13. Re: resurrection & the situation from your book – I think it makes a big difference when the story follows a POV character into some kind of afterlife/underworld. For example, in The Amber Spyglass, I think it was pretty clear that Lyra and Will were going to come back out of there somehow, and it was just a question of what would happen to everyone else. In the case of your book, I think the resurrection works because the set up was sufficiently similar. (I hope that is vague yet clear enough!!)

    My only Hunger Games opinion is that Gregor the Overlander was better.

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