Killing Your Darlings
I am in the midst of writing a series with a long character arc that demands the
death of a particular person in order to move my character toward the last part of
the story. I am not looking forward to writing this character's death, but I'm aware
that it is necessary. It has made me think a lot about the murders that we writers
commit for our fiction, and the reactions that readers sometimes have to our
choices. I'm pretty sure that readers are going to hate me for this one and I wish I
could find a way out.
George R. R. Martin is well known for killing off characters his readers love. One
of the reasons he does this is that he wants readers to feel like no character is free
from jeopardy. In many fantasies, there is a sense of security. Only the "Red
Shirts" die, only the characters that are minor. The major characters, the hero and
his special band of friends, will never die, right? There's an unwritten rule that, for
instance, a viewpoint character can't die. If you're watching a TV show, the
regular cast can't die because they are the ones who are getting a paycheck and the
writers have to write around them. Only it does sometimes happen that a regular
character ends up leaving a show and the writers write a dramatic episode around
A lot of the time this exit is advertised beforehand and everyone expects it, but if
you were a devotee of The Good Wife this last season (2013-2014), Will Gardner's
unexpected and unadvertised death would have come as a shock to you. If you
were like me, you watched the episode with a growing sense of dread, sure that
Will Gardner couldn't possibly die, and then when the episode was over, shaking
your head, determined you would never go back to that show again that had
betrayed you. But of course, I did keep watching, at first just to see if they could
do anything to repair the broken trust with the viewer (me) and then because I
realized this was a great chance narratively speaking, to reinvent the show, for the
writers to prove that the other characters had stories to tell without Will that were
compelling. I gave the writers a chance to show me that even though they had
been thrown a curve ball, they were writers, and they knew these characters well
enough that even when they had to do something they hadn't planned, they could
work with it. After all, life isn't planned most of the time. And we still have stories
that revolve around those events we didn't want to have happen.
I am no George R. R. Martin. I have no intention of killing off my main characters
all over the place. In part, this is simply too expensive for me as a writer. I take
great care in creating characters the audience will love and I don't want to have to
recreate new ones. Call me lazy. Or call me compassionate to my readers. I feel
like there is a certain trust between writer and audience in which you promise that
there are certain rules to be followed regarding who can die and who can't. But
every writer has to choose for him/herself how far you will follow those rules.
After all, writing is all about breaking the right rules at the right moment for the
effect that you want.
Each character that you choose to kill off will cause a reader reaction and will
demand a narrative price. Think about if you are willing to pay that price.
If you kill off the best friend, you do it because you need to isolate your main
character. The main character will be devastated by this, of course, but more
importantly, will have to readjust and will find new relationships. All deaths
require a time of mourning, but the best friend may take longer. It can cost you
time in terms of your audience's patience. I don't recommend cutting the
mourning short because that will make your main character feel cold or possibly
shallow. But to do the mourning fully, you may end up making your readers feel
impatient with your main character. Remember in Harry Potter when Sirius Black
dies and Harry goes through a long period of annoying, whining pages? You may
have to do that for the sake of realism and true character development if you kill
off a character close to your hero. In addition, killing off a best friend is going to
change the dynamic of repartee or reliance that you have set into place as a writer
and you have to develop that all over again with a new character eventually. That
costs you time and effort as a writer, as well.
A more common choice is to kill off the most vulnerable character in a group.
Realistically, this makes sense because the most vulnerable character would be the
one that a predator would pick off first. The reaction of the remaining characters
will be telling. Are they going to recommit to each other and to the work ahead in
the quest? Or are they going to turn on each other and show their fear? As with
any character, you need to allow a time of mourning following this death, but it
won't have to be as long if it's not someone closest to the hero. I recommend
taking this chance to fully realize this vulnerable character if you haven't done so
before. Death is a time when characters look back at the life of another and tell
important stories. So do that.
You can also choose to kill off the wisecracker. This choice can feel surprising
because a lot of writers depend on the wisecracker in tense situations to let off
steam for the other characters. You don't see Disney movies killing off the funny
sidekick because he serves a narrative purpose in every tense scene. But killing off
the wisecracking character can make your climactic scene in which you face the
dark night of the soul even darker and more intense. The reader will feel that you
have taken away the fun in the story, and that may really serve you well if that is
the emotional effect you are going for. But you may also end up getting nasty
letters from readers who feel like you promised them one kind of story and didn't
fulfill your promise because you took away the blunting of the sharp edge.
In hero stories, the beloved is often killed or at least put in jeopardy. I tend to be
annoyed by this when it devolves into a simply damsel in distress story. Reversing
gender roles is one way to escape the cliché here. If a female main character loses
her beloved, how does that change her? Does she become more angry and hard?
Does she lose all femininity? Again, this can be an interesting effect, but you may
alienate certain readers who have more traditional ideas of gender roles. Any
character who loses a beloved is going to react. The reaction can be anywhere
from complete withdrawal to violent tirades -- and not necessarily directed at the
villain or the enemy troops. Realism is one thing, but as a writer, be aware of how
far you are going to stretch the reader's sympathy for your main character. Also be
aware that if your readers love the romance you have set up, ending it may result
in your book being thrown across the room.
The mentor/father/mother figure is killed so often in narrative that it feels like
an obvious choice to make. But reconsider doing it if you have planned it for
precisely this reason. Yes, killing off a mentor figure a la Obi Wan Kenobi does
have the effect of making your main character grow up. There's no one left to rely
on, so now the main character has to become the adult. On the other hand, there
are other ways to do this. Our mentors sometimes turn out to have flaws. Or
weaknesses. Perhaps they are not the perfect figures that we imagine them to be.
Having a mentor turn out to have clay feet is also an interesting way to do some of
the same narrative things to your main character without the clichéd death. And it
also enables you to do some more subtle character revelations, and to show the
relationship between the mentor and mentee continue to grow and develop beyond
the crisis moment. There is a lot of realism in this for those of us who have seen
our own heroes fall.
Killing off the grizzled veteran feels like it is an easy choice, because this is
someone who has already accepted death many times over. So if you make this
choice, don't do it easily. Twist it around and make something surprising happen.
Maybe he begs for his life in the end, or weeps for his mother. Do something to
make your reader feel every death, even one that feels expected.
If you are killing a vast swathe of unnamed troops, try to humanize them. Give a
few names. Let the main characters walk through the mass and find stories, even if
the dead don't tell their own. Make sure that it doesn't feel like a video game
And last but not least, don't bring your dead characters back. Please, I beg of you.
As much as I really like Joss Whedon stories in general, I feel strongly that he falls
too often prey to the temptation of writers to play both sides. He wants us to feel
the horrible emotional wrench that ought to come with the death of a well-known
character. But then he wants the chance to continue stories with that character, too.
So he is constantly bringing characters back to life. This has the opposite effect of
George R. R. Martin, so that every time you see a Joss Whedon character die, you
wonder if it is for real, or if they will be reappearing at the beginning of the next
And it's not like Joss Whedon is the only writer who has ever done this, right?
What about Sherlock Holmes? Yes, writers sometimes end up being forced into
doing what their audience wants, despite their intentions to hold fast to what feels
like a more important narrative truth. But don't plan to cheat your stories out of all
their power in the first place, please.
I admit, when used sparingly, bringing back a dead character can be an interesting
device. But only when you make sure that there is a cost to be paid. A dead
character brought back to life ought to face consequences. When Buffy came back
to life, she was angry at being yanked from a peaceful place where she had been.
Her friends thought they were rescuing her and that they should be congratulated
for all their sacrifices. She felt constrained to hold back the truth from them
because she didn't want them to feel bad. I may be one of the few people who
thought that Season 6 of Buffy was the best of all of them because of the way that
we as readers had to see what it cost to bring a beloved character back from the
dead. It was as if we were complicit with Willow and Xander and Dawn in
bringing Buffy back. Our thirst for more stories cost Buffy dearly. The metaphor
was well drawn here.
Perhaps you feel like not every death has to be felt deeply by the reader. If so, you
are probably telling stories that I'm not particularly interested in. War is a terrible
thing, and in war, sometimes many, many people die. But I feel strongly that if you
are writing about war, you need to write about the human cost of it. Every death
matters, not just the ones that are designed to make your main character change
and grow. Sometimes people grow in ways we as writers don't always anticipate
and don't necessarily want. At least, that's the way that writing is for me. I set
things in motion that I think are interesting and follow them. If I'm not surprised
by my own narrative, I wouldn't be interested in going on. So for me that means
that if people die, there are going to be consequences that don't appeal to me. And
I've got to make my readers live with them anyway, and make them somehow
Good luck, and don't pull punches! Death happens, but don't make it convenient
and always, always, give us time to mourn.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison