Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2014

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 that.

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 death.

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 season.

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 riveting.

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

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