Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kill the Character; any character?

 I mentioned last week during the Reader Interview with Heather McD. that I was on the same page with her as far as character killing went. In retrospect, I may have been hasty in my statement, because she didn't elaborate on her thoughts. So here's mine! Smile

 ...Earlier in the season I got to talking with a writer on FB about killing characters... and how writers are wont to do so. Usually in the name of suspense and reality.
 Kind of brought a whole Kill the Character theme to mind, and I rethought how this actually affects the reader.
 As a beginning writer, I used to be a big fan of killing characters... especially after I'd made them likeable. (I know! How cruel!)

 Back then, I once killed someone in a piece, and let my little sisters start reading it before I was quite done with the finish. They howled so heart-brokenly, I hastily resurrected him in the finale. (I have to listen to my readers!) 
And, for the record, they were very relieved
    And upon later review... (much later) I found I agreed with them.

 So I learned something from the outrage engendered by the proposed-and-nullified killing, even though it took me until just recently to realize it. (Years after the incident! Yes, sometimes I am a slow thinker. Smile )

  All this killing that I was expecting to be "necessary for tension amping" really... wasn't.

 I could kill off a totally random character and the This-Villian-is-Evil point carried with the same impact, and less anguish.

 It was an epiphany. I don't have to kill my personable characters.... If I am tired of them I can send them on a cushy retirement to the Bahamas and they can simply exit stage left with no audience outrage.

  To re-test this theory out on myself I asked; "As a reader, when did you enjoy a sidekick character dying? In what book were you glad one of the good guys got it?"

 The answer was: Never.
 And: None.

  I am always left wishing the author could have come up with a more clever and less final method of whittling down the good team so the Hero could stand alone against Ulitmate Evil.

 -Wounded in action?
 -Fell into a paralysis-inducing liquid?
 -Breathed the coma-vapor?
 -Locked in the outhouse?

 When random, likable characters are killed for "tension upping" purposes,  I always find myself mentally yelling at the plot line, "Come on! Get creative! Stop the brutality!"

  {Disclaimer: I like a thriller as well as anyone. I love a good adventure/action plot. Assassin's and warmongers are right up there. But to build a persona that is relateable and well liked, just so the author can kill them off and enrage the reader... is a cop out, and actually backfires. I will distance myself from a story if one of my favorite characters is ruthlessly chopped for suspense's sake. I am no longer invested in this tale... I'm just finishing it, 'cause that's what I do.}

  Books, movies... I'm forced to go back through and mentally reweave the story to save my favorite side-characters lives.

 So; is this the kind of feeling I want to leave readers with?
  I have to answer for myself... No.
                                                        Not at all.
  I'd way rather have a book that sarcastic people could shout "Unrealistic!" at, and keep fans happy with the final chapter. After all, all stories take leave of "total reality" one way or another, or else who would want to read them?
  We go to Story to be uplifted and made to feel better...

 So I have reformed my murderous ways, and now I know why.

   What do you think? Have you ever been glad a good guy "got it"?


Sarah H. said...

I killed off a character in my first book and haven't done it since. However, I plan to do it in a upcoming series. Why? Because I want to deal with some hard issues from a strong christian Characters perspective. However, I plan to kill off the character in the middle of the series so I don't end on a downer

Mary Ruth Pursselley said...

In my first novel, a central character (who also happened to be my very favorite character) died. I was heartbroken, and tried for days to find some way of either avoiding his death or bringing him back to life. Unfortunately, the nature of the plot was such that, if he was alive, there simply was no story. His death is what sets the core events of the plot in motion. So I had to leave him dead, sad as it made me.
I try to avoid killing characters (likeable ones, anyway), unless, as Sarah mentioned, their death opens a door for a really powerful message or deep meaning in the story.
Like you, though, Elizabeth, I'm not as fond of killing characters as I used to be. ; )
Great post!

Gina Barlean said...

I think in real life, people die. In real life, it's often heart wrenching. In real life, it's difficult.

I want my work to be like real life.

But, that's me. Everyone likes to write different kinds of thing, just as every reader likes to read different things. There is a place for all of it. You have to do what's best for you and your readers.

Elizabeth K. said...

That's a good idea Sarah! Definitely don't end it on a sad note like that!

Yes, Mary Ruth, an plot necessary killing is unavoidable. ;-)

That's true, Gina. I've had considerable amount of them die in my real life, and it's definitely a part of reality that we can't avoid. Like you said, we all have different preferences, and I enjoy books because they can distance me from the nasty aspects of reality. Good guys win, bad guys suffer for their crimes, and we can find happily ever afters that we may never see in real life. :-)

As for character-killing; I'm not against all fictional death, if it has a big purpose, but I think it's really important to not wrangle the reader into such a close connection with that character that when it dies they feel like they've died, too.
I do use character deaths in amongst my tales, but I deliberately try to make sure and present it in a way that is touching, but not heart-wrenching, not a now-I-can't-eat-for-a-week type of emotional catastrophe.
I think writers, (especially in the beginning) are drawn to a dramatic, heart-wrenching character death as a bid to engage the readers emotions. It's a great feeling to have been able to influence readers to that kind of depth on an emotional level. (I know that's why I used to be so free with the device.)
But having influence also means you have responsibility to use that power wisely, so I've since cut all unnecessary deaths.
If it can't answer a resounding "Yes" to the question "Is this vitally important to the fabric of the story ?" it doesn't happen. Or if happens off screen.

Thanks for the thoughts, gals! I'm loving all the interaction! :-)

Kelsey Bryant said...

I tend to agree with the rest of you ... if the death opens up the way to a powerful message, I'm okay with it - as soon as I've closed the book and stopped sniffling. : ) I've never killed off a character in my writing, but I won't rule it out. Some of my favorite books have had a character die a heart-wrenching death. Yet most of those books wouldn't be as touching or memorable if those characters hadn't died. In those situations, it's a love-hate sort of thing with me.
But in certain books the deaths are pointless. It's hard to say what makes the difference.
But you have a really good point, Elizabeth, about beginning authors wanting to hit the emotions of their readers by killing off characters. I've noticed many authors did that in their very first stories.
I like your question, "Is this vitally important...?" Good litmus test!

Stan said...

life without death is not life. The characters have to die (at some point). Just look at how many met their demise during the HP and HG series.

Sarah Scheele said...

Since I mostly write light-hearted things, I obviously don't kill a lot of my characters! For other people's work, I don't mind deaths if they're needed. Nearly everyone dies in a great tragedy. But I don't like it if the author is heartless about the characters--they're just dying so something new can happen in the story.

The thing I really dislike is characters who ALMOST die.You know, the person appears to be a goner, everyone sobs and is heartbroken, and then he starts breathing again. This makes me skeptical every time a character looks dead--which is not good for the times when they really do die. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Elizabeth.
Don't worry. I don't think you were hasty in your statement. :) I agree with you.
As for me, if the death does not have any purpose it is pointless. Why have a pointless death? I know it happens in real life. Like 9/11. But that doesn't mean I want to read about it (not 9/11, fiction-wise). I mean, why get me all depressed ... for nothing? I read to enjoy. Enjoyment for me is not reading a few characters get killed (for no reason). I once read one chapter of a book that was so depressing. There was a battle, you see, and a village was in it. Realistically, lots of people died. And the book went on about it. What really made it depressing when the author mentioned a death of a infant. I nearly cried. I put the book down, advised my sister not to read it, and never picked it up again. In my mind, it wasn't worth reading anymore. I've done that with another book, but it wasn't as bad. Still bad, though. Just be careful: you may be making it realistic, but you also may be driving a few readers away. And those few readers may advise others not to read it. And then you might lose a few more.