Be ye warned: Here there be spoilers; specifically, plot details for Radiant Historia, the Harry Potter books and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Every fiction writer, no matter how inexperienced, possesses an ability with the potential to make readers rejoice or rage or weep. Although this ability can be powerful, too many writers fail to use it well.
Fiction writers can kill off their characters.
I’m currently playing Radiant Historia, a delightfully well-crafted RPG for the Nintendo DS. The story is set in a fantasy world in which two nations are at war over their continent’s dwindling supply of fertile land. Stocke, a secret agent, is given the task of saving the world using a magical book called the White Chronicle.
Early on, Stocke meets a young soldier named Kiel who hero-worships him. Although insecure, overenthusiastic and awkward, Kiel longs to serve his country and become a hero like Stocke.
Kiel, Stocke and their companion Rosch are suddenly plunged into a crisis. Rosch is critically injured. Enemy soldiers are patrolling the area, and it’s only a matter of time before Stocke and his companions are found and executed on the spot.
After hesitating for a moment, Kiel proclaims, “I’ll go and draw their attention!” Stocke objects, offering himself as a decoy in order to let Rosch and Kiel escape. Rosch insists they save themselves and leave him to die.
Kiel responds by shouting: “Sergeant Stocke! Thank you for everything!”
Then he’s gone.
In the end, Stocke and Rosch escape to safety. Kiel is surrounded by enemy soldiers and brutally executed.
I was staggered. Kiel was dead. The story fooled me into thinking he was just a background character, and then ended his life in a scene that made me want to cry.
That, dear reader, is how to kill a fictional character.
In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore seems invincible, untouchable, immortal. He’s too good to die. He dies.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson with all his heart and soul. When Tom is convicted, Atticus resolves to appeal the sentence. He never has the chance. Tom makes a break from prison and is gunned down. Just like that, Tom Robinson, whom Atticus has spent the entire novel trying to save, is dead.
I’m not an expert when it comes to murdering characters in fiction. I kill off too many people in my novel—and spare one or two characters that probably should have died—but there is at least one death that matters. Those who’ve read The Trials of Lance Eliot know exactly to what I’m referring. One character dies who does not deserve to die.
Killing off characters should not be done lightly. If too many characters are killed, the reader is desensitized to death. Consider action films, in which dozens or hundreds of people are killed (in highly stylized and carefully choreographed scenes) and nobody cares.
Let me give just one more example of how to kill off characters.
There is an excellent anime called Trigun featuring Vash the Stampede (whose beaming face has already been featured on this blog). Despite his unmatched skill as a gunslinger, Vash is a pacifist. He resolves conflicts without killing anybody. When faced with two violent solutions to a problem, he invents a peaceful third solution.
One of the best things about Trigun is how Vash slowly unravels as he witnesses the carnage around him. People die. Lots of people die. Trigun has just as many fights as any action movie. For Vash, however, every casualty is a tragedy. Every death tears him apart. In the end, Trigun is a story about Vash coming to terms with himself and the violent world in which he lives.
When watching Trigun, the viewer comes to care about the victims, even the nameless background characters, because Vash does. He reminds the viewer that each death matters.
Asleep yet? No? Good. Let’s get practical.
Characters should not be killed off lightly
Don’t kill off a character just because you can. Death matters in real life. It should matter in fiction.
Don’t kill off too many undeveloped characters
Let’s face it. Nobody cares about the minor characters. Kill them off when the plot requires it, but don’t get too carried away. Deaths lose their emotional impact if they happen too often. When possible, save it for characters that matter.
The death of characters works well when it’s totally unexpected—or when it’s totally expected
Consider the examples of Kiel and Dumbledore. Part of what makes their deaths so powerful is that they’re unexpected. They happen suddenly, without much warning. Most players and readers are unprepared for them.
At the same time, however, foreshadowing can be a great way to make readers feel for a character. We feel pity when we’re sure a good character is going to die. A doomed character’s actions are poignant, and that character’s death is more moving when it comes.
What writers should avoid is killing off people whom readers suspect might die simply for being a certain type of character. If an obnoxious jerk is featured early in a detective story, for example, he often turns out to be the murder victim.
Quick, brutal deaths work well
There are enough slow, overdramatic deaths in fiction. People don’t usually die in the arms of loved ones after uttering beautiful last words. It’s a mistake to make every death in fiction emotionally satisfying. In real life, how many are?
Killing off minor characters can be a good way to develop major characters
When a military officer executes a civilian for stepping on his toe, we might not be moved by the death of the civilian—but you can bet we learn something about the military officer.
What’s your advice for killing off fictional characters? Let us know in the comments!