When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters: How to Write Tragic Events

He just read…. any one of the later Harry Potter books. Sadness.

So, my proofreader is finished with “The Magic Council,” and things are proceeding according to schedule for a November 9 release of the second installment in the Herezoth trilogy. Yea! Since my proofreader, in addition to her multiple language degrees, is also a good friend, we chatted a bit about the book after she wrapped things up, and, in reference to one particular moment when a bad thing happens to a good character, she told me, “I was thinking, No, Victoria! No, don’t do it! I understand why it had to happen, but… So sad!”

Laura (my proofreader) is one of many people–me included–who would rather not see characters we like suffer. There’s nothing unusual about that; we don’t like to see real people suffer, after all, and especially not those we care about. Suffering is an aspect of life no one can avoid, and so, it holds its grip on the stories we tell, because human beings have always passed our visions of the world onto others through story. Funny anecdotes over a mug of beer aside, a tale without conflict/suffering is no story at all and no one would find it interesting. However, before an author decides to make bad things happen to good characters, there are some things to keep in mind.

“I UNDERSTAND WHY IT HAD TO HAPPEN, BUT….”

This “but” is okay. Oftentimes, when an editor, beta-reader, or proofreader uses a “but” like that, some changes need to happen, but what’s important in this instance is, for me, the first part of the clause. “I understand why it had to happen.” A sad scene is not equivalent to a bad scene. Just remember, when you’re going to put beloved characters through emotional torment or kill one off, you have a responsibility as the author to stop and consider two things. Never forget: death and darkness alone do not a deep story make.

FIRST: IS THERE A REASON THIS SUFFERING HAS TO HAPPEN?

Whodunit writers know all too well that the murderer must have a motive. There must be a reason the victim dies. The victim doesn’t have to be a good person or a bad person; things don’t have to turn out the way the murderer wants, and the murderer doesn’t even have to succeed in killing the person he wanted to kill, but if a murder happens, there must be an explanation (even if that explanation is, “the murderer is a psychopathic serial killer and the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”)

This holds true for any time an author kills off a character readers have been led to love and to care about: though minor characters are expendable in ways major ones aren’t, you will only frustrate and anger readers if you’re killing beloved characters without a purpose. This reason, of course can be any number of things. In epic fantasy, the death of the mentor often frees the hero to come into his own and fulfill his destiny. Perhaps a heroic character takes a bullet (literally) for someone else. Perhaps a death provides the motivation/inspiration other characters need to find the courage to stand up against a powerful evil. Perhaps someone needs to feel responsible for the death in order to change her ways. Maybe an instance of poetic justice is in play.

SECOND: CAN THE READER IDENTIFY A REASON FOR THE DEATH?

I understand why it had to happen.” That is critical. It doesn’t matter if a great character dies for some purpose you understand as the author, if that reason doesn’t make sense to readers. Your writing needs to be strong enough and clear enough that the story itself explains the reason for the death without a narrator giving explicit disclaimers. If a major, likeable character dies in a car accident, or is run over by a taxi, or suffocates in a fire, there better be some bigger purpose beyond “I needed to shake things up and make something happen” or “I wanted a dark tone. Get over it.” In some way, the death should enable other characters to grow and develop in a way that would not otherwise be possible. Readers will never forgive you killing off a character unless they can understand why that character had to die. Give them a reason, and they’ll accept it. You’ll engross them in a great story that draws them in and inspires them to think about what life means to them. Don’t give them a reason, and you’ll only peeve them off.

KILLING VILLAINS

A quick note on bad things happening to evil people: Poetic justice exists for a reason. Darth Vader didn’t die because the machines breathing for him broke and gave out. Voldemort didn’t keel over one day. Now, a sudden death by heart attack, say, can be poetic justice in its way, if a villain has clawed his way to the top, seemingly has won and has everything he could want, and just succumbs to human mortality before he can enjoy it. But really: who wants to see that happen? Not many people. Human beings believe in justice, and for the most part we like stories where victims restore their dignity by giving karma a helping hand.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to comment what you think about this topic. How do you deal, as a reader, with character deaths? Has one ever made you angry? If you’re a writer, have you killed off characters? Why or why not?

Advertisements

16 responses to “When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters: How to Write Tragic Events

  1. Some deaths that annoyed me were in Harry Potter… like Remus and Tonks. I know it wouldn’t have been realistic if all the heroes survived, but these two were a great part of the books and we don’t even know how they died. You’d think with Remus JKR would’ve showed us the scene where he died. It felt like unnecessary killing to me.

    I have killed off characters before (mainly when I used to write in the horror genre), but I try not to be senseless about it. If the death doesn’t do anything to the plot, then it shouldn’t be there.

  2. I have to agree with Zen, they were going down like flies in Harry Potter and I too was puzzled about the Remus/Tonks death. As a reader I tend to appreciate the death of a character if it brings some deeper meaning to the allegory of the story. I would rather a purpose than ‘dead for dead sake.’ And perhaps for me the best instances are when the villain does die where the victim gives karma a hand. It feels empowering for the character and it does resonate with our innate sense and desire for justice in the world.

  3. Pingback: My first novel without killing off a major (likeable) character! | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  4. I found this post really helpful – I am planning for a few bad things to happen to some well-developed characters in the sequel to Disappearing in Plain Sight (that will hopefully be out in March – fingers crossed). I like the points you make about bad things happening to beloved characters has to be about moving the story forward, about other characters developing because of what has happened. Thanks.

  5. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: DON’T shelter your characters | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. In my current work-in-progress, I have already had a poetic justice death and another death that motivates the protaganist. This is a timely post for me! My entire novella deals with unwarranted death and suffering in cases of animal abuse. Truly, death of a supporting cast member is the highest motivator for our leading characters.

    I agree with Zen that the death of a character, purely in the name of creating a tragic event of insufficient consequence, is unnecessary. A death, just like any other event, has to propel the story or have some consequence.

    • I totally agree with you, Cronin. Your story sounds very powerful…. I am glad this post was timely. I am a big animal person, so it’s cool that you are drawing attention to their needs!

  7. I’m having a really hard time with my story at the moment, and the death of a character is a major part of it. I know he has to die, the story cannot continue if he doesn’t, but I think I am at the stage of “he can’t live” rather than “he had to die, and as a result . . . ” Thanks for this post. I am going to really have to find the reason for it. I will have to open up the can of worms that is emotion.

  8. I killed off one of my main characters so that her adoptive son could discover his true power………needless to say my readers were pissed. One of my beta readers threw down the pages went to the corner and cried.

  9. Reblogged this on myrasnewblog and commented:
    In fantasy as in life, bad things happen to good characters. Fairy Tales are filled with horrible scenes, sometimes too grim even for the consenting adult. As a struggling writer of fantasy, I employ both the grim and the wonderful in my characters and plots. The contrast and excitement of not knowing what is awaiting just around the bend- maybe deep inside a gaping hole of ancient oak or coming face to face with a winged creature so beautiful it made you terrified, is the stuff of what makes a story open to bad things happening to good characters. Within the fantasy I try to maintain a tension, based around the central character/characters. Yes, sometimes within the depth of the story, and for the sake of the story, a character suffers. That character in fantasy, can always be redeemed in this story or another.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s