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.
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?