Why it’s wrong to kill off characters needlessly

1408766_flying_books_1Earlier this week, I posted about how we can help readers connect with our characters by feeling what they feel, and how sometimes that might not be the best idea or might chase away some readers. Well, you can never please everyone. No one can.

Today, I wanted to discuss the lasting impact of when a reader truly does connect with a character, and feels what that character feels. A few things happen, and they are their own form of magic.

  1. WE CARE MORE WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTER. This is fairly obvious, and is, of course, the major reason we want readers to connect with a character. We want them to be interested in the story, and the people it’s about. We want them to hopefully be interested on more than a superficial level.
  2. READERS CAN SEE THEMSELVES IN THAT CHARACTER’S PLACE. I don’t just mean that they question, “What would I do in this situation?” (though readers do ask that.) I mean that readers can start to examine their own lives. They will find and contemplate times when they acted in a similar manner, or might have. If that’s impossible, they will grow in empathy as they get a window into a different kind of person, an explanation of why someone could ever make that kind of a choice or do that thing. It increases empathy and can really help us learn humility. This, for me, is the true value of literature as art.
  3. READERS WILL TAKE THAT PERSON’S FATE PERSONALLY. For authors, this is crucial to understand. Once a reader feels what a character feels, there is a bond. If that character is harmed, the reader will truly feel that. I know that in Doctor Who, David Tennant’s exit left me feeling actually and truly broken. Like I had actually known him as that character. In addition, readers will personally insulted and harmed and disappointed if and when that characters makes a mistake: especially a BIG one.

This is all important to understand because it shows how dirty and cheap a move it really is to kill a character off, or some such thing, without a reason. There is nothing wrong with killing characters, for characters are humans, and people die. It’s a fact of life.

But fiction is a method of exploring the meaning of life. It’s a means of coping with things that we can’t understand or grasp. As a person of faith, for me, fiction is an infinitely lower means of creation than God’s creation. It is an allegory of  God’s creation, and when God created, He created everything good and His creation had a plan.

That’s why I, as a reader, detest writers killing off characters for shock value, or because they aren’t needed for the plot to advance. All plot points should advance and contribute to the plot, to the purpose and meaning of the story. Most certainly, something like the death of a minor or major character should not be pointless.

So, what are your thoughts on this? Do you hate when characters die without any clear purpose for that happening (in terms of story and character development? Why is that?

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29 responses to “Why it’s wrong to kill off characters needlessly

  1. Have you read Red Shirts by John Scalzi? It’s a sort of Star Trek spoof about all the unnamed characters who get killed off in each episode.

    Scalzi manages to weave some pretty good writing advice into the story itself. Basically, what I got out of it is that fictional characters will gladly walk to their deaths so long as their deaths have meaning.

    • I haven’t read that but it sounds amazing!!! The reason red shirts can die like they do is because no one (no viewer) knows anything about them. They’re not “characters” in the way the major characters are. The idea of writing a novel to MAKE them true characters… that’s just epic.

  2. So agree with you. A character death that has no meaning or purpose beyond shock value tends to knock me out of a story. If it doesn’t then it probably means I didn’t connect anyway, which is still a problem. It is funny how there’s a trend of killing characters and making stories where ‘nobody is safe’. That seems to be getting used an excuse for shock deaths that either derail a story or have no impact whatsoever.

    • So glad I’m not the only one!!! 🙂 Yea for like minds 🙂

    • You’re definitely not the only one! If a character’s life is at stake in the story it is important to me as a reader that I believe that the author might be willing to kill them or else I don’t buy into the suspense but if a character is killed simply for shock value, with no real story justification then, no, I’m not a happy camper.

      • It’s definitely a game of balance. You want the reader to believe that the character will live while also feeling like they could die. At the very least a reason could be given to explain why characters aren’t being killed off. Guess that’s just me though. More into making my character suffer and try to cope with the hardships than giving them an easy out.

      • LOVE your point here!!! We DO need to be willing to kill off characters, for real and valid reasons. And the readers should feel that. That suspense matters!

  3. Agree, Death should only be used to move the story forward.
    Best way to view killing a character is to view it like drawing the “Death” Card from a tarot deck.

  4. I quite agree, killing off characters for no reason is a sure fire way to make a book less interesting to me. It’s not fair for readers and it’s really not fair for the character.
    Great post as always.

  5. I agree, killing characters for shock value throws me off as well. However, the same is true when a death is installed too obviously to change the course of the story. Are you familiar with Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan books? Rachel’s lover is killed at some point because they were “too good together” according to the author, endgame too early on in the series, and I was not the only one bothered that the auther simply killed a very beloved character to make things more difficult for the protagonist. Yes, it urged on the story and delivered material for three other books, but it still felt forced and unnecessary. That’s not good either.

    • I haven’t read those books, but I can definitely understand your point of view. Subtly is needed. Everything in a story should mesh and blend together. Any one thing that stands out too much…. like that death you mention….in this case maybe the issue is not the death itself as much as the writing and how the author handled it?

  6. I like how you said that fiction is a method to explore the meaning of life. I think that’s an accurate description of fiction. When characters are killed off for no reason, I don’t just get sad; I get angry.

    As a reader, you’re constantly trying to predict the outcome of the book. It’s a disappointment when you think a character will go far and then they die. Some plot twists are great, others (like an unnecessary death) is not.

  7. The girls’ novel “Seven little Australians’ is a great example of how destructive one character’s death can be. [Spoiler alert.] Ethel Turner kills off Jo, by far the most charasmatic of the eponymous seven little Australians, and when she decides to write a sequel, there’s a huge hole in the family that can’t be filled.

    • I have never heard of “Seven little Australians,” so thanks so much for the exposure to a new example! Sounds interesting. Makes me think of Agatha Christie’s “Ten little Indians”

  8. I don’t like this when it happens in books, movies, or TV shows. Unless it’s essential to the plot or an important moral lesson, writers should avoid “going in for the kill.”

  9. Charactercide in the first degree!

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