There are a few major classifications of writers. There are those who will never kill off anybody near and dear to them: you can be assured that, if the writer is spending any length of time with and shows any empathy for somebody, even for just a few pages, that somebody isn’t going to end up a body. There are those who will kill off absolutely anybody they feel like killing off, helter-skelter, with no regard for either the characters or the readers. There are those who will sacrifice one or two people of middling importance, along with gleefully killing all the important baddies in horribly satisfying ways, but won’t touch the main characters.
And there is nothing really wrong with any of these types, but while they may be sensei masters of just about everything else in writing, they’re not sensei masters of the authorly art of character killing.
So what makes somebody a sensei master? Many things. We’re going to start exploring them here.
If you’re putting your characters in mortal peril, important people must die from time to time.
You can’t be a sensei master if you’re not willing to murder your darlings. It’s quite easy to kill off the folks you don’t like, don’t let yourself like, and never took the time to really get to know. The mark of a true sensei master begins with killing off those characters who truly matter to you and your readers.
I’m not advocating a wholesale slaughter, of course. That’s just as bad as not killing anybody at all; worse, in fact, because then you leave your readers with nobody to cling to. Remember that as you overcome your squeamishness and begin to plot mayhem. All things in moderation, including the body count. To a degree. I mean, leave at least one major character standing, if you would be so kind.
But right now, you’re in the “but I can’t kill any of these people, I love them!” phase, or you’re in the equally self-defeating “A lot of people are going to die, so subconsciously I’m avoiding getting to know them very well and actually not spending much story time on them. I mean, what’s the point?” phase. So here’s what you do:
First, you take a very clear-headed look at what you’re writing and ask, “Is death likely to happen in such situations?” And if what you’re writing is a war epic, a thriller, horror, murder mystery, Western, or any one of a billion genres that place people’s lives at risk, the answer had better damned well be yes. If it’s not, remove the rose-tinted glasses from your head, go outside and stomp on them really hard, and then have another look.
So you’re not writing one of these things. So you’re writing a nice novel about a fireman, let’s say, who is going through a process of self-discovery that will end with him becoming a drag queen in Thailand. Fair enough. On the surface, not much necessity for death, but you know, people die of all kinds of oddball things every day. And if your original trigger for this guy was something goofy like his wife bringing home a new teddy from Frederick’s of Hollywood and thinking wow, I’d really like to wear one of those, maybe it’s time for you to reassess matters. What does it take to release somebody from the bonds of a conventional life? Death’s a good start. What if his wife dies in an escalator incident at the mall? What if, having lost the love of his life, he starts wearing her intimate things, and that brings him to his major revelation that what he’s been all along is a drag queen in hiding? What if it’s his own near-death? His buddy getting killed beside him in a burning great warehouse? What if it’s his mom dying, or his dad, or his dog?
If it’s none of those things, fine. But I put this forward to say that, no matter what you’re writing, no matter how light-hearted, death might be lurking in there somewhere, and you’d better be ready to face it when it pops up.
So. You’ve determined that, yes, what you’re writing is going to lead to folks dying. But that’s okay. There’s the bad guy’s henchmen, and some of the people they killed who are kind of peripheral to the whole thing, and yeah, the heroes get threatened, maybe a sidekick dies and it’s all this really touching scene, and then everything turns out just fine.
NO NO NO NO NO!
You’re sliding into Phase Two. You’re not willing to kill off anyone who matters to you (and thusly the reader) because it would hurt too damned much. Well, you know something? Life doesn’t work like that. When dangerous things happen in life, they happen to people we wouldn’t want to lose in a million billion years.
Fate, my friends, is a female. Which means she’s a bitch. She doesn’t give a rat’s arse what you want. Look at her perspective. What can she do, spare folks just because you want her to? Well, then there’s no way she can knock down anyone, because for every person Fate’s about to bugger, there’s at least one more saying, “No, please, not that one!”
So you have to do what Fate does in the real world, which is roll up the old sleeves, say, “Sorry, but them’s the breaks. This’ll hurt me as much as it hurts you,” and then deliver the killing blow.
But you have to go further. Because in the really intense situations, where you have to show just what a huge, insurmountable threat is hanging over your protagonists’ heads, you have to determine, “Whose loss will fuck with them the most?”
And you have to then go on to kill this person. And you have to spend time with them first. And you have to weep with your whole heart so that the readers will, too.
If you don’t like this idea, I would suggest knocking off the fiction and going to write things like cookbooks instead. Preferrably vegetarian.
When you get to this phase, there’s a symptom. When you know who’s going to die, you tend to draw back. You start shutting them out. It’s as hard to be with them as it is to be around anyone with a terminal illness. You want to spend every last moment with them, but it’s too hard. You find yourself making excuses and buggering off to find something easier to deal with. You shunt them to the side, and then you wimp out on the details of their dying, and you really wimp on the aftermath. Because it’s too messy. Because it’s too painful. Because it makes you confront not only Death, but all the damned complications and loose ends when life’s cut short.
So here’s what you do. I’m sure there’s more, but this is the one method I use:
When you know who’s going to die, that’s when you get to know them best. You spend a lot of time with them, writing stuff that will never find its way into the story. You find out who they are, and what their life’s like, and you fall in love with them, and you figure out just why they’re so damned important and why their death will mean anything at all, and then you write it. Just that. You don’t shunt them off to the side. You can’t, if you’ve really gotten to know them. You stick with them until the bitter end, and then you write that ending for all you’re worth, because they deserve no less from you.
And then, after you’ve done all that, you spin out the implications. Do not, ever, kill off someone of importance and then, two chapters later, act like it was just this minor little blip on the screen. They don’t deserve that kind of treatment. You take the time to figure out just how their death is going to complicate an already complicated situation, and how the people who loved them are going to handle losing them, and you have to realize that the loss is going to be there forever. It’ll get better with time, for some, but twenty years down the road there’s still going to be folks going, “Bob. Jeez. What a guy he was. Good ol’ Bob” with tears in their eyes.
Chances are, if you did your homework, that won’t even be a problem, because as you’re writing on with the survivors, things will happen that make you do that. The fact of Bob’s absence will hit you like a warhead. Then write those moments in. That’s all you have to do.
And don’t wimp out at the last minute. No last-ditch miracles. No “he’s not really dead.” No resurrections. Let them die. Let it be for a reason, and let it be.
Authors have to have extraordinary courage. Be courageous. Do them the justice of letting them go when it’s time.
It has to mean something. It doesn’t if you rescue them all the time.
Never forget that.
Then Pass the Torch
When you are killing off a major viewpoint character, you have to have someone there to pick up the narrative thread and run with it. Otherwise, what you give your reader is a jumble of meaningless incidents. Life can be like that. Stories should not.
Think of it this way. What you are pretty much doing is the prose version of the Eternal Flame. You light the torch at the beginning, hand it to a runner, and then it’s off. It’s supposed to be bloody eternal, so it’s passed from hand to hand. Now imagine the next runner in the sequence getting to where he’s supposed to pass it off and finding out no one’s showed up. He can’t run it any further, his legs are about to rebel and his lungs are contemplating murder. So what’s he going to do? Set it down? Hand it to some tourist who runs off several yards in the wrong direction before he gets it and starts puffing the other way? Give up and let the flame go out before it’s gotten to its destination?
Things kind of lose their meaning and impact when you get a situation like that. Which is why planners of such events are so very careful to make absolutely sure that the bloke who’s supposed to carry the torch from this point to that knows where he’s going and when to be there to do it, and then makes damned certain he’s there. You as the author must do the same.
The moment after the torch was supposed to be passed is not the moment at which the author should turn to the crowd and shout, “Okay, who here’s really good at running?”
That person should have been there for a while already. The readers shouldn’t be asking “Where did this guy come from?” They should be saying, “Wow, I didn’t think little Georgie had it in him, but look at him go!” or “Thankee gods we still have Marko.” They can even be saying, “Oh, shit. Not Herbert! Not Herbert!”, but that’s taking a risk of losing the reader there. Be careful with torch-bearers who can’t rally the readers to their sides. Remember, you just killed someone the readers (hopefully) knew well and dearly loved. Don’t replace them with an absolute burke with no redeeming qualities.
Most of the time, this won’t be a problem. You’re probably not killing off your main character because, well, they’re main. But if you knock out their entire support system, the same rule applies. No man is an island and all that. Someone has to be there to shore the hero up, or the hero is going to topple. Either that, or the reader is going to roll eyes, go “Whatever!” and lose all respect for you because you’re so obviously not in touch with any sort of reality whatsoever.
You may notice I’m not telling you exactly how to pass the torch. That’s because, depending on the situation, it can be done in about ten billion ways. All I’m going to tell you is this: have that person on stage before the big death, have them pick up the torch right away, and keep them running. Ask your test readers: “After Bob died, was it easy to keep reading? Or did I almost lose you there?” Read masters of the game. Read losers and note how badly they fumbled the pass (The Dreaming Tree comes to mind, but buy it used).
But you also don’t want to make it too easy. After all, Bob was a really important guy, right? Don’t put an equal in his place. If Bob is interchangable with Marko, say, or even Herbert, then there’s no point to killing him at all. What I’m talking about in passing the torch is not reassuring the reader that everything’s going to turn out fine – quite the opposite should be true, in fact – but in convincing the reader that they need to stay with Marko or Herbert or whoever. Fight through to the bitter end against all odds and that. Not walk away with a shrug, saying, “Well, Bob’s dead, who the fuck cares what happens now? It’s over as far as I’m concerned.”
One of the reasons you’ll seldom see an author kill of a main character halfway through is this: it’s because stories are about people, and preferrably a person who’s still alive at the end. If you’re going to be killing off major viewpoint characters, you need to make sure the story is not so much about them as what they were dying for, and that is a very, very hard thing to do. People matter more than things, oddly enough. But it can be done. That thing – that cause, that dream, that need – has to be strong enough to be a main character all by itself, and it has to be supported by a lot of people never letting it die. When the torch is the story, you have to make sure it doesn’t get dropped and snuffed out before the story ends, no matter how many of the people who carried it lost their lives for it. And you have to make sure it’s worth it.
And one more thing: make sure you show that torch being passed. There’s nothing more annoying to a reader to lose sight of the narrative torch and then see it crop up several hundred yards down the line, carried by someone else, without ever seeing how it got there.
Got all that? Yes, it’s a lot. Death is serious business. And there’s more to come…