This week, the question comes from Christina, who asks:
Do you ever find it insanely sad or difficult to kill off a character? Sometimes I just can’t keep writing for a while because I just hate the idea because I love my characters so much. How do you manage when you know you have to do it?
I never enjoy killing characters–unless they’re really evil or a pain in the ass. I usually cry before, during, and after I kill them. It helps to have a pint of ice cream on standby, too. I’d like to emphasize that you should only kill characters when it’s NECESSARY and fits with the plot of your story–don’t just kill characters for the sake of killing them/upsetting your readers. When authors do that, it just cheapens the story for me.
But anyway, it’s really, really hard to kill a beloved character. It’s like losing a friend. I definitely go through a period of mourning after I work up the courage to kill them.
It’s always sad to kill my characters, but I try to write my secondary characters with the possibility of offing them in mind so that I don’t get too attached (There are a couple that I am too attached to kill, even if it would serve the story). Which sometimes leads to me thinking “aw, this interaction is so cute, too bad you’ll be dead in two weeks.” I think that sadness I feel is a good thing because it means I’m emotionally invested in that character and so are the other characters. If I managed to write well, the reader will be invested too and the death won’t feel empty, it’ll have emotional repercussions in the story and with the reader. I hate pointless deaths so I try to only kill characters when there is a point or it’s important to the plot.
I’ve never found it “difficult,” per say, to kill a character. I think it’s because in my mind, the character lives forever. His life might stop in the chronology of the book, but I have him captured at a million little moments in all the years he had before his death. So in a way, he doesn’t “die” for me the same way a character dies for me in a book I’m reading versus writing.
Plus, I only kill off a character when it feels right. I’ve never done it to accomplish a plot point unless it’s an incredibly minor character, in which case, I’m probably not terribly, terribly attached anyhow. If a death doesn’t feel right–doesn’t flow naturally from the actions and the characters and the essence of the story, then I don’t do it. So really, I never have to debate with myself whether or not a character dies. If he will, then it’ll happen, and if anything, it’ll feel weird to keep him alive.
Does that make me heartless? lol.
I think what hits me when I kill off a character is the reaction the others have to the death more so than my being sad that I killed them. Like with Kat, the character lives on in my mind. But it doesn’t for the other people in my story. So what makes me most emotionally distraught is the thought of somebody else having to go through the rest of their life without that person, and the scenes of mourning I have to write. It isn’t me that’s mourning, but I guess it might as well be, if I’m writing it.
So while I personally don’t feel sad or defeated, I do empathize with my characters. Maybe because they don’t have the power to bring them back, and I do.
I may be in the minority here, but I actually enjoy killing off my characters! Back in the day, when I’d just started writing, I was terrified to kill off anyone for fear that my readership would revolt. It didn’t matter if death would’ve been more realistic – I just couldn’t do it. In the process, I probably wrote myself into quite a few corners and shoddy endings.
Since then, I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to off someone and accept the fact that you’re making the right decision. Obviously you love your characters, and as Kat said, no matter what you do to them, their memory is going to stay with you. And hopefully your readers love your characters just as much and will carry on their memory, too. I tend to go into a story expecting to kill someone, and I think if you keep that in mind, it won’t bother you quite as much when it comes down to it.
I’m with you, Sammy. I love killing off characters, as long as their death adds something to the story. I used to want to be known for killing a main character with every novel, but now that I’m more mature (mostly), I realize that can’t be my signature mark (I wrote an article about this here). Not only will it not work for every story, that’s not something I really want to be known for after all, lol. But when a character needs to die, I don’t shy away from doing it. Usually I plan it out long in advance, and I have a very clear idea of what their death will look and feel like, in order to give maximum emotional impact.
For me, killing off a character doesn’t affect who they are or their value. It’s not like I can’t ever play with them again, or live with them again through the beginning of the book. Characters are special that way; just cause you kill them doesn’t mean you don’t get to talk to them anymore. Therefore, it’s not sad to me as a writer when a character dies. Is it sad as a reader? Yes. It’s meant to be sad. But I guess writers are lucky in that we don’t have to lose our characters the same way a reader loses them when they die.
I’m really trying to learn to be less protective of my characters! When I come to the end of a first draft, I usually expect that the first revision will be dedicated to adding more pain. With FIREFLY, when I re-read the first draft I realized that the best thing I could do for the manuscript was to go back and kill off a major character. I decided that the character should actually be dead before the story begins, so I had to go through and excise her from every page. As difficult as that was technically, since whole scenes that centered around this now-dead character had to be re-written, when my agent gave me her first notes on the book, she commented that the other characters seemed too accepting of this recent death. Basically, she told me to add more pain! Even though I’d killed off this character, I had over-protected my remaining characters from the pain that the death would have caused. So no, I wouldn’t say I have trouble killing off characters, but I have a definite issue with letting my characters suffer. One of my current goals as a writer is to let my characters feel more sadness and experience more mourning.
Have you ever killed off a character? Was it hard?