QOTW: Killing Characters

27 Aug


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?

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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.

-The Writer With Her First Book Deal

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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.

-The Writer Revising Between Queries

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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.

The Writer Querying

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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.

-The Writer Revising Her First Novel

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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.

-The Writer Currently Performing a Complete Rewrite

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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.

-The Other Writer Out on Submissions

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Have you ever killed off a character? Was it hard?

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27 Responses to “QOTW: Killing Characters”

  1. fromawriter August 27, 2010 at 2:13 AM #

    I am so heartless, hah. I’ve killed two characters (well not exactly yet because I have to write the first book, but these two characters die in the later books, one’s a main and the other isn’t) and I felt no remorse, I felt a little sad, but their deaths served a purpose in my story so I didn’t cry. But my main did, so that means something.
    Although it just occurs to me as I read Biljana’s take on killing characters about things I’ve never noticed. Also I think I’m like Sammy also, but the death must serve a purpose in the story also. But when I was in the beginning stage of writing, I always wondered if I was going to be like Sarah when it came to killing instead I’m a soulless harpy (now I’m heartless + soulless and a harpy) and I feel the same way Jennifer, like “I really liked you in this scene, too bad you’ll die later on.”

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 8:54 PM #

      Don’t worry, I don’t cry, either. I’m not an easy crier, I guess 🙂

  2. tymcon August 27, 2010 at 4:26 AM #

    Yeah, if anybody read my story they’d probably hear maniacal laughter when the character dies. I usually create likeable characters and then I kill them off while the likeable characters going against themselves. E.g., coward trying to save the day, brave person running away.
    Okay the last one i’d probably keep it on to drag out the repurcusiions:P
    (My sister (4) just woke up and she’s talking about killing me…to herself)

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 8:56 PM #

      LOL. Interesting sister you’ve got there!

  3. Sarah August 27, 2010 at 8:00 AM #

    I hate killing characters. I once brought one back to life solely because I could not stand him being dead. I don’t do that any more (…much), but I still dread death scenes. It doesn’t help that they’re so hard to WRITE.

    Is there a Let the Words Flow article on how to write death scenes? If there isn’t, then there should be! (Wink, nudge.)

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 8:56 PM #

      Oh, that does sound like a good article! 😀

  4. Rowenna August 27, 2010 at 8:40 AM #

    Great responses–loved reading these! I haven’t killed a character yet that I didn’t know–either very consciously from the beginning or in my heart of hearts–was going to die in the course of the plot. So writing their deaths was kind of satisfying, in the sense that I felt like it was the correct finish to their lives and the right thing for the story. Like a piece of dark chocolate after dinner.

    • jenn fitzgerald August 27, 2010 at 9:44 AM #

      what a delicious (and disturbing) analogy, now i want some chocolate. i understand what you mean about a long planned death being satisfying

  5. Vanessa August 27, 2010 at 9:20 AM #

    I get sad and upset when I kill of my characters. So for me, it is difficult. But at the same time, I know when/if I need to kill a character.

  6. authorguy August 27, 2010 at 9:57 AM #

    I recently killed off my first semi-major character. I’ve killed off villains, of course, and in my worlds Death is not necessarily permanent anyway. In some cases it’s a necessary step to get beyond death. In every case, the death was a logical result and served its purpose, and I got some good stuff out of it. (Who would have guessed that my villain would become the proto-vampire? Not me at the time.) In my novel WIP I gave one of favorite lesser characters a heroic death in battle. I didn’t care about the battle, aside from the fact that it happened, but the character was getting older and would have wanted to die in battle anyway. His death there gave me the opportunity to have my storyteller hero tell another story, which led me into a situation I hadn’t foreseen when setting the whole thing up. Which is why I love being a writer.

    I understand the main reason Lois McMaster Bujold won’t write anymore in the Miles Vorkosigan universe is that she doesn’t want to kill off Aral Vorkosigan, but don’t quote me on that.

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 8:58 PM #

      Yeah, I love it when my story twists and turns in places I never expected! Sometimes I write because I want to know how things turn out just as much as my readers, haha.

  7. Kayleigh August 27, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

    Perhaps something’s wrong with me, but I love killing characters off. Don’t get me wrong, if they’re important I’ll cry, but I still love it.

    Now let me count how many I’ve killed in the 3 years I’ve been writing…

    Oh. 14. But some were very minor characters. No, wait, 15. I’ve also put 1 character in a coma, but he woke up. No, wait, 2 characters in a coma. The second hasn’t woken up yet. Oh, no, 3 characters in a coma. For the third one, I never finished writing her story, so she’s still in a coma.

    Man I’m cruel.

    In my defense, my current novel involves vampires, and a war, so of course the death count is higher.

    • svonnah August 27, 2010 at 4:06 PM #

      I’m a fan of the coma myself 😉

  8. priscillashay August 27, 2010 at 11:24 AM #

    aw, I totally agree with Kat on them living and not really dying.

    I don’t LIKE killing my characters Sammy, lol, but I thought it was funny when I killed off my MC’s mother and my friend was upset to the point of tears where as I moved on with the plot.

    But, now I’m attached to the villain and can’t seem to kill him off

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 8:59 PM #

      Readers definitely get more choked up about character death than writers, I think. Reading about a death…feels final. Writing about it…I dunno. But they’re still alive for me 🙂

  9. Nichola Alana August 27, 2010 at 1:36 PM #

    It’s not that I like killing my characters, but sometimes, they just have to die. (I do like though, writing the death scene…Does that make much sense?)

    It’s just that after they’re dead, they do come back with their past to remind the living characters of important things that shouldn’t be forgotten.

    In a way, they remind the reader of those things too, when you, as a writer, want to remind the reader of that certain thing.

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 9:00 PM #

      Death scenes can be such beautiful, heartbreaking scenes, so I understand why you like writing them. Any emotionally charged scenes are always my favorite to write.

  10. Nicole August 27, 2010 at 1:50 PM #

    I usually know before I start writing which characters might die. In fact, I look forward to it, I have a fondness for sad endings. I have to reign myself in and really think about if the sad one fits or does that story deserve a happy ending.

    • svonnah August 27, 2010 at 4:06 PM #

      That’s it exactly: a fondness for sad endings.

  11. Link August 27, 2010 at 7:32 PM #

    Over the 6 books I’ve written in my life I’ve killed…10 people, and with my 7th and 8th, that number’s going to rise dramatically (especially with that 8th book. Remind me never to make a magic system that in order for a particular person to die, three others have to go before them). Does that make me a serial killer?

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 9:00 PM #

      Lolol. That’s quite a count you have there ;P

  12. Schneider August 27, 2010 at 7:46 PM #

    Haha. In the beginning it was very difficult to get used to the idea of killing characters, particularly ones I adored. I’ve grown more comfortable with it now, and I’m certainly willing to do it; but senseless deaths annoy me. If the death isn’t for a pivotal character development or integral to the plot…well, why do it?

    There was a character I had in a trunked WIP of mine: He was essentially the MC’s mentor, and on top of that the king of his people, of sorts. His death would have been the catalyst of a war, and also would have served to catapult said MC to his mentor’s former role.

    So, in the end, his death was extremely crucial to the novel’s plot, not to mention what it did to set up the sequels.

    I loved his character, very much, perhaps more than the MC–but I was more than willing to kill him because I knew it was necessary.

    Not that any of this matters. I never did finish that book. :p

    • Kat Zhang August 28, 2010 at 9:02 PM #

      Deaths that happen purely for drama can bother me sometimes. If the story is, say, about war and such, then “senseless death” might be making a point. But if you kill off somebody just for the heck of it…yeah….

  13. Corina August 29, 2010 at 5:18 AM #

    I actually think I like killing off characters too… And I kind of like it when other writers do it too. Like, in Harry Potter. I only really got into the books after I read the 4th one where Cedric dies, because I think it just opens up a whole world of emotional depth for the characters and for the readers to explore that is so captivating. Death is a part of life, you know, so I guess it should be a part of fictional life too. Haha.

    But personally, I’ve found with the stories I’m working on, I know if characters are going to die, because I want to go there with the other characters, and experience that with them. So I’d never shy away from it, I guess. I’d be sad for the characters who have to experience the death of that character, but I wouldn’t be sad about the death itself… Yeah.

    Corina 🙂

  14. Gabriela Da Silva August 29, 2010 at 10:11 PM #

    Late to this party. Sorry, I was too busy killing off a character!

    ….well, two. Secondary. Well, one might be kind of main.

    As some of you know, I’m actually translating my book into English. Now that it is out in Spanish, it’s been a great delight to be called “evil” or “mean” by some of the readers. It’s funny when they say it – it’s always more like “OMG you are SO evil!”, “Why did you kill him!!”, but they’re… having fun. They enjoyed loving the character and then watching him/her die.

    There are few subjects that I enjoy less than death. It’s just interesting – very, very interesting. And so, my characters die. Their deaths always serve the story, of course… but my stories always profit from death xD

    (my best friend did get angry that I killed one she liked. she will hate me when she reads the sequel, where I kill the one she likes best… sorry, dear!)

  15. Victoria Dixon August 30, 2010 at 9:27 PM #

    Well, my book’s title is “Mourn Their Courage.” That should give you some idea of the body count. LOL. I think I’m more in the “kill them and see how emotional you can make the aftermath” camp.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Kill Your Darlings - November 20, 2013

    […] “But I can’t kill off the Hero’s Bestie. He’s my betas favorite character. He’s my favorite character. I know he’d do anything to save the Hero, that he’d sacrifice himself here without question, but I’m positive there’s a way he can get out of this scene alive.” But will it feel forced and unnatural? Will the emotional dynamics suffer in the following scenes because of it? It sounds like Hero’s Bestie really, truly needs to die for the sake of the story. It’s gonna hurt, as all meaningful character deaths should, but roll up your sleeves and off him. » Further reading: An old Let the Words Flow post on killing characters […]

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