The Extrahuman Union

Is Character Death Always Cheap?

Posted on: October 23, 2013

Yesterday I got into a conversation on Twitter about whether killing off characters is always cheap or an easy way out in some way, and I’ve been turning that question over in my mind ever since.

I actually agreed when the topic came up, mainly because of where my own head’s been at lately when it comes to character death. For three of the last books I’ve written (none of which are published yet), there has been a moment where I killed off a fairly major character, and for a while I thought this was a great idea.

But then, after I’d written the really satisfying scenes where the character is there and then just… gone, and everybody deals with the fallout, I thought better of it. I started to wonder why these characters needed to die. What purpose in the larger story did that fulfill?

I had to admit that I didn’t know.

Eventually I came to realize that I’d done it for a couple of different reasons. In Book A, I did it to remove one leg of a love tripod. In Book B, I did it to make another character suffer, and out of some sense of justice for what the dead character had done. In Book C, I think it was purely for shock value, because the character had been a major part of three previous books.

And in each case, I think killing off these characters was taking the easy way out.

In Book A I thought, wouldn’t it be more interesting if the person survived, and they had to find another “solution” to the protagonist’s feelings for two other people? In Book B I thought, wouldn’t it be better if this character lived and the other characters had to figure out what to do with her? And in Book C I thought, wouldn’t it be better if the character wasn’t killed and remained in the story to be a pain in everyone’s butt?

In all three cases, the answer was yes. Book A was the most satisfying, because the “solution” to the love tripod was pretty novel, and fit well with the ethos of the book. Book B? It turned out not to matter. And Book C… well, I’m still fixing that one up, but I think it’ll be an improvement.

But I will say that my position on this is a little more nuanced than I’d originally thought. Sometimes character deaths are very meaningful, and belong in the story. In Book B another fairly major character does die, because that’s what the story basically screams for. The moment of her death is extremely high-stakes and is a turning point for the protagonist in a lot of ways. The entire book seems to be building up to it, and it works.

There is also an incredibly important death at the end of my first book, BROKEN. I won’t spoil it. But it’s the sort of death that some people, including my wife, are annoyed at me about years later. Was that death worth it? Was it necessary?

I go back and forth. Yesterday, I said I might do it differently. Today, I don’t think I would. It’s good that I can’t edit it anymore! My own self-doubt as a writer sometimes leads me to make unfortunate decisions.

That death did serve the story in very important ways–in fact, that death was the story in a fairly obvious way–and the entire universe of that book and the following books would be vastly different if that character had lived.

So I think you can do character death well. I’m planning a major one for the end of the series I’m working on now, and I’m doing everything to make sure it counts, it’s meaningful, and it serves the story and the character well. I think you can have death that doesn’t feel cheap or wasteful, and you can have death that isn’t just there to tug at heartstrings.

But it’s also definitely possible to have character deaths that are the opposite. As writers, I think it’s smart to not just toss characters away, but to really think about why we’re doing it. When we do that, our stories get better, and when characters do die, their deaths have a bigger impact and are more meaningful to readers.


8 Responses to "Is Character Death Always Cheap?"

I was heartbroken at the death in Broken, but I think you’re right. It works. Doesn’t mean I don’t hold a grudge against you for doing it (because you created a character it was really easy to care about), but it works. 😉

I am a super fan of the character death, because I have been surrounded by death and I feel that it reflects my worldview. I don’t however like when a book them had to “deal” with that character fall in a way that is all about the death. Life moves on, and that part of dealing is often just folded in with the dishes and the laundry. So I love to see it. I would like to see more of it. But I don’t think it’s a big deal, and I don’t enjoy when it becomes inflated.

I stress that this is just my POV. I loved all the deaths in Buffy/Firefly, which is the first time I ever heard in a fandom setting that character death was something people felt was…poorly done. I thought it was excellent. Also every single person who died in Harry Potter. Take that, Sirius Black! I think his death was handled very very well, and he was just one of many casualties in a huge war, and even though people loved him, readers loved him, it was a shocking reminder that this shit just…happens.

Thoughts: I has dem, and they are not clear.

I think the best “dealing with death” fallout is all about what the living do now, and how they move on. But yup, this is totally legit, and I can see your points!

I was thinking about this after I said it, and since fiction is a construction, for me, the fallout of characters dealing with a death feels…herm. Because like with Broken, THAT character does, and it was sad and you could have avoided it, and of course it affected the rest of the characters, but I get uncomfortable when I try to frame it in “was it necessary?” terms because then it becomes a question of, was this death useful in terms of making the rest of the characters behave a certain way, and that’s like…the opposite of death in reality. People don’t die so that you can “deal” with something. That might be why I balk at the construct of fallout in some ways. I mean, yeah, it’s necessary to deal with death, but I never ask, “does it work in the story?” because dude, that doesn’t matter. Maybe the decision to kill people should be one of those things you don’t think much about in a book, like a zen thing, because if you overanalyze it, then its meaning is lost. LIKE MAKING MERINGUE.

I apologize for my disorganization.

You said

“I get uncomfortable when I try to frame it in “was it necessary?” terms because then it becomes a question of, was this death useful in terms of making the rest of the characters behave a certain way, and that’s like…the opposite of death in reality. People don’t die so that you can “deal” with something.”

And yes, this is a way that feels sort of fake and constructed. And we shouldn’t do that, that feels manipulative (of both characters and readers).

So the best way is just kill them and then pretend it never happened, until your characters become compacted balls of repression. Or British.

That was so mean if me. Sorry, British people. I love your biscuits and sheep.

People react to death/loss in such different ways, I like exploring that.

I’m really torn here. I think some deaths really are either cheap or gratuitous or done to get the readers/audience to feel something (and I think Serenity is guilty of that), but I agree that death doesn’t have to be rare and set up way in advance and, I don’t know, comfortable?

I think how we do this in our writing is so personal, in some cases. Mostly, and this is just for me, I want to be sure I’m doing it well.

Wash’s death never bothered me, because Jesus, that’s how shit like this happens. It’s sudden and terrifying, and it feels unjust. But I would have been more pissed if they’d all gotten away with it and someone hadn’t been killed or lost a leg at least, because COME ON. I think Book’s death felt more like sewing loose ends than death done well. The only bone I have to pick with Joss is that Wash’s line of dialogue was ridiculous. I get that he was going for impact, but what I wanted to see was that thing coming right through his cheat three seconds before he even had the wits to say anything. That would have been great. Or him dying in the crash without any on-screen death, and them finding his body run through. I would have LOVED that. But you can’t do that in the movies. It be all about audience reaction, and here we are, years and years later, still talking about it. Good job, Whedon.

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