Or: How to Kill a Character
Being a writer is a blessing and a curse. I really love the show Castle, because the premise is that Rick Castle, being a writer, can figure out how things happen because “That’s the way he’d write it.” Of course, you can’t go wrong with anything that has Nathan Fillion’s name attached to it…
Yeah, this post is going to be interrupted by more photos than usual or necessary, because I’m talking about a host of great writers and stories: Castle, Sherlock, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Avengers.
Ahem. Anyway, I like to compare myself to Castle, because as a writer, I can usually make pretty accurate predictions about what is going to happen. I can often tell if/when a character will die within a few minutes of his or her introduction. Sometimes I even beat Sherlock to the punch, like guessing who the bad guy was in A Study in Pink and the 6-digit combination to Irene Adler’s safe in A Scandal in Belgravia.
That last one I attribute more to being a woman than being a writer.
Of course, mystery writers drop hints—sometimes BIG ones—so that the audience can try to solve the mystery with the detective. That’s why the stories work so well. Let me tell you something straight:
Readers like to feel smart.
That means that 1) they aren’t going to appreciate a writer who tries too hard to look smart. Step away from the thesaurus, Christopher! How many times do I have to tell you? And 2) the readers aren’t going to appreciate a writer who makes things so obvious, there’s no suspense or surprise.
How do you find the line between being too obvious and making the reader feel like an idiot? You make the reader feel like a friend.
I’m going to assume that you don’t use a high frequency of multisyllabic words when talking to your friends over drinks, even if you work at the law firm of Polk, Taylor, Pierce, Fillmore and Van Buren. Don’t talk over your readers, and don’t talk down to them. That means paying attention to your diction. (See my category in the Word menu to check out my posts about word choice.)
Okay, so you know you need to respect your readers. Now we’ll talk about ripping their hearts out.
How to Kill a Character
We aren’t talking the method of the killing, the cause of death. (Though I do have a gruesome list I’ve compiled. Writers are an odd breed.) Rather, we are talking about how the writer deals with the killing. The best way to learn is to look how other people do it. I’m going to go through some case studies, and try to be vague enough so that you might know someone dies, but you don’t know who.
(Yes, that’s who. Not whom. Whom would be incorrect here.)
On to the case studies, in no particular order.
Case Study: The Hunger Games
If you are paying any attention, at all, whatsoever to the premise of the story, you know that LOTS OF PEOPLE ARE GONNA DIE. Even ones you like. Katniss knows this, and the reader should know it, especially since she says it multiple times. Now, I can be a hardened reader. I sympathize with the protagonist (here, Katniss), and I can sympathize with other characters, too. But since I knew, from the beginning, that characters were going to die, I did what Katniss couldn’t do—I never really got very attached. Sure, I liked some of the characters who got killed off, but when I know his/her demise is right around the corner, I don’t get attached.
Maybe it’s because I’m a heartless fussbudget (add that to the 100 Funniest Words).
But I cry whenever Ewok #28 gets killed in Return of the Jedi, so I’m not going to believe that answer. Instead, I’m going to say that I wasn’t attached because I expected the big death. And you know why I expected the big death? Not just because Katniss told me, but also because it was at the ELATION part of the plot, and we’re just waiting for a GLOOM (See the 8 C’s of Plotting for more information about plot).
Lesson #1: Give time for readers to get attached to the character, even if he or she is wearing a red shirt.
Case Study: Any Harry Potter book ever written
I can’t speak for all Harry Potter fans, but I feel each death in the series (and there are so many!), even when I’ve heard spoilers about which character is going to die.
You know why I feel them? Because the deaths feel real: the deaths surprise us, they happen to unexpected people, and they are sudden. In life, death surprises you and hits you in the stomach because you weren’t expecting it. That’s why the first stage of grief is doubt—you can’t believe it happened.
Also, death isn’t fair. In real life, anyone can die at any time. Characters, good characters, die when you don’t want them to and when you don’t expect it. Harry Potter is a morality tale, make no mistake.
Thirdly, plenty of the deaths are sudden. Dying people don’t usually make glorious monologues, though films and books suggest everyone does. Most of the characters in Harry Potter die suddenly from a killing curse. They don’t get any “final words.” Think of a character who has a lengthy dying monologue—there are a few in The Lord of the Rings—and compare that to a character whose death is sudden, without closure. Which death is more memorable, and which one still makes you choke up a bit to remember?
In the second season finale of BBC’s Robin Hood, there’s one of each kind of death. The one that happened suddenly still haunts me.
Lesson #2: Make the death realistic—surprising, unprejudiced, sudden—for a bigger emotional impact.
A word of caution: this effect works best on secondary characters. If you do this to a main character, don’t cheat your reader: give them time to grieve. I can think of two ways I’ve seen this done: One, you let the other characters in the story grieve (the novelization of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), or two, you let the audience grieve by ending the story with it (Life is Beautiful aka La Vita è Bella).
Case Study: The Avengers
Now, The Avengers is perhaps the only movie I’ve ever seen in which I COULD NOT PICK A FAVORITE. I always choose a favorite character when I watch a movie or read a book. Sometimes I pick two (Samwise, Faramir), and sometimes the favorite changes (Pippin, originally). During and after the first viewing of The Avengers, I have…seven. And no, it’s not just the Avengers who are my favorite. Thor bugs me, but maybe that’s just because I’m Norwegian and he has the worst dialogue.
Anyway, as soon as one of the characters appeared in the movie, I thought, “Oh, I hope they don’t kill this person off.” Guess what? Joss did. But because Joss Whedon is THE BEST AMERICAN SCREENWRITER,* I sat there with my jaw dropped, looking like a big-mouth bass, for several minutes before I closed it again. This guy, Joss Whedon, is amazing. I can’t give away the death, but I can tell you that this is a great way to do it.
Lesson #3: Keep the character awesome, even in death.
In other words, make sure it’s memorable, but not because it is excruciatingly drawn out (The Outsiders) or sappy (Love Story).
Have anything more to say about death scenes? Which movies we should watch or books we should read? Leave spoilers out, if you please!
*Steven Moffat is the best British screenwriter 🙂