1. Pepsik
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    Pepsik Member

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    Killing off characters

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Pepsik, Jun 13, 2014.

    Hello everyone!! I had a question that I was wondering if you guys could give your thoughts on.

    When do you feel it's appropriate to kill off a character? And why?

    What factors come into play when deciding wether or not to kill a character, or even if they should be killed at all.

    For example, I have a character in one of my stories that I'm sort of having trouble deciding. One reason against it is, why her? What exactly would her death do to the characters involved and the story.

    I find that, sometimes, characters are killed off just to bring about a certain reaction from the reader, or viewer, or what have you. Not really for the good of the story, but just for a shock value.

    I'm having trouble with this whole thing and was wondering if you guys would maybe share your experiences with this particular topic in creating stories. Thanks!! :)
     
  2. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Well you hit on a major point in your post already. When it comes to killing off characters, for some it's easy, for others it's not. In my opinion, it's less a matter of whether to do it, but how, when and why. If the circumstances are right, then it comes down to the impact it would have on the characters and the story-- meaning, how would they react? how would they feel? what would have to change in them? what would have to change in their plans? etc.
    at any point.

    However, this is all contingent upon how important the character is. There are lot's f characters in most stories, and any of them can die at any point. How you handle it depends on the significance of the character to the plot and, more importantly, to the other characters. If a police officer dies, characters and readers will feel it, but it won't warrant much detailor impact unless he or she is important. Say the cop is the mc's dad's partner, it should affect the dad. Now say the Dad is the officer that dies... The MC should feel it, and if the dad is important to the plot, like the lead detective in a case at the center of the plot, that changes a lot. Ya follow?
     
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  3. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    This question seems along the same lines of what I call "cheating" in Anime. Just when you think your opponent is beaten, nope, they pull out some Ace in the hole and win the battle. No matter what obstacle what put before them, they overcame it (like Superman). The reason I bring this up is because I'm particularly sensitive to these kind of things.

    The only way I like a surprise or "just because" is if there's foreshadowing. Allude to the characters death. "Sally woke up earlier than usual. She rubbed her eyes but felt as if she was being watched. Not by some person, as the room was silent except for the buzzing of the ceiling fan, but by something else. He held her breath and sat up trying to be quiet. She slowly slid her legs from under the covers and onto the floor. When her feet touched the soft carpet, the feeling drifted away."

    I'm completely okay with this character going outside and getting smashed by a meteorite as impossible as it may be. This puts me on guard that something may happen. The anticipation of what might happen is what I aim to elicit from my readers. The death is just the tag on the whole experience.

    If you're going to kill off a character because they've gotten themselves in a really bad situation. Make sure they're not idiots, unless in fact they are. Running down a hall from a maniac wearing high heals only to fall and get stabbed to death is weak.

    "Sally blood ran frigidly cold as the figure's pale skin and manic smile was revealed from under the tattered hood. She turned to run but as she pivoted her high heals buckled beneath her. She stumbled and felt a sudden pinch in her ankle as it twisted inside the shoe. She took a small step and reached down. With a flick she quickly scraped her finder inside the counter around her heal and pried the shoe off. With another step and motion she did the same to the other. Now freed of her hindering footwear she sprinted down the hallway from which she came. Each time her bare foot slapped down on the decaying floorboards she heard a crashing thud closing in behind her..."

    Before this encounter, I would have mentioned some details about the setting that would be used to undermine her escape; weak floorboards, crumpled up carpet, puddle, confusing floor plan, lack of potassium leading to a leg cramp, etc. As long as it's realistic given the context of the story, I'll buy it.

    Sometimes you end up writing your character into certain death inadvertently. While killing off characters at a whim is bad, so is keeping them alive.
     
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  4. EllBeEss
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    With my current WIP, which is set in a fantasy world undergoing a civil war pretty much everyone is fair game to be killed.

    Very minor characters are often dying, they are the bodies on the streets, the blackened boot in the ruins of a village and other stuff like this. The darker tone of the setting is important for my story and I'd rather keep it present. I wouldn't really call these character deaths but I felt them worth mentioning all the same.

    Background characters, I tend to only kill them when it fits the story but they too have a pretty low survival rate. I'd rather not exclusively kill nameless characters so if there is a dangerous conflict background characters will often die. Generally they die to drive the plot forwards depending on their relationship to major characters but they may also die to add to the setting and make the danger seem real. A few dead background characters and an injured main character make it seem more like the main characters are in actual danger and survived because they were lucky/skilled rather than for the plot.

    I kill main characters only to drive the plot forwards and get the surviving characters into a certain state of mind.

    In this particular piece if I need a character gone for good and there is an opportunity to kill them, I kill them. If I need the characters grieving I kill a character. If the plot needs a character to die I kill a character.

    Killing off characters just because may or may not be applicable depending on the setting. For example I wouldn't kill off a background character in a romance set in suburbia unless it was a major plot point. If however it was set in WWII and only one or two background characters died it wouldn't really make sense.

    If your story doesn't fit random deaths I wouldn't kill anyone unless I knew they needed to die to drive the story forwards.

    Personally I hate having obvious foreshadowing when it comes to character deaths. It takes away the surprise and if done poorly can make it seem like the character has already given up or had no reason to keep fighting. If it's a slow death like from disease or say being buried alive in a coffin the characters may accept their fate, other characters may even accept their fate but I don't want to. I want to believe the character is going to pull through until the very last moment and then to be genuinely shocked and saddened when they don't.

    I do agree that the death of characters needs to have more affect than to shock the reader but the shock sometimes has it's place. The death of a character who seemed safe can add more interest to future conflicts.
     
  5. Quoux
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    Mmmmm, I do enjoy this topic!

    There is a HUNDRED ways, literally, to go about this! What it truly depends on is what type of story you're going for. Is it a Game of Thrones type world, or a more "tame" fantasy? That would be your first step to deciding, before even singling out characters.

    You'd be rather correct to assume authors kill off characters for the shock value - but when done right BY GEORGE does it work!? Over all, with any book, you want your readers to remember that book and say "wow that was a really good book, it made me feel alot!" and when you can get them to do that, you've won!

    So, besides just for major shock value (I remember a certain book by Paul Stewart where an entire ships crew, one you read about the entire book, is killed in a single chapter besides the inexperienced main character and one other) you could kill off a single love-able character to evict a sadness from the reader, as well as a sadness and determination from your story's main character. I think the best suggestion I could give about killing off characters is to heavily analyze how that will affect the main character, and THEN your readers, and then how it will impact the world. Once you've done that, you'll know who and how many are the right ones to kill :)
     
  6. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you can't decide whether or not to kill the character, just do it.

    You can just add a new one in later, while a death could push the plot along, spurring events. A new character (if well developed) is fresher and sometimes nicer than an old character.
    Plus, you can always just bring them back. I have a character that everyone knows is going to die, essentially dies, then, "Oh, he's alive!". So if you don't think the death was good, just have him/her come back.
     
  7. Joe Nathan
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    If you're not sure if it's the right move to kill a character, the problem may be that your main theme and/or character themes aren't well defined.

    For instance, since Quoux mentioned Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin, the author, states his theme clearly; there's good and evil on both sides of every conflict ever fought. Each time he kills a character, he can do so with confidence, knowing that it strengthens the main argument of his work. Besides this main theme, characters also have their own themes. A character who values truth can be killed when the pursuit of the truth makes an enemy of another character. In this way, the death serves an identifiable thematic purpose by revealing a danger about the pursuit of truth.

    A rule of thumb I use is that a character should die visibly by his own mistakes. Those are always my favorite deaths.
     
  8. Graham Penman
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    Graham Penman Member

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    I only kill off characters if it serves a point to the story, like it pushes the plot along or effects another character. I don't see the point in killing off a character that will have no impact at all.
     
  9. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    Personally I hate it when books obviously replace a character or bring them back. Oh no Matthew died. But it's okay here's a new Matthew who has a different name and looks different but is basically the same guy. Books where characters keep coming back from the dead just takes impact away from killing characters in the future and causes me to stop rooting for the characters. Sometimes it works if used sparingly but bringing a character back from the dead is just over done. The revival of a dead character or the realization that a character wasn't actually dead needs to have a bigger effect on the story than their death did otherwise it often seems like they're just coming back because the author likes them.
     
  10. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't just do it willy nilly, I plan to do it twice in a series of six books. And it always has plot importance, it's not like it just randomly happens.
     
  11. EllBeEss
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    EllBeEss Contributing Member

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    I'm sorry if it came across like I was implying you were doing it improperly it just kind of sounded like you were advising on bringing characters back to life to magically fix plot holes. I have no problem with resurrection or replacement characters when they're done well just when it's blindingly obvious.
     
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  12. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    In writing, it's hard to do something 'improperly'. If you can justify it, you're golden.

    Don't EVER bring them back magically to fix plot holes. If you kill a character and plan on bringing them back, do it right. Have a closed casket funeral (body is so mangled you don't want to see it, but really there's no body in there). Don't let anyone see the body. Even Shakespeare got away with having Juliet drinking the sleeping potion, 'dying' going into the crypts, and Romeo coming down to get her (except it kinda got botched). Just do it right. If magic is an option, use it. If not, don't. I was hoping that was common sense :D
     
  13. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Though you might not want to abuse the magical revival element. Dragonball Z abused theirs so much that it became a running gag among fans, and even within the show, that they shouldn't worry about vaporizing the planet in their attempts to defeat the Monster of the Week, as, to quote Goku, "We'll just wish them back with the Dragonballs."
     
  14. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm pretty sure that's part of the premise of the show and half the reason I hated it. Death still is an impact in my manuscript but it was so meaningless in Dragonball Z.

    Just make death have meaning, and don't resurrect every character that dies.
     
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  15. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    When it's necessary either for the plot or to resolve a storyline.
    It's necessary for the plot or to resolve a character's storyline

    Actually, the question immediately brought to mind a story of mine in which a primary character is killed.
    1) His death serves as a catalyst for the future actions of the MC and another character as well as implementing the dénouement.
    2) It also serves as the resolution to his own storyline in that he has been mourning the deaths of his family - prior to the timeline of the story - and it is the logical - though unexpected - resolution to his storyline.

    Unless you are not trying for any degree of believability, gratuitous death and bloodletting of characters is probably not a good idea. As you have already indicated, you need to be aware of the characters and what the purpose of the death of one or more of them might serve in how it changes the MC and other primary characters as well as how it will change the timbre of the story overall.
     
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2014
  16. mdh
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    mdh Member

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  17. mdh
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    I think that your mindset regarding story could hurt you. There is nothing wrong with shock value. You want the reader to have a reaction. If you think back on everything you have ever read what you are likely to remember is what the author made you feel. The story is only as good as the emotions that it elicits.
     
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  18. jannert
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    If you kill characters off whom the readers don't particularly care about, you probably won't have a problem. If the story is a crime story, or some sort of mystery, or something like that, dead bodies are pretty much the norm. If you make the dead person somebody the other characters care about, then you have the basis for a good story. However, the reader doesn't have to personally feel the loss.

    If you kill off a character the reader does care about, though, you'd better be prepared for some VERY unhappy puppies—unless you've worked it so the death makes perfect sense, may have been forshadowed, or is dealt with by the other characters in a satisfactory manner.

    I know two people who have recently stopped watching Game of Thrones because they're fed up that their favourite characters keep getting killed off. One friend says he's only got one 'favourite' character who hasn't died yet. The other person says she's fed up getting involved in characters who haven't got long to live ...and whose death seems to serve no purpose. Both of these people have stopped watching the series, so the author (or in this case author and producer) has lost two fans because of his constant killing-off of characters.

    I stopped reading that series long ago, because of this issue.

    So I'd go with 'plan your deaths carefully,' if they are going to matter personally to the readers. Make them count. And don't plan too many of them, or your readers will lose heart.
     
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  19. Domino355
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    Domino355 Contributing Member

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    I'll give you one more reason not mentioned yet on why to kill characters, especially close to main characters - it's just more realistic that way! I know when and how should serve the plot, but if there's something I hate is these stories where you get the feeling the MC is immune to anything, unless the author gets a clear advantage otherwise. That is what I loved about Game of Thrones, from that one episode towards the end of the first season (I didn't read the books yet) you understand. No character is safe from G. Martin.
     
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  20. mdh
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    mdh Member

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    I agree, an immune main character is boring. It makes you feel like you could skip most of the story including the ending!
     
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  21. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    I usually plot out my stories completely and any dead characters are known ahead of time. Poor fellows.
     
  22. purplehershey
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    Sometimes I write an entire story and I subconsciously set up the character for death without even realizing it and then when the time comes I look back and realize they had been completely set up for this.
     
  23. T.R.P.
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    More often than not, I decide how, when, and why a character dies during the brainstorming process. I really enjoy the viking notion of dying in battle, or dying in such a grandiose way that it will be remembered by everyone around them, so a significant portion of my characters actively put themselves at risk, even if they only subconsciously desire to end it all in some elaborate and honorific way.
    As far as sentiment toward whether a character SHOULD die or not, (and this might sound kind of dark) consider the point in your story where the character's usefulness or impact on the remaining part of the story ends, and that might give you a little more courage to devise a method for their death. Even so, if your story allows for inter-planar communication, you can always have them come back as ghosts or reincarnations if you want to satisfy yourself with a little more of a particular character. I have one such character that I grew so attached to that I changed his original death into just a severe wound that he eventually recovered from, and had him die much later in the continuum, only to have his spirit go on and have even more adventures before achieving his long-awaited rest. That's what is so great about fiction: it doesn't necessarily have to tell the truth and it doesn't have to follow any of the natural laws in our own non-fiction universe - you can do WHATever you want, WHENever you want.
    I would say that you should be able to kill of a character simply if you feel he or she should be killed off. Whether they've just got bad karma, they don't have anything more to contribute to their story, or their death would help the plot move forward, murdering your worst enemies or your closest friends is a-okay.
    Um... I mean, in fiction o_o
     
  24. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally I would only kill off a big character if it's needed to advance the plot - but that's just my taste. I have difficulty getting to know a character and then whacking them, others will disagree. That said I do have two major political assassinations planned in mine - and both of the victims are characters I've gotten to know. I'm also planning one pretty bloody terrorist attack in my plot that's going to have a high body count. That, and I shocked myself this week by actually killing off a foreground character in a future outline - which is something I never, ever, ever do....but in this case it's a relatively minor character, and killing him was the only way I could get his best friend to drop her relatively awesome life and mover halfway around the world. I guess I can kill off a character when I know from the beginning what happens to them, but if it's not pre-planned I can't do it.
     
  25. ToDandy
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    For some stories, killing off characters helps build tension.

    It's been used in the horror genre for years. You have a series of character, none of which can really be called a "main character" and you kill them off in a way that makes the reader worry about everyones safety and (theoretically) become more engaged when they believe anyone can die at any moment.

    The problem is that most horror stories have thin characters as a result of this, and you really just end up waiting for the next one too kick the bucket.

    The real master of this is probably George R.R Martin who created great characters that you love (or love to hate) and kills them off in droves.
     

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