Now I have to confess after not posting for some months, and getting towards the end of my 3rd year posting on Lonely Power polls I can’t quite recall nor easily discover whether I’ve covered this topic before! Nevermind its hardly the worst sin to repeat oneself is it (perhaps on a long car trip)
Today I’m looking at an interesting and controversial topic: killing your characters.
Ever since Game of Thrones got really famous, character death is a major discussion topic on writer forums everywhere. Unfortunately its a complex and tricky area of writing, and in my humble opinion one that can easily spurn or disappoint readers whether you err on the side of keeping your characters safe, or slay them too impulsively.
I think the first thing to discuss is that death has different significance depending on the genre and specific themes of your story. This may sound a little common sensical, but what I’m getting at is that a death in Game of Thrones has a different significance to 50 Shades of Gray. The most obvious point being that different genres bring different expectations and thus will create different impacts within said genres. Very, very broadly speaking any actiony adventure type tale, whether fantasy, thriller, or Sci-Fi the handling of death will dictate how harsh dangerous the world is, and determine the tensions that arise from deadly situations. Compare and contrast the difference between a GoT character facing off against an enemy and Harry Potter doing so. Admittedly the HP universe is pretty deadly for a kids series, but overall readers truly do fear for GoT character’s lives whereas most times you can have faith that Harry isn’t going to die any moment (so as a writer one has to draw tension from other outcomes, humiliation, loss, injury etc)
That’s quite a practical view of death in general, however doesn’t dive into the deeper aspects, the next layer I believe is the meaning of a death. While the following list is most definitely not exhaustive there are some pretty poignant reasons to have a character die:
- to receive comeuppance
- To churn development of other characters
- As a major source of antagonism (consider the frequent death of characters who are lynch pins in preventing villains success)
As well as not being exhaustive, the above list is not mutually exclusive. A hero can sacrifice themselves in a way that also provides comeuppance.
I don’t want to be pretentious, however my thoughts are that merely having characters killed off to show how gritty your story is, or to shock readers will fall flat unless their is some more powerful plot points in play. Now this isn’t about being flashy or writerly, I don’t think its that readers are super demanding for meaning, it’s more that as a reader you’ll have a sense of a death being flat if the meaning isn’t there.
Finally the deepest layer is to acknowledge that death, being the flipside of life, and all stories ultimately being about ‘life’ is a necessary part of literature. Regardless of the exact plot points or story meaning death on its own is steeped in meaning and significance. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’m trying to express myself here, but in the same way that a sex scene will be embarrassing and awkward if presented wrong, death too if handled poorly will not hit readers the right way. It’s not about high drama or purple prose, but understanding how character death sits with the genre, meaning, and culture that the novel is and lives in.
What are your thoughts on the topic?
Any examples of well written or terribly written death scenes?