Monday, September 20, 2010

I Wanna Hear Yours: Killing Characters-- Is There a Line?

If you want to be a writer, then you have to read a lot of books, and since we're all well read here, we have all come across a book in which an important character is killed off.

Death is a part of life, and since literature in all forms is really just analyzing life through the lens of fiction, death is a common occurrence in novels. But is there a point in which the writer should back off and let the damn characters have a happily ever after?

I've noticed an interesting trend. Sadists Writers tend to be a little more lenient towards character death. If they're reading a book in which an important character dies, even if they love that character, they're more willing to forgive the author if the death is justified and fits the story. Strictly readers, on the other hand, tend to protest to character death a bit more. Even if it is justified and fits the story, more often than not readers want their favorite character to live, have a happily ever after and die old in a bed somewhere surrounded by loved ones.

Now, my speculation is that writers have a subconscious distance from the books they read. It's much easier to pull a writer out of a story if they stumble across a tiny plot hole or badly shaped sentences. We spend all our time grooming ourselves to become aware of these things so that when we encounter them in other people's fiction, we're sensitive to it. We're able to step away from books and look at the craft.

So does that include character death? We can tell when a character's death fits the story, so is that why we're less sensitive and much better at being happy with a character killed off? We're able to take ourselves out of the story and say, "Yes, my favorite character died, but it really worked for the book."

Readers, I believe, don't have this kind of distance. They let themselves fall completely into the story, not worrying about craft or looking at how an author is trying to make them sympathize with the MC. They just get so involved in it that when their favorite character dies tragically, even if it is a beautiful death, they want to mail the book back to the author with big red pen scribbled across the page saying, "BRING HIM BACK TO LIFE, DAMNIT."

But, is that a good thing? Is it a good thing that the readers feel so much for our characters that they can't stand to see them go? And if it is a good thing, do we push the envelope a little too much?

Of course, there are readers who love character death and writers who want to hold onto their babies. Every person and every novel is different.

Which brings me to my next question: can we overdo death, or is that simply a tool we can use as often as we please? What's wrong if we kill off fifteen side characters, if that helps us build tension? Or should we not kill anyone off and find different ways to build tension?

I really think this comes down to what genre you're writing. If you're writing a mystery, then I think it's a little hard not to kill somebody off. If it's a teenage contemporary romance, then gratuitous amounts of death may be out of place. And of course, every novel is different. The Child Thief had so much gore and death which I thought was well-worth it while Three Days to Dead had significantly fewer deaths but I still felt there were too many. Both of these are adult fantasy, but they do have slightly different markets. Does that make the difference then? Do your readers define how much death you should include?

And here’s one I would really like to know, straight from you guys: How do you know where to draw the line? When do you stop and say, "I don't/do need to kill off more characters?"

You've heard my ramblings, now I Wanna Hear Yours!

Fire away my fast-fingered friends.



1 comment:

  1. I've never been able to read as freely as I did when I was a non-writer non-sadist kid. I miss it. :/

    That said, I think it's the reactions of the other characters that tell me whether the death was justified or not. Whether it's sudden or protracted, if the other characters don't react with real emotion, neither do I.