March 13, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: The Appropriateness of Killing Characters

Hello, Misfiteers.

Here's a question for readers: Have you ever read a book where the author killed off a character and it just felt wrong? Like they did it for no reason, or like it was purely a plot device? On the flipside, have you read a book where you knew all along a character had to die, and the way it happened was exactly right?

And to writers: Have you ever wondered whether or not you should kill a character? Ever pondered exactly how you should do it? Ever tried writing it one way and realized it wouldn't work, or didn't feel right?

I've been listening to Thrift Shop a lot. 
Whenever I'm reading a book (Hunger Games, for example, where a lot of people die) I keep in mind which deaths seem appropriate, which confuse me, the way they're executed, and how it affects the other characters.

Lately, I've been thinking about this from a writer's standpoint. I've killed a lot of characters in a lot of different ways. And while I've always put a lot of thought into how it would affect the world and the characters, I've never been worried about if it was "okay" to kill a character, or if killing them was necessary. I'm not in the business of massacring characters, so the ones I have killed have always been obvious to me in both reason and execution.

But now I have a story where a lot of people are eventually going to die. I realized only recently that this was going to happen. And they're not random, quickly-introduced secondary characters, either; these are key players. So with each one, I have to run through this checklist to make sure the death is appropriate:

1.) Reason: Is there a reason for killing this character? A good one? Besides convenience, as a plot device, or to tug the readers' heartstrings? If it's a minor character, this isn't such a big deal. But if they're part of the main cast, you have to think long and hard about this. A lot of writers enjoy causing their characters pain, but before you go godmode and kill people off just to cause havoc, think of why you're doing it, and what it's going to do to your story. Trust me: it's fun to cause chaos, but organized chaos is so much better. As the author, you always want to be in control of what's going on in the story (and don't give me any of that "but my characters do what they want, teehee" crap--remind me to stay far away next time your fictional creations get the better of you) and killing characters without good reason is not the way to do that.

2.) Effect: What will this death do to your world? It's characters? How will the plot progress now that this character isn't there? How will other characters' decisions be affected by this death, and how will those decisions affect the plot? The thing I hate most is when a character--a central character, mind you--dies, and basically nothing changes. Or the MC thinks about the death, but beyond that it has no effect on anything. (If this is what the author is going for--a death that is heartbreaking in the fact that the world didn't notice at all--then congratulations and kudos, that is amazing, please continue doing what you are doing.)

3.) Execution: Some of the ways I've thought of killing the characters in this story have shocked even me. And shocking me with a death scene is pretty hard to do. Now, I'm one of those people who believe that the YA category bars no extremes. Dark themes, dark situations, dark thoughts. And anyone who has read my stuff knows that I don't pull my punches. But I do think there's a proper way to execute a death scene, a way that will deliver the punch you want, but won't scar your readers for life. For example: in this story, I'm considering burning one of the central characters alive. That disturbs me. I've thought long and hard about it, and I think that's what I'm going to do. But I know I have to do it carefully. While YA is open to all topics and subject matter, and all forms of expressing it, I don't plan on mentally torturing people with the gruesome details of a burning. That part is not necessary to the death, and I think the idea of burning alive is enough to get the point across. So, while again it may be fun or cathartic to kill characters, or to think of the most gruesome ways to off them, you really have to think about the way you're doing it. Is it necessary to show the death in detail? No. (Same goes for sex scenes, but that's a different post.) It's enough to know why you're killing a character a certain way, and to make sure it's clear to the reader. No grisly tidbits needed.

I'm always interested to know readers' and writers' thoughts on this topic, so how do you guys deal with death scenes/killing characters? As writers or as readers?


Naomi Hughes said...

Great post, Chessie! Killing off characters has always been a tightrope for me--someone usually has to die for things to get serious, but it's always hard to pick who, and to decide how devastating their death will be.

Francesca Zappia said...

Thanks! And I agree, killing characters is just as important as any other part of the story, and should be treated with caution and a lot of thought. Thanks for stopping by!

S.K. Anthony said...

I've been going back and forth with this also. In my last revision I brought someone back to life because I had no good reason to kill her off other than it would get emotion out of the reader. I went ahead and made other emotional moments, and hey, I actually killed someone off too by burning them alive, this person deserved it. I'm keeping that one!

Francesca Zappia said...

It can definitely be a tough decision, and I've actually been kind of disappointed when I have to un-kill a character. But it's better to keep them alive than to kill them for no good reason. And it's always gratifying to kill a character that deserves it!

Jae said...

I think sometimes people believe death is the worst possible thing that can happen, but usually there's much worse we can do to characters. Sometimes you create jerks you'd love to kill, but jerks make for tension and you certainly don't want to kill tension. Great questions for considering whether or not we really should kill our characters. Thanks!

Morgan York said...

This is a great post! I definitely get annoyed when people are killed off for the sake of killing off a character, and it just doesn't work with the story (a couple of examples in this in Hunger Games, Mockingjay in particular). It shouldn't be gratuitous and should hold real meaning for the characters.

There can be good reasons for going into detail concerning the deaths, though. If this is a violent death happening in front of the MC, to someone he/she really cares about, that memory's gonna be visceral. He/she will remember the sights, sounds, smells, etc. probably for the rest of his/her life. That's the primary reason I sometimes include such details. I don't wanna gross anyone out for the sake of shock value, though. That's something entirely different.

tawney13 said...

I think when an author kills off a character and I am totally shocked and sad at the same time, the author did a great job writing. I wasn't confused or mad at the fact they died. I was shocked and wanted to read the aftermath of the dearly departed. When writers kill off a character for no reason, it doesn't make sense, I am truly disappointed in the work because it was a needless death.

I am morbid and like killing my characters off but I pause to reflect on the right situation that causes it. I don't want to rush it and have it feel empty and wrong. When Fred died in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows I was crushed and sad. I cried for the book and movie. You see I have a twin, and it hit close to home. So that was good writing. So writers just need to know the right time to kill their characters. Don't rush it.

Gina said...

My first draft: Nobody died. It was awful.

So I had to start with a necessary-and-not-too-emotionally-taxing death. Like a death-prep. Now I'm getting better at it. I've killed three characters. I think that's all that will die. Maybe one more... but I'm not sure.

Francesca Zappia said...

@Jae - I agree! In the current book I'm working on, I was considering killing off a character, but then realized that there was something much worse I could do to him, and it would fit much better with the story. Thanks for stopping by!

@Morgan - Ah, Mockingjay. My great enemy. I completely agree. I also agree about the detail. If it's the MC viewing the death, they're definitely going to remember, and it's going to be small, very precise details. They should definitely be used to give the reader a better understanding of the MC's state of mind, but never just to gross the reader out. Great point!

@Tawney - Agreed! When they kill characters off for no reason, it just leaves me scratching my head. And I like killing my characters, too, but I like it so much more when it's appropriate and will have the right effect.

@Gina - BAHAHA. Death-prep. That's a good way of putting it. I think, if a death doesn't fit in a manuscript, then it doesn't have to be there. But if all the signs say the character should die, then they should probably die.

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