Killing off Characters

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Here’s a confession. 

I’ve always wanted to write a novel that’s sort of like playing the game Clue

Possibly my favorite reading experience as a young adult was Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and ever since then I’ve wished I could be clever enough to come up with a puzzle mystery even close to as good. 

And how fun would it be to write? Choosing clues like murder weapons to disperse to your readers as the story moves along. Planting red herrings. 

I can definitely see the appeal of the murder mystery, and I think someday I might really make a go at a YA puzzle mystery, just because the world needs more of them. 

(Another fantastic YA puzzle mystery, if you’re interested, is Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger.) 

But of course, killing off characters isn’t limited to just mysteries. I’ve read plenty of books with murders and accidental deaths — some of which are manuscripts by friends of mine. 

In fact, sometimes when I make a comment on Twitter about not knowing what should happen next in a scene, I get responses like this: 

Brodi Ashton Brodiashton @nikkimantyla Someone could always die… 3:02 PM May 27th 

  

And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered why that’s not actually true with my manuscripts so far. In high fantasy, you sort of expect casualties along the way, where they’ll grieve for a page or two and then be forced to move on with their quest. In strict realistic fiction, you expect death to be catastrophic, like the main character is going to be coping with it throughout the whole book. With mine, which I guess is sort of an urban fantasy, though it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre (yet?), I think a death — whether intentional or accidental — would totally derail the plot. 

My friend Leisha agreed. We were joking about which character I could kill off, so I said, “How about the character everybody likes least anyway?” 

leisha maw leishamaw @nikkimantyla HA I could deal with Brianna dying. But you’d have to have some magical person kill her. And it would WAY sidetrack the story. 4:40 PM Jun 2nd 

With all my revisions right now aimed at focusing the story, sidetracking it is definitely not what I need. 

So I’ll just have to keep feeling envious of my friends who write paranormal romance or high fantasy or dystopia (dystopias probably win as far as killing off the most people). My current manuscript, at least, is not the place for killing off characters. 

But what I wonder about is how morbid it is to even joke about doing in a character. It makes me think of the movie Stranger than Fiction. 

"As much as I would like to, I cannot simply throw Harrold Crick off a building."

By the end of that movie, the author is horrified by all the characters she’s killed off throughout her career. 

When I took a grad course studying British murder mystery novels, I wondered about the psyche of readers who love books where someone gets knocked off. I remember a fellow classmate making the comment about the Brother Cadfael mystery we read, “I didn’t get hooked until the murder finally happened.” Yikes! 

Recently, my two boys (ages five and two) have become interested in death. Every stick-like toy becomes a sword for “killing” people, regardless of how much Hubby and I protest that we don’t want them to be pretending about killing. 

(The five-year-old, by the way, swears that he only “kills” bad people, not being old enough yet to realize “bad people” aren’t quite as obvious in real life as in movies.) 

But then, aren’t I doing the same thing if I secretly want to kill off characters like my friends do? 

I sort of wonder what Freud and others would say about it. Maybe we need to contemplate death through fiction (or playacting) because it helps us reconcile one of the most frightening parts of our existence. Fiction is a fantastic place to wrestle with questions about life, and so it’s probably also an appropriate place to wrestle with questions about death. 

For example, in Shannon Hale’s Actor and the Housewife, there’s a death that made me cry for a solid hour. I’m worried about saying too much and spoiling the book, but to make the point here, it’s a death that I’ve worried about in real life — in fact, it’s sort of an ever-present worry that most people with families have — and yet one that no one wants to think or talk about. Even though it was a wretched hour of heavy tears, I was grateful for the opportunity to go through it in fiction, to see the main character survive, and to think to myself that I could survive it, too, if I had to. 

On another level in a completely different direction, I wonder about an author’s motivations for murder in a book. 

For example, if you’ve read The Lovely Bones or seen the movie (if not, I’m about to spoil the ending, so skip the rest of this paragraph), think of how Alice Sebold deals with the murderer in the end. Instead of justice through the courts, justice is served by a falling icicle. 

And I think we like that about fiction. We like that “justice” can be served in poetic ways. If good characters are murdered or harmed along the way, we like to trust that eventually the bad guy will pay somehow. It doesn’t always work that way in real life, so I think it’s reassuring to us in fiction. 

It even happens in the Disney movies my kids watch, like in The Lion King how Scar kills Mufasa and so then we’re glad that Scar dies a similar death in the end. 

Think of the movie Becoming Jane about the possible beginnings of Jane Austen’s career. At first Jane’s character in the movie argues that novels should be true to life, but then once she’s experienced how downright crummy and unfair life can be, she decides that instead she will have her good characters come to good ends and the bad ones to bad ends as her own way of creating justice. 

Finally, on a superficial level, I think it’s also just fun to see annoying characters get “taken out.” Leisha said she could handle me getting rid of my annoying character Brianna. I think that’s because we would love to be able to fashion the world to our liking. We’d love to be surrounded by only awesome people. Honestly, I think killing off characters is even justifiable in that sense — the sense that it’s simply fun to create a fictional world and shape it to your liking. 

And then, going back to puzzle mysteries, I think as readers we like the challenge of putting the world back together by “solving” the mystery along with the characters. My fellow classmate in the murder mystery class probably wasn’t hooked until the murder because until then there wasn’t anything to solve. 

(Which, incidentally, is also why I can’t have any deaths or murders in mine: my characters are already plenty busy solving lots of other issues.) 

What do you think of murder in fiction, of kids playing with swords and guns to “kill” bad guys, of reading books or watching movies that deal with difficult subjects like death, etc? I’m super curious to know what everybody thinks. 

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7 responses »

  1. Sweet post. I love your analysis of death in books. I think you’re on to something with the need to experience death in a fictional setting in order to better cope with real life. That’s why I think every death in a book should count.

    You could always knock off Brianna in a writing excercise and see how you like it. (How morbid does that sound?) That way it wouldn’t derail your story. I just killed Cristan BTW. Not sure if he’ll stay dead.

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    • LOL! “Not sure if he’ll stay dead.” We watched The Princess Bride with the kids a couple weekends ago and it was funny to keep telling them, “No that guy just LOOKS dead. He’s not really dead. He’ll get back up in a minute.”

      Not a bad idea about trying things out in an exercise. I don’t do those often enough.

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  2. Yes, my friends and I have a running joke about me killing off characters. In fact, in my current wip I was getting worried because I wasn’t killing anyone off.

    So you’re post made me stop and think about that for awhile. Thanks for that. I think it’s always good to keep on thinking. 🙂

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  3. I was talking to a neighbor about the first Percy Jackson book and mentioned that I wasn’t sure how I felt about his stepfather’s fate at the end. My neighbor—who likes sweet, happy books—surprised me by saying she liked that ending. She said, basically, that for her kids, they needed to have the bad guy die to make them feel safe again.

    I also read an article a couple years ago where they talked about parents being disturbed by their kids playing tsunami—they’d climb to the top of the jungle gym so they’d be safe. The point of the article was that kids played things like that—along with guns and swords—to feel safe in the world and to cope with things they’re afraid of. Sorry I can’t find the reference for you, but I thought it was interesting.

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    • That makes total sense to me. It also makes me think of Conspiracy of Kings and how Sophos’s tutor had him devise strategies for certain situations, and that helped him cope and think better once he was in actual situations that required strategic thinking. I’m with the kids: I feel more secure when I’ve thought through how I would react. And I think I’m going to be a little more tolerant of “guns” and “swords” now. 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Safe Experience: A Parent’s Thoughts on Censorship « All About the Words

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