Characters You Can’t Kill Off (because readers would kill YOU)

The following is a true conversation that transpired between my mother and me.

…I sit on the floor, looking up at my Grams, telling her about a conversation I’d had with my sister earlier that day. My mom walks into the room.

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “If you had to pick between these two characters, like, if you had to… who would you choose to lose? For me to kill off, I mean.”

My mother returns with a deadpan stare and says in an even voice, “I would murder you in your sleep.”

Her homicidal apathy breaks, and we enjoy a round of laughter which eases down into chuckles.

After a few beats of silence, I say, curiously, “But seriously. If you had to. Which one?”

“I already answered,” she says with a sugar sweet smile. Then, somehow chillingly sweet: “You.”

Compare this to the conversation I had with Eldest Sister/Nephew:

…Standing in the living room, I say, “Yeah, I’m struggling with who to kill in this book.”

“Why do you have to kill anyone?” Eldest Sister asks.

Nephew adds, “Knowing your books, you’ll probably just decapitate my favorite character.”

Me, slightly puzzled if not disturbed, “Nephew, I’ve never decapitated and I don’t think I’ve ever killed anyone’s favorite character.”

“Yu-huh,” he objects, “What about your first book?”

“I killed like two people in that book,” I argue. “And those deaths both were implied off-page. I mean, unless you count the stabbing death in the first chapter…”

“See?!” he says.

“Relax about it, okay?” I say. I’m never happy when I lose arguments with eleven-year-olds. My ego can’t handle it. I add, “I keep wondering what would happen if I killed off Character A or Character B.”

Eldest Sister, who had been sitting up until this point, stands up to meet me. She stands a whole head shorter, but she’s stares me down like she’s prepared to brawl.

“You tell me right now, Becky. If you’re going to kill off either of those characters at any point in this book,” she says, “I will stop reading it right now. And you know how much I’m enjoying it.”

Nephew rises up as well, in equal imposing stature and indignation.

“You tell me. Right now,” Eldest Sister demands.

My only response: “Umm…”

The rest of this story involves me backpedaling, arguing, and generally fearing for my safety…

This brings up the issue that authors face about killing off characters.

We’ve all read those books where the authors kill off the lovable sidekick, the innocent child, the grandfatherly guide, the best friend from an old life, or the could-be-the-one romantic interest.

And I’m not going to sugar coat it, when that happens, I get super mad at the author. “WHY?” I shout at the faceless book. “Why did you have to do that?”

My favorite trilogy ends with one of the two main characters dying at the very end.

When I got to that section, within twenty pages, I knew the character was going to die. And it had all the emotional turmoil of when you know your favorite TV show is airing its last episode.

So what did I do?

I threw the book across the room. Literally.

I slammed it shut and chucked it.

Granted, it landed (luckily) on a bed of folded blankets, but the fury was still there. (And let’s not dive into my deep-seated issue of not finishing TV shows when it comes to those last few episodes.)

Two months later, I finally picked it up and read the end, and there might have been a tear shed. The ONLY thing that made it tolerable was because it was a good, noble death. Self-sacrificing, and it made the book and the character development feel whole.

See? There are rules for killing off characters. You can piss off readers if you like, but only if you know that two months later, they’ll forgive you because it needed to happen, it was important to the story, or it was well done and pertinent to the character arcs.

Senseless killing (which is what my family must have seen my idle conversation of murder as), is a huge NO-NO. You can’t kill off characters just for an emotional response or just because no one has been decapitated in a while.

Killing a character needs to make sense. And for the love of chocolate-covered-almonds, don’t tell your readers beforehand that you’re considering killing their favorite characters. They might get to you first.

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One thought on “Characters You Can’t Kill Off (because readers would kill YOU)

  1. Pingback: Kill or be Killed | words — and other things

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