How The Famous People Do
Some shows and books have made their name through the slogan of “No one is safe,” such as LOST and Game of Thrones. Whether it’s for budgetary purposes or to keep readers on their toes, something about this works. But why?
Personally, I punch pillows when an author kills my favorite character or when people die senselessly. So how do some books and shows get away with it while others can’t?
The simple answer is that LOST and Game of Thrones have more characters. It’s simple math. The more characters you have, the more you can kill. Furthermore, those multiplicity of characters are developed and fully fleshed out.
Yet the little literary voice inside your brain says, “Killing characters for the sake of surprising the reader is cheating, I’m pretty sure. I’m like, at least 10% sure.” This is true. Readers can tell when a character is senselessly killed. They feel cheated.
How to Get Away with Killing Characters
Make sure it fits with your story and genre.
- If you’re telling a Middle Grade (MG) story with kids on a field trip, you have to be aware of your readers. They’re between 10 and 13 years old. They don’t really want a bloodbath, and they probably can’t quite handle the heartbreak.
- If you’re telling a graphic high fantasy story where sword battles abound, then someone is bound to get stabbed at some point. Your audience should at least have an inkling of what’s to come.
- Game of Thrones is a violent, political story, so the oft-kill-filled-eves fit. And LOST is a buncha random airline passengers in survival mode on a crazy island with guns and mysterious enemies, so duh.
Have a good reason.
Senseless death is senseless. What’s worse than killing a character is not having a good reason. Storytelling is based on cause-effect, moral dilemmas, foreshadowing, and logic. If you toss all of that to the wind for the sake of a big ole SURPRISE EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT IS DEAD NOW moment, then you won’t win a lot of favors. You better give the plot some traction with that loss.
Keep it in perspective.
Maybe you have a good reason and it fits your story. If you don’t do it right (or if you don’t make up for it in a big BIG way, then readers might be less inclined to read your work in the future. Even if the story is great, they might be hesitant to delve into dark waters again.
Make up for it.
Killing a character (either a beloved side character or the main character at the end) is no small task. And it doesn’t have small consequences either. If you kill off the Best Friend, you’d better let the Main Character pursue revenge. You better have enough characters to fill in the narrative void. You better give us some comedic relief, some sensation of this was meant to happen or I still empathize with the characters. Let the character’s death mean something for the other characters and the reader. (This isn’t to say that you can’t have the death be random or senseless per motive of the killer. That’s fine, if it fits the story.)
Don’t accidentally kill your story.
Yes, good characters die, just like people. But just like in life when we can’t let death keep us from living, you can’t let the death of a character put your story at a halt. Sure, it can screw with the Main Character’s emotions or plans, but the story itself must survive. Make that death have a reason or at least let it have an important effect on the story. This is where your Writer Brain does some hard work. What does it say about the themes of your story if Character X dies?
Beware the Dramatic Death Scene.
We’ve all seen or heard of the over-acted death scene. Actors work in fear of being over the top and therefore unbelievable. Writers hold the same risk. If you over-write the scene with too many perfect last words and screaming-at-heaven-slash-villain moments, the readers will think it’s cheesy. That’s the last thing you want from a good death scene. You want anger or tears or righteous fury.
Do your research.
Nothing kills a death scene quite like a lack of research.
- Want a character to get stabbed in the abdomen?
- Know where the vital organs are and how long it takes to die of exsanguination. Maybe know what exsanguination is (bleeding out).
- Know where the arteries are, how effective the weapons really are.
- Want a character to die of an illness?
- What are the treatment options? Medications? Side-effects? Life expectancy?
- What are the symptoms and how would your character act?
- Burying a body?
- It’s harder to dig in the colder months because the ground is stiffer.
- Most people probably don’t have the time or patience dig a deep enough grave to keep away scavenging animals.
- Also, don’t hit a pipeline.
Sure, if anyone saw your search history or peered over your shoulder at the coffee shop, they’ll briefly consider you’re 100% a Crazy Person. If they ask (or give sidelong glances), mention you’re a writer. That should put things at ease. Then they’ll know you’re a Crazy Person.
Know what death does to a story.
Sometimes, adding death in a story makes it more real and less escapist. The reason books have so many Happily Ever Afters is because they are fantasies. People want the adventure and certainty of books as opposed to the dreary or terrible or boring or normal lives they already live. Adding in death risks putting your readers in a more real place, which can be a huge challenge to write properly. In the words of Scar, be prepared.