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How do you feel about killing off one of your major characters?
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Sometimes killing off a major character is very troublesome. Writers spend a great deal of time creating these beings. They get to be attached even. Regardless of their status as bad guys or good guys, we know all their motivations, and their likeable qualities. They’re our errant children. Honestly, we probably would prefer they redeem themselves, but that has become too much of a trope.
Redemption is not always the best road for anti-heroes or villains. Neither is their demise, so it is a difficult decision to make. Not every character, either, that meets an end in the pages of one’s book is bad or necessarily expendable. Sometimes, you find yourself at an end with them, and the story’s strength depends on their death. Authors agonize over these choices. After all, we are attempting to write the best possible stories. Even though some readers think we relish in murdering their favorites, they must admit that this is not actually the case.
Well—it’s not always the case. When faced with killing off or continuing characters in Blue Honor, I chose to mostly avoid it. The United States Civil War was a bloody massacre, but not every man who took the field died. Not every soldier wounded was sawed to bits. This image of the war is mostly false. For the sake of accuracy, I chose not to kill off certain characters, because it needed to also show how money often sheltered individuals, the same as it does today. Power afforded different outcomes. The rich, white elite of the 1860s were largely safe, because they could afford care, but also because the eyes of other powerful individuals were watching over them. Thus, telling readers that any character in that demographic perished would be awkwardly wilful. After all, the entire reason that Hettie lives is because money and the abilities of those with it were put to the task. Money meant education, sanitary conditions, access to medicine, good food and water, etc. Emily couldn’t nurse Hettie or the Howell boy without her privileges to support her work. Not to mention that animals lamed in the service to the military were certainly done away with, and only those with money could afford to nurse a sick animal back to health for the sake of sentiment.
The choice not to kill these characters was clear, so I didn’t do it.
The matter was quite different in both OP-DEC: Operation Deceit and The Trailokya Series. The individuals who meet their demise in these books are quite deserving, at least I think they are. Yes, some of them have families, but who they are and what they stand for are unredeemable qualities. Nazis, abusive men, and violent demons aren’t exactly the types of loveable nitwits you want to offer a pass to. They are clearly bad people, and to write them any other way is not adding depth or interest. These are not anti-heroes. These characters are ultimate villains.
The decision to face these characters with their ends was logical. I remember a review of OP-DEC that described one villain as unrepentant. Indeed, that is accurate. Abusers are unrepentant. Any doubt of this is what they leverage to maintain their power and control. This is the room they seek to manipulate those around them, so they can continue abusing. It’s something that a lot of people are uncomfortable with accepting, but that just helps the abuser do their dirty work.
So, choosing to kill unrepentant villains is a logical step. That said, when to do so is the main concern for authors in that position. You don’t want to do it in a trope-fashion that is as bad as the redemption of not-so-bad-guys, nor do you want to take forever to get around to it. You have to gauge reader pay-off. It’s that simple. When will it make the reader give a fist pump instead of a hmmph? (Not every reader will be satisfied with your choice. Surprise!)
I’m sure that killing a character you love is very difficult. The Trailokya Series starts out this way and the third installment adds still more. I cried when I sent them off, because the deaths scenes were so wholly imagined in my mind. If you know the universe, this may seem a bit silly. I cried anyway, because transitions are hard. Letting go is hard. Changing someone fundamentally, forever, that too is like a death. Things that were are gone, and the future looks so new and uncertain. It’s uncomfortable, full of doubt, cold. I mean that, familiar people and places are warm comfort. New places, although they may be exciting, are still uncomfortable and cold. So much is up in the air. Anxiety is at its height.
Killing major characters can be easy and it can be hard, depending on who they are. The factors that affect me the most: age and personality (their struggle). Lena dying of cancer, alone in her hospital bed pissed off my mother when she first read it. I am sure, know that I have my own daughter, It would affect me even more strongly than it did at the time I wrote it. Children dying of cancer is something that makes me really angry. But the thing is, if Lena didn’t pass away, her character could not have propelled all the action into place that made up the story. Lena is a catalyst. Tragedy often is. So, while my mom is pissed off, I feel satisfied I did the right thing. I think you’ll see that, too, in all the choices I made around killing characters in my books.
Let’s hop on over to see what the other authors have to say about their process with ultimately ending character arcs. Click on their links below…
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Stevie Turner says
I shy away from killing off characters. Readers prefer live ones, I think.
Captain Maiel says
They might in your genre, but not in the ones I write: noir thrillers, dark fantasy/horror, and historical fiction…there are always dead in those.
Richard Dee says
I always agonise over killing my bad guys!! As much as I do over the good. After all, they probably had mothers who saw the best in them, plus they were only bad because I made them bad. Everyone has a part to play in my books, they might be only a few lines but they were THEIR lines.
As the man said, “parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Captain Maiel says
We spend so much time creating them, to turn around and off them…it’s a struggle.
P.J. MacLayne says
It’s okay to cry as you kill off a character you like. After all, we gave life to these chatacters, and it’s no wonder it hurts when we say goodbye to them.
Captain Maiel says
I think so too. It shows our humanity–empathy.
Roberta Eaton Cheadle says
I found your post very insightful. I agree that some characters are so vile they almost deserve to die. Killing of good people is hard, but for my stories, the deaths are usually real ones that have already occurred so I don’t feel sorry for them because they are already ghosts.
Captain Maiel says
I know what you mean about the historical figures. It is sort of like taking a walk through a graveyard, tho. A bit melancholy…nostalgic.
maureen turner says
I killed off the sweetest character in my debut novel just when things were picking up for him. This wasn’t to shock readers it was necessary to the twist at the end. Yes it was heartbreaking but very, very necessary.
Captain Maiel says
Same. If it didn’t happen, the story couldn’t be done.