This is not, despite how the phrase “kill your darlings” is frequently used, a post about editing. It is instead a post about killing off characters.
Rainbows and Unicorns
I am, for the most part, a “happily ever after” person. I like my endings to be mostly positive, and I would never be the sort of author to kill off my protagonist (yet, anyway…).
It’s not that I don’t see the reasons for killing off your characters, it’s just that I…don’t really like it. It’s the reason I haven’t been able to get into Game of Thrones – as soon as I start getting attached to someone, terrible things happen to them. Strike that – terrible things happen in every chapter, and while that provides plenty of obstacles for the characters I don’t find it particularly enjoyable to read.
I’m not the sort of reader – or writer- who delights in torturing characters, though if the internet is to believed I may be in the minority.
But look – I’m not saying killing characters is bad. I’m saying it’s not usually to my taste. Those are very different things, and there are plenty of reasons to consider killing your darlings.
To Kill or Not to Kill?
That is the question, isn’t it? Because there are certainly reasons to kill of characters.
- To motivate another character (this one is tricky – see the love interest whose only purpose is to die so that the hero can BSOD and defeat the villain)
- To up the stakes – to show the reader that the world the characters inhabit is a dangerous place, with real consequences for mistakes
I’ve been killing characters my entire career, maybe I’m just a bloody minded bastard, I don’t know, [but] when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps. – GRRM
- To demonstrate the villainy of your antagonist
- To advance the plot
- And any number of variations on the above.
But that doesn’t mean we go around murdering characters willy-nilly, because a wanton massacre can backfire. Too much carnage can desensitize your reader, so that they don’t care about the characters dying. You can antagonize your reader – particularly if he or she is the puppies-and-kittens type. Or you swing too far the other way, and the deaths become over-dramatic (and again, lose their impact).
That’s the secret, right? The Goldilocks Principle. Too little, and your reader isn’t convinced your heroes are in any danger. To much, and they just don’t care.
Killing My Darlings
Like I said way back at the beginning of the post, I’m more of a rainbows-and-unicorns, happily-ever-after girl. But “Princess” features the deaths of almost every member of the royal family. In the first few scenes of the novel, I introduce about nine major and supporting characters. By the end of the act five of them are dead.
Why did I do it?
- To motivate Kel (and Bria, I suppose). Her main goal in the book is to avenge their deaths and reclaim her throne. No dead family, no book.
- To up the stakes. Kel’s antagonists are Bad News, and a huge bloody massacre is one way to get that across. Plus, you want the obstacles that your protagonist faces to present a real challenge. These guys definitely do.
- To demonstrate the villainy of my antagonist. SPOILER is the kind of person who would order the killing of a hundred innocent people for their own gain.
- To advance the plot. The massacre is the inciting incident – again, no dead family, no book.
I hope that it doesn’t feel artificial in any way, or random. I hope it doesn’t make people put the book down.
I hope it makes them shriek in dismay and throw the book across the room, and then run and get it because they have to know if Kel is going to make it out alive.
Spoiler alert: yes. I like happy endings, remember?
What’s your preference: happy endings, or bittersweet? How do you feel about killing off characters?