One of the most difficult decisions any author can make is killing off a character. Many of us don’t have the luxury of working in comic books where death is nothing more than a temporary situation. So, an author will see a lot of fallout and anger if done incorrectly. We’d probably get a lot of fallout if it’s done correctly too. I’m not one to say if it’s done right or wrong, but I do have an excellent example for public reaction to character deaths from J.K. Rowling. *spoilers ahead* I remember her fourth book . . . *checks wife-ipedia* . . . fourth book was about to come out and my Harry Potter friends were all wondering who was going to die. She said someone was going to die and everyone was talking about who, except me because I was busy reading Ender’s Game again. Anyway, it ended up being the character introduced in the book and people were annoyed, calling foul, and turning on her. Then comes the final book and she promises more death only to get criticized for killing off a few beloved secondary characters.
This tells me a few things about fans and killing characters. Well, it mostly tells me that you’re always going to get yelled at about slaying a character. Many readers who get very invested in you and your characters have trouble letting go. People die in real life, which is horrible and sad, so I guess people don’t want to read about it in fiction. I also notice that as an author, I should never announce or state that a character will die in a specific novel. Will characters die throughout my stories? Yes, because Windemere is a dangerous world and they’re adventurers, not farmers. If I claim that a character is going to die in a book then that will cause the guessing game of ‘who will it be?’ and that is a game that nobody likes to lose. If I kill off the character that nobody picked then I’m seen as a hack. If I kill off the character that everyone wanted to survive then I’m a murderer who has to defend himself. Let’s face it, killing off a character above the background level is rarely accepted.
This isn’t to say that an author should avoid killing off characters. If you write fantasy, adventure, horror, and any other genre that involves action then you should feel well within your rights to have a few characters go into the great beyond. A story is a little boring if the reader has no sense that a character will die. In fact, it can get downright unbelievable if the heroes survive every climactic battle unscathed and alive. I’ve read many stories where all of the main characters are alive at the end of the series and live happily ever after. Sometimes this works if the tone is right, but a lot of times it comes off more that the author was too scared to touch on the subject of death. It brings up a difficult path for the author because you have to fill the void of the dead character and explore how the other characters are handling it. For example, I have a death happen in one of my books and the surviving heroes are very thoroughly distraught. One of them spends a good chunk of the following book slipping into depressions and having to be talked to about death. It’s a hard thing to include in a book because you have to find a balance between grief that carries the story/character along and grief that cripples the story/character. This is why editing sessions and having family/friends read your books is a godsend.
This also isn’t to say that you should kill off characters with wild abandon simply to show readers that you’re willing to kill. I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon (terrific writer). We know who the real slayer is and it isn’t a perky cheerleader. I always feel that a fictional character’s death should have some meaning beyond shock value. This works for horror and soap operas, but I think a lot of stories get hurt by a meaningless death. We have enough of that in reality, so why litter fiction with it? Again, this is personal taste and the genre of fantasy is infamous for heroic deaths. Still, when you remove a character from the story, he or she cannot come back without a lot of work. If they are slated to return then you have to plan that out and leave hints that it is possible. Though, you run into a problem if you kill too many characters because you become known as an author of death. People may read simply to see who dies and refuse to get attached to any characters. It puts a distance between reader and characters that defeats the purpose of killing a character. It’s no longer shock, but expected. Going back to Mr. Whedon, him directing ‘The Avengers’ (great movie) also brought in the conversation of who he was going to kill. It wasn’t if he would kill someone, but who he would kill. Now, if that’s the reputation you want then put on your hockey mask and sharpen your machete. If not then just be careful of how you handle this delicate situation because you can’t take it back once you do it. Unless you’re writing comic books and then every character is practically a phoenix waiting to burn.
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