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On Killing

“One Death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” Allegedly spoken by Joseph Stalin, so it’s regrettably a Real World Thing.

But it’s also something for writers to keep in mind.

You can have all the galaxy spanning wars you want, kill entire planets full of humans and aliens. But if you want to make your readers really feel it, you have to kill a character they know well enough for it to hurt.

The course of a story plot, the succession of scenes that pulls the reader through the story will involve a lot of ups and downs.

Some writers start with a large down, if you can do a fast sketch of a character before you kill them, you can create a lot of emotion, grief, guilt, anger, in the Main Character that resonates with the reader and pulls them in for the revenge or redemption or acceptance.

But as to the later ups and downs of the plot, traditionally the deepest, darkest, worst down right before the hero picks his ass up, thinks up a new plan/has an epiphany/grits his teeth and buffs up the determination and heads out for the final battle. Depending on the story.

That last deep, dark, hole, if you’re going to kill someone, should be caused by you (you horrible writer, you!) doing the dirty deed, and horrifying the sobbing reader.

It can be the MC’s fault (but like as not he’ll feel responsible even if it isn’t,) it can be entirely accidental (not as much emotional impact,) it can be heroic.

Do not make it pointless. Even if that more like real life.

Do not make it unimportant, or worse, boring.

The amount of blood, gore, and screaming will vary, depending on the sort of book you’re writing. If it happens in the middle of battle, the MC’s reaction needs to be short (and probably violent) with his emotional reaction coming later, when he’s got the time for it.

Now I’m not saying that you always kill someone. But if you need to, do it right, and make it drive the story.

And if you’ve never read one of my books, start here:

If you’re just a little behind:

50 Comments
  1. I think there are also vast differences to how people react to tragedy, and expectations of reactions to the same in fiction. People don’t react to grief all in the same way; so sometimes you’ll run up against reader expectation and it’s something that upsets some people, when a character reacts to something in a way they don’t expect (or more accurately, react in a way that the reader wouldn’t.)

    Just noting this as someone who reacted to losing children in a way that ‘wasn’t typical.’ Intellectually, I understood that how I was reacting was partly my own mind trying to protect me from going completely insane, but I also knew that it would disturb people. (I had long spates of being numb, robotic and sort of just autopiloting, but on the outside, it seemed like I wasn’t affected because I was ‘functioning.’)

    July 19, 2019
    • ‘wasn’t typical.’

      Who the hell cares if your reaction didn’t fit somebody’s picture of how it ought to be? F*CK ‘EM!

      This type of thing, I see it all the time. Oh-so-helpful busybodies running around making sure everything is as it is supposed to be, and nobody colours outside the lines.

      This is why I belong to the “GET OFF MY LAWN!” Party of Canada.

      July 19, 2019
      • Luke #

        But if you don’t talk obsessively about the loss, you’re repressing your emotions!
        And repressing your emotions causes psychological harm!
        Or so I’m assured by people with a direct financial stake in people talking about their emotions, and another financial interest in people believing that the psyche is incredibly fragile.
        Backed up by a culture that’s gone all in on exhibitionism, validation seeking, and emotional incontinence.
        (Pardon me while I gag.)

        Shadowdancer, that’s a perfectly normal way to grieve. It’s at least as common (and likely much more so) as the wailing/gnashing of teeth/rending of clothes/donning ashes and sackcloth.
        It’s just that if the culture expects a big display of grief, most people will numbly go through the motions, silently feeling that there’s something wrong with them.
        Write that scene, and it’ll resonate.

        July 19, 2019
      • Zsuzsa #

        I have a word for people who tell others the “right” way to grieve for a loss, particularly one like Shadowdancer suffered, but given that I’m a guest on this blog, which I believe the owners like to keep family-friendly, I won’t use it.

        July 19, 2019
      • My family tends to keep our private feelings private. It is no one else’s business if we are in mourning, or dealing with an illness in the family, or whatever. Apparently this means that I am repressed, am not facing the situation properly, and am in denial (per the professional PTS counselors).

        Interestingly, I just read a book by a Polish clinical psychologist who pointed out that the post-trauma therapies of talking about and reliving the stress as a way to diffuse it? Make PTS worse, even to the point of causing PTSD. The people who keep going, decompress later, and cope with things their own way fared far better.

        July 19, 2019
        • I often thought so, in reading reminiscences of Brits who survived the various WWI ‘blitz’ attacks on their cities. They maintained a stiff upper lip, cleaned up, had a cuppa, mourned their losses … and then carried on. Much healthier, mentally, than ripping off that scar tissue, over and over again.

          July 19, 2019
        • I read a study somewhere that playing Tetris or a similar game right after a traumatic event like a car crash relieved/reduced symptoms of post traumatic stress. Might be worth looking up, has to do with changing how the memories stick in the brain apparently.

          https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tetris-shown-to-lessen-ptsd-and-flashbacks/

          There was another study investigating why high-THC cannabis is useful in treating PTSD in soldiers. So far it seems the weed mostly lets them sleep at night and reduces the nightmares. Might be down to plain old reduced inflammation. Also a better bandaid for panic attacks than haldol or similar. Fewer lingering side effects. (Important safety tip, that does not mean -no- side effects.) Can’t remember where I saw that one.

          Picking at the scab with “talking therapy” is going by the wayside in the trade these days, afaik.

          July 19, 2019
      • In Queensland, the abrupt death of any child merited police investigation. I would swing from being a broken shell of myself, to ‘ooh, shiny’ distracted (I was fascinated when I discovered the detective was using a fountain pen to write.)

        I later found out that this was actually perfectly normal, since essentially my whole world had just been shattered into a million pieces, and my psyche and my mind were reaching for anything that was familiar and it remembered that I enjoyed, like a drowning man in the middle of an ocean tries to find something to hold on to. Some parents would swing from crying brokenly or on the verge of hysteria, to trying to ply the police with food (because the mother needed to take care of someone.)

        So to the trained investigators and EMTs, I was perfectly normal. To the average joe off the street, probably not.

        So I actually better understood the reaction of the mom of the little toddler who had been snatched by dingoes decades ago (the Lindbergh baby case.) I remember reading she was suspected because she was behaving so numbly and almost eerily calm. Poor woman had her heart ripped out; her own PTSD and trauma had her fully on autopilot then, I realized.

        (On the subject of dingoes and snatching babies and small children, yes they will do that, they will in fact enter tents that have the doorways open and not sealed, and in a recent case they climbed into one of those elevated on a trailer tents to get at the child.)

        July 21, 2019
    • Whenever someone is talking about “typical” behavior, I substitute “fictional.” Movies and television cover (maybe) 5% of the range of reactions.

      Then there are the idiots who run with that – and start the “They aren’t grieving enough, they must have had something nefarious to do with the death.” Happened with my mother when my father passed away suddenly.

      July 19, 2019
      • And most notoriously, in the Lindy Chamberlain tragedy, in Australia. Because the parents weren’t grieving ostentatiously, the public and media leaped to the conclusion that she had murdered her baby.

        July 19, 2019
        • Exactly this.

          Mind, believe me, all I wanted to do a lot of the time was scream, and scream, and scream. I wanted to find a place where I could sit, and give voice to that bottomless sorrow and pain. But I couldn’t do it, not without disturbing the neighbors, most of whom hadn’t seen we had a baby, and we couldn’t really find a place where someone wouldn’t hear my howls of grief, and likely, misunderstanding get us into trouble.

          So when they described that mother whose toddler had recently fallen from the cruise ship, the family’s screams, I understood.

          On the flip side, really, is also understanding that there are people who do NOT understand why the depth of grief is so deep. It isn’t limited to losing children; it’s the depth of one’s love that is the depth of the trauma of that loss. It’s not limited to blood, or spouse, but the worse the pain, the deeper the connection. At least, that’s what I’ve found. It really, really breaks a person, often in ways they never would’ve expected.

          (and no, I am not arrogant to think that someone else will break the way I did, or cope – or not – the way I did. So your characters will shatter differently. Some might not outwardly be much affected, but they will be, inside, and it’ll manifest in ways that aren’t obvious to most.)

          July 22, 2019
      • Movies and television cover only the visual reactions because – being visual mediums – it’s the easiest to convey for that medium.

        Books are not movies, and have the luxury of being able to explore the inner feelings without having to have a human actor convey it via expressions and actions on a screen. Therefore, I expect books to cover the interior life and interior reactions in ways movies don’t…

        When I read an author who only conveys the visual reactions, it reads false and hollow to me, as though the author has never actually experienced this and their research consists of watching movies instead of actually getting to know people who’ve been there and done that, and asking for their help.

        (Not unlike watching movies for military research vs. talking to soldiers, watching movies with flying vs. talking to pilots…)

        July 20, 2019
      • Yeah, people thought it was weird for us to be so focused and hospitable at my Dad’s funeral. Dad had taught us that even in a crisis we had responsibilities so we have to keep our heads about us even if we want to panic and scream and curl into a ball. Giving in could mean death, so each of us focused on Something Necessary. My siblings focused on their education; my mother and I focused on speaking with every guest that came, being hospitable and the funeral itself, and my newborn son. I tended to field the news interviews that involved being in front of a TV camera. I can still remember to this day, hearing my father’s voice ranting in my head, as if he were there: “What kind of empty, brainless, utterly USELESS question is ‘How do you feel?!’ What do you think any grieving family feels, you nitwits?! Where did you learn your interviewing journalism from?!” then later a bit more mollified “at least you handled that stupidity well.”

        July 21, 2019
        • I still want that book about your Dad…

          I know what you mean. We didn’t have any idiot media running around (I can only imagine what that would add to the “normal” stresses), but my family had the same attitude. Not “could mean death” in most cases, but falling apart means that something major doesn’t get done right.

          What we did have was unraveling my Dad’s veterinary practice – and lets just say that Dad’s business record keeping was… inadequate. I had to head back to school after a bit more than a month of whacking away at it with Mom, and it still wasn’t cleaned up.

          July 21, 2019
  2. Re: killing characters, I’m not a fan. Authors do it all the time, I don’t find it adds lots of fun and enjoyment to the work. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that I don’t like it. Personal foible of mine, I’m weird.

    Except Bad Guys. Them, the more spectacular the better. Let the very atoms of their bodies be corroded away by eeevile. [Muhuhohohaha!!!]

    But, one must be cautious because a proper Bad Guy is not easy to come by. They don’t grow on trees, you know. I recycle them. Let the wheel of karma send them around for another whack at the pinata, if I may mangle my cultural appropriations.

    None of the above should be thought of as advice. Its what I do, but I would never advise anyone to be like me. That would probably be a mistake. ~:D

    July 19, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      Oh, I’m a big fan of recycling bad guys! It’s one thing to put them out of action temporarily, but downright wasteful to kill off somebody you may need in future. (Says the woman who wrote a series using grackles as bad guys… it’s a pretty safe bet that nobody is going to kill all of Austin’s grackles.)

      July 19, 2019
      • Yeah, you don’t want to waste a perfectly outstanding bad guy. I’ve got a couple of them . . . that I need to start killing, one by one. Or perhaps an internal disagreement. It could be interesting, having them kill each other off.

        July 19, 2019
        • Mary #

          I’m working on a novel where the villains are picked off one by one.

          The problem is making it more dangerous for the heroes in the process. (Chiefly by inspiring the survivors to concentrate on them.)

          July 20, 2019
        • mrsizer #

          I like your de-villain-izing (“redemption”, I suppose). See Eldon, for example. Rior seems a lost cause, though.

          July 22, 2019
          • Rior, Jade, and Teri. They really need to die.

            July 22, 2019
    • snelson134 #

      As a reader, nothing annoys me more than having a villain who’s so vile and nasty that he SHOULD have been killed after his first murder spree, Joker being the classic example, and he isn’t just because the writer doesn’t want to have to come up with a new one.

      I gamed with a GM who could NOT understand this in his Champions superhero game.

      “He needed killin’!”

      July 19, 2019
      • Agreed, keeping him alive because he has to be back next week is bad writing. Joker being the iconic example, some cop would have quietly capped that guy after the third time he escaped custody. We expect Batman not to kill him, because Batman is a little crazy and he’s not a unionized public employee.

        BUT… acceptable in a -kids comic- because the Good Guys do not kill people. Only Bad Guys do that, its what makes them Bad.

        July 19, 2019
      • Mary #

        He was killed off very early — and then they revised to have a doctor say he was going to live after all for just that.

        The first Two-Face story, Batman persuaded him to turn himself in and cooperate with all treatment to restore his sanity by flipping the coin and having it land on its edge (with a little help from slight of hand) — but then the writers decided to bring him back. That was bad.

        July 20, 2019
    • Mary #

      The danger is that you can’t convince your readers that the danger is real if they know it won’t really kill, which drains conflict.

      July 20, 2019
      • Oh, people do die. Just nobody we know.

        Horrible, ghastly things happen, but to strangers and only off-screen. We see the fallout of those deaths, we hear about the significance, we see the resolve of the main characters that they’re going to visit Hell on the perpetrators.

        July 21, 2019
  3. John R. Ellis #

    I remember reading that during WW2, when Milt Caniff had Raven Sherman (a popular and very good-hearted character in his strip TERRY & THE PIRATES, his adventure strip that was globally popular) die abruptly, without warning, while life (and several plot lines) were all ongoing. It shocked and saddened the readers. But that was the point Caniff was trying to make. Impressively, he did this without much in the way of dialog or narration, letting the art speak volumes. War is Hell. And sometimes good people are lost.

    July 19, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      Once read a book where the author, making I think the same point, took off the first viewpoint character’s head with a cannonball somewhere around chapter three. Effective? Well, I’ve never forgotten the moment of shock… but I have forgotten the name of the author and the title of the book.

      July 19, 2019
      • John R. Ellis #

        Caniff (it should be noted) was extremely story focused and fond of both his readers and his characters. He tended to not make the choice to do such things merely for the shock. (He was also refreshingly patriotic, even in the decades that followed, when it fell out of style among the younger readers.)

        July 19, 2019
  4. I killed off a very sympathetic, even heroic leading character, halfway through the German Hill Country trilogy. My alpha readers were distraught, and even I had a good few weepy moments in writing that chapter – so have a lot of subsequent readers. But I couldn’t reprieve him, as the rest of the narrative was based heavily on his family’s dealing with the loss. And the truth of it was, I had always planned that death from the very beginning. So – inevitable, absolutely necessary to the plot … but still very hard to write.

    July 19, 2019
    • “Necessary to the plot” pretty much says it all. There are situations where it simply isn’t reasonable for everyone to survive, or, say, in a battle scene, where the cost is high, not a single named character dies. And, of course, to bring the “reality” of the situation to the reader.

      July 19, 2019
      • I just changed a story so that the bad guy doesn’t die, but is neutralized. The story had gotten a lot darker than it needed to be, and justice could be served in a different manner.

        Now, the person who has been told four times “Don’t go into that cave, and don’t make loud noises near that cave,” and who marches into the cave shouting and blowing a self-defense whistle? Sorry, totally fair game for whatever happens. *evil kitty grin*

        July 19, 2019
        • Luke #

          Heh.
          I have an unwritten policy of “no one dies in the first session” when running an RPG.
          It’s unwritten, because I don’t want to give the players an unearned sense of security, and because players simply insist on demanding I violate it.

          For instance, if you and your friends have snuck in after hours to investigate a wax museum reputed to be haunted, it would be a bad idea to say, “Hey guys, watch this!” and stick your head in the guillotine.

          Also, if you’ve broken into the insane cultist’s house, found preserved eyeballs in the fridge, a velvet painting of a rat dressed as the grim reaper, microbiology texts, tracts about “humanity must be reduced to a sustainable population”, lots of high-grade biological hazard protective equipment, and a spare bedroom lined with cages of white rats…
          Don’t take the sealed vials labeled “SMLPX”, “EBLA”, etc. out of the fume hood, open them, stick your finger in the powdery substance, and taste them to try and identify the presumed illegal drug.
          (Turns out that the horror genre can work both ways. I evidently kept a poker face, but it must have just been shock. One of the players figured it out after their character had tried about seven samples. People ‘s eyes can get bigger than you’d expect, and in the right tone, a very quiet “guys?” can cut through a lot of chatter.)

          July 19, 2019
          • Zsuzsa #

            There’s a difference between killing off the PCs and merely assisting their suicides…

            July 19, 2019
  5. Scot #

    Reader here. Not sure how typical I am, but I stopped reading a series that I really enjoyed because the author killed off one of my favorite characters. And I have stepped away from some authors entirely for the same reason.

    Real life is messy and unpleasant enough (even 2nd or 3rd hand) that I don’t need that in the reading I do for enjoyment. For the most part I am not really reading fiction for ‘reality.’

    Obviously, I’m sure that there are readers with different attitudes.

    July 19, 2019
    • A lot of how I view awesome characters dying is how the death is handled.

      Going out all guns blazing at the climax of the book, taking down enemies until their last dying breath? No problem.

      Going out like a chump for no other reason than shock value? I’m not going to be happy.

      July 19, 2019
      • Alan #

        Aborting an apparently well-foreshadowed positive life story by a random act of evil, just to dwell in the mire of shock and bitterness left behind for the rest of the book, also — not happy.

        July 19, 2019
        • That’s Grey Goo at its gooiest. Ick.

          July 19, 2019
        • Mary #

          I once read a story where an amnesiac character spent the entire book building up to a meeting with his old friends — his new friends being their enemies — and a final decision there.

          The moment he should have decided, he was gratuitously murdered.

          July 21, 2019
    • Zsuzsa #

      I’ve done it. Not because I was mad at the author for killing my favorite character, but just because that character was my primary reason for reading the series. Once he died and his story was complete, I don’t really care about the rest of it enough to invest time or money in the books.

      July 19, 2019
  6. Thomas Monaghan #

    Killing characters. GRRM is the master. After the Red Wedding his series went into I won’t read it anymore. He killed off every character in the series I liked and I expected if I learned to like another character he/she was bound to be killed.

    July 19, 2019
    • GRRM is a weirdo. I can’t stand the work of his that I’ve read, and I’ve avoided that Game of Thrones thing like poison. Ew.

      July 19, 2019
    • Luke #

      The thing about the shocks in the first few aSOIaF books, is that most of them were clearly telegraphed and foreshadowed. (Bran’s defenstration being an exception.) Readers just had the expectation that the sympathetic protagonists would somehow overcome the looming threat.

      I remember being fond of the first few. It was actually a breath of fresh air to see someone pull the trigger instead of the character being saved by another contrived deus ex machina.
      But you can only shock people in the same way so many times. By the Red Wedding, the subversion of the trope became more contrived than the trope itself. (And even the Red Wedding itself only worked because of the sheer bloody scale.)

      July 19, 2019
      • naleta #

        I kept reading the books hoping to see what happened with Bran after he started ‘riding’ his wolf. I also wanted to find out what happened to Arya. GRRM just dropped both story threads, and I quit reading.

        July 21, 2019
    • Zsuzsa #

      It was really the combination of the Red Wedding and the Purple Wedding that did it for me. After the Red Wedding, the heroes that I really wanted to see triumph were all dead*, and after the Purple Wedding and its aftermath, the villains that I really wanted to see brought down were all dead. I could have kept going after the Red Wedding in order to see Tywin and Joff utterly destroyed, but once they were dead, what was the point?

      * = okay, except for Sansa, but she’s in maybe 1% of the material from Books 4 and 5; that isn’t enough to keep my interest.

      July 19, 2019
  7. Zsuzsa #

    Another relevant discussion of this might be the SF Debris review of “Skin of Evil” and Tasha Yar’s death. For those who don’t want to watch the video, he discusses the “It didn’t matter” accusation and what he feels that means. From his perspective, it’s less that Tasha didn’t die in a blaze of glory with phasers blasting taking out hundreds of aliens bent on the destruction of the Enterprise, but more that it didn’t matter to the story. If I were told that Tasha wasn’t supposed to die in that episode, that it had already been written when Denise Crosby decided she wanted out, and they just subbed in her death for that of a random goldshirt…well, I don’t think that’s true, but it would be a plausible lie, certainly. Ultimately, Tasha’s death is irrelevant to 90% of the episode.

    Not every death of a major character has to be a galaxy-changing event, but it ought to be a narrative-changing one.

    July 19, 2019
  8. Zsuzsa #

    For those of you who do want to watch the video:

    https://sfdebris.com/videos/startrek/t122.php

    (In a separate post because I have no idea how Word Press will react to the link).

    July 19, 2019
  9. Christopher M. Chupik #

    A good example is the new CW series Pandora, which I watched a few minutes of. The show expects the audience to care that a character we have just met loses a family we never even catch a glimpse of. I know that TV requires shortcuts and a faster pace, but here it just falls flat.

    July 20, 2019
  10. mrsizer #

    A lot of MilSF handles teams badly. I have no idea what real-world numbers/statistics are, but having a 10 man team go through battle after battle with no losses while the rest of the army dies around them starts to feel fake after a while.

    July 22, 2019
    • Yes. It is fake, and worse, the reader follows them into the next battle without a worry. Because there’s no risk.

      July 22, 2019
    • Mary #

      So you introduce a new guy to kill him off!

      July 22, 2019

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