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The Danger of Killing Characters

2016 July 29

The Danger of Killing CharactersRecently, while heading toward the last scene of my work in progress, I pondered killing off the hero. In this tale of suspense, a lot of people fall prey to mayhem. I thought perhaps offing the hero would be a twist for my reader. I pondered this thought for all of two seconds.

Spoiler alert: I kept him safe and returned him to the arms of the heroine. Believe me. I wouldn’t write this unless I knew that the twists and turns in this story will keep a reader turning the page wondering how the heroine will ever have a happy-ever-after.

Here’s why I didn’t end the character’s life:

I’m not Nicholas Sparks. He can get away with it. Those who continue to read his books look for someone to die. I don’t read his books any longer. If he left a heroine or hero alive at the end of a story, I would be surprised. In turn, if I killed a hero or heroine, my readers would be flabbergasted. Readers do not like their favorite writers to surprise them in this manner without very, very good reason.

When readers pick up a book, they are investing their time and their imaginations in the lives written on the page. For an author to kill a main character without necessity is a waste of both a reader’s time and imagination. Once a reader has realized the author has wasted her valuable investment, she is less likely to allow the writer the opportunity to do so again. Some authors do have very good reasons for not providing a happily ever after romantic ending. In A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks, there is no story unless the young heroine dies. That’s what the story is about. She’s dying. A miracle cure would really aggravate the reader. The same is true of The Notebook. The jury is out on some of Sparks’ other titles, though. I stopped reading the books because my costly investment yielded nothing of uplifting value. I don’t like to close a book and walk around bummed about it for days. However, there is one title by Og Mandino where the story is imprinted on my heart because the young hero of the story died. He had to die. Without it, like the aforementioned Sparks’ title, there would be no story, but The Twelfth Angel sits among my favorites on my bookshelf.

Killing off a secondary character can be tricky as well. The best example I have of this is from the movie, The Mummy. Good old Bennie. He was a rascal, but he was a funny rascal. Even when Evie stands in the desert with him after she believes the mummy has killed her hero and she declares, “Nasty little fellows like you always get their comeuppance” (yes, I have seen the movie over 200 times. I can quote every line), I was still not prepared for that comeuppance. I was angered. How dare they kill off Bennie?

Well, they dared because he was akin to most of Peter Lorrie’s characters in the classic movies. When the shock and anger wore off, I understood Bennie had to die. The screenwriter had a reason. Fans of the movie realize that the directorship and the appeal of the movie is the classic formula, especially in characterization: hero, heroine, sidekick, villain, villain sidekick.

Now, secondary characters with four legs—our little furry friends—that an author kills off are another story altogether. Very few times when I have read a novel or a proposal have I believe any animal killed within the pages was done for anything but author suicide. Oh, the readers might cry over the animal’s death, but the emotion turned on the author is anger, hence, author suicide. The writer becomes dead to the reader.

I get those folks who say, “You have more compassion for an animal than you do a human being.”

Great. Those people are right probably not only in a story world but in real life.

Shame on me for being honest.

However, the majority of readers, if they will admit it, feel the same way about the books they read. Kill off a secondary two-legged character, and I might not like it, but I will continue reading. Kill off an animal without real reason and the book is trashed, as in hurled into a wastebasket, never going to tell anyone about the story because I would never do to another reader what an author did to me by suggesting they read the story.

If I’m editing for acquisition and an animal dies, the author is in trouble unless I see why it had to happen. And I have had one acquisition—only one—where I accepted the death, and I have to say that the reader did it so well that when it happened, I jumped up from my chair with my hands covering my mouth. The killing was necessary, but we had to tone that well-written death down a tad. In fact, the actual act was not shown, but the reader got the gist when they turned the page to the next chapter. You see, when I jumped up from my chair, that was the ultimate case of what I refer to as “jarring the reader.” I was taken right out of the story–horrified by the action. I don’t like to be horrified. I don’t watch horror movies. This book, while an action/thriller type story, was not horror, yet I was unsuspectingly jolted by the terribly vivid end to an animal.

The truth about the risk of killing off important secondary characters was brought home to me through the untimely death of a real-life feline who didn’t even live in my country let alone in my home. I was on staff as secretary for my church at the time. I was in an evening service. My pastor had just returned from the Philippines. That particular evening service, he was reporting on the mission team’s trip. Within the first five minutes, he mentioned that on the way from the airport their driver ran over a cat. The next day in a meeting, he asked his staff if the report had conveyed the importance of the trip. I looked up at him, and with all honesty, I declared, “I don’t know. The last words I heard were about the dead cat.”

So, the lesson I learned is this: whenever an author decides to kill a character (whether it is hero or heroine, a secondary character, either two legged or four legged), the result of said death should be weighed carefully. An author could have a great message or theme woven through the pages of his or her story, but kill off the wrong character, and that message or theme will be lost to the reader. The only part of the story that will be remembered is the death of the beloved.

The death of the Filipino cat, an animal I would have never known about otherwise, clenched my heart and squeezed so tightly that I heard nothing else of what the pastor said. Though the pastor’s words had been important, they were lost on me. He’d made me love the cat by telling me of its death. The story wasn’t about the cat, but my heart stayed with the dead animal, imagining its suffering on the road in the same way I imagine you, as a reader, are imagining it right now. I did not learn about the missionaries we support or the souls reached during that trip.

What I just did to you by telling you the feline’s story (and I made sure to share it at the end of the post) is not what you, as an author, want to do to your readers–without good reason.

Books Collage

Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor)  is an author, editor, and writing coach, who loves to work with authors to help them meet their goals.Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better Than Revenge

Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2)Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes  A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger, which are now available in print or eBook as The Heart Seekers. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind.

Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads. Anyone interested in learning more about Fay’s freelance editing and her coaching, should contact her at fay@faylamb.com.

 

4 Responses Post a comment
  1. July 29, 2016

    Good advice here. Last night while watching a BBC series, the main character was killed. I kept thinking surely the monitor will begin beeping again. It was emotionally devastating, especially as this was my ‘feel good” go to show. In the past, I have noticed a trend in BBC to eliminate or swap out characters and last night changed the way I will view their shows in the future.

    • Fay Lamb permalink*
      July 30, 2016

      Onisha: You and I are alike. BBC got me with Death in Paradise. When season three started, I hung on through the death of a much beloved character (of whom I am also a fan of the actor playing the character). When the show ended and all hope was dashed that there wasn’t another explanation, I had to leave the room and weep. That was not good for that show.

  2. September 23, 2016

    I’m so with you on these things–and yet I’ve never heard anyone state their reasoning so clearly before–thank you.

    By day, I deal with a lot of tragedy–life and death in a microcosm every 15 minutes. I tend to choose my entertainment carefully as a result, and like you, hate being surprised by a shock-value death that does nothing to further the story. I also tend to have people vet books for me to make sure any animals introduced survive to the end (unless, as you said, their death serves a critical point to the storytelling).

    There’s a website called Does The Dog Die? which lets you check to see if our favorite canines survive to the end of the film. I confess, I use it frequently. 😉

    • Fay Lamb permalink*
      September 23, 2016

      Sarah:

      Thank you for the name of the website. That’s a great asset for those who have the same problems with death in the stories. In my suspense novel coming out soon, I have a lot of death and tragedy, but when I looked at the story overall, the deaths all happen “offstage” and not to those characters with whom the reader would have formed an attachment before death. I worked hard at showing the lives of those characters to allow the reader to feel the grief of the living characters. And, yes, I’m one of those author/editors that, in general, would not advise trying to connect a reader to a dead character without ever seeing him/her alive. I’m waiting to hear if I pulled it off. Never say never, but I have to say the book is the hardest story I’ve ever written.
      There are ways to write things without shock value, and often when authors pour more creativity in finding those way, they find that their readers get more from the story.
      Great comments!

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