Monday, April 9, 2012

Killing off a Favorite Character

When creating a book series you want to make sure that you keep the story moving and progressing and headed in some sort of direction.  In every book you create new characters, good and bad, otherwise the story doesn't always have room to grow and develop.  Many times we have to sacrifice characters along the way to progress the story.  Killing a character is fairly simple.  There are thousands of interesting ways to kill a character.  You can create a grand battle where the villain falls in an epic fight scene or tragic accident.  We love to kill off the bad guys.  Everyone roots for the villain to get his teeth kicked in and get whomped at the end of the story, as long as the bad guy warrants the death.  He has to be so evil that people want to see him destroyed.  There are plenty of amazing ways to kill a bad guy and satisfy your reader.  The problem comes when you have to kill off a beloved character.

When I speak of "beloved" characters, I mean characters that we have gotten to know over time and have an emotional connection to.  They could be someone who you are romantically attracted to. It could be the knight in shining armor who stays with the girl and helps her pay her mortgage, or someone who is likable and you could be friends with, though you are not in love with them.  There are times when the story needs a catalyst for something larger to happen or you need to emotionally shake up the reader.  There are of course dangers that come along with killing off a favorite character.  You have to make sure the death is justified and not just for shock value. You also have to make sure that it isn't a character that will cause riots by your readers if they die, yet they have to be characters that are likable enough that people will care that they are missing.

Killing for the sake of killing is fun but it's shallow.  The high wears off quickly and people will shrug once they think about it.  You want your reader to be upset that the character is dead, but know that there was a good reason, or a greater purpose to the death.  Take for example Beaches, I cry my eyes out every time I see it.  I'm a sucker for it!  While one of the main characters dies it was, I hope, for a good reason.  In Beaches, we see the friendship that developed between two characters over the years.  They had good times and bad times just like every relationship.  When Selia dies in the end it's to put an emphasis on how short life is especially when you care so much for someone.  It brings the two characters closer in the end and makes them realize that they should spend time together and appreciate each other before their friendship ends.  It also gives CC a reason to get past her selfishness and grow up since she is entrusted to raise Selia's daughter.  We cry because we care about these women and can relate to them and their relationship.  It shows us that it's important to connect with people and share our lives and experiences with them.  

The same goes for your character.  If your reader can take time from their busy lives to read your book, hopefully you will not abuse that relationship by building up a wonderful story and amazing characters only to kill off the main character just for shock value.  It cheapens the relationship and makes the reader not want to trust you.  Personally, I wanted to throw Bridge to Terabithia at the wall.  If you me that the story is about how short young life is and how we need to reach out to the strange and interesting girl next door to broaden our minds, I will still tell you it was crap.  I fell in love with the girl and I am still pissed that she died.  Don't even get me started on the movie My Girl.  It was crap that Macaulay Culkin's character died. 

When you decide that a main character has to be killed off, you have to decide if it will cause readers to be turned off completely because they can't imagine the series without the character.  For example, good luck killing off Edward Cullen from the Twilight Series or god forbid Jacob, you will have girls crying in the streets.  Yet, if Stephanie Meyers had decided to kill off Seth or Leah, for example, the death would have been tragic but we would have moved on.  Granted Harry Clearwater died, but we didn't know him as a character except in the movie, but we all knew that it was coming.  His death at least served a purpose.  You want to carefully chose who takes the dirt nap so that the story and the reader are satisfied.  

When I told my son that I had to get rid of a character for a number of reasons, he told me to choose my personal favorite.  I told him heck no, I don't think I would write the series without him, yet I could pick someone that I care enough about to mourn the loss of.  It's up to me to make sure the character is likable enough for the reader to agree with his popularity.

Once you have decided how to create the perfect death, there has to be an equal reaction whether it's strictly mourning by the other characters or a full out retaliation and war.  If you are going to spend the time and energy in making an awesome character only to kill them off, the other characters in the story should acknowledge the passing.  There is nothing worse that an epic death and no one else seems to care.  You know you cried when Kirk's father died in the new New Star Trek movie when his wife realized that he would never see his son.  His death sparked James T Kirk to make his father proud, after getting his butt whomped a few times in his youth.  (And yes I'm old enough to have seen the original series and movies, so don't go there.  Just making a point here.)  The point is, make the death worth while.

In short, once you have decided to travel the slippery slope of eliminating a character that is well liked and received, make sure that you are doing the right thing for the story and the reader.  And for the love of all that is holy, make sure he stays dead unless the point is for him to come back.  If you are truly going to commit to killing the character, don't wus out three bookes later and bring the character back because you have run out of ideas or because of reader backlash.  If there is that much reader backlash then you didn't think it through well enough.  Trust me, no one wants to see Macaulay Culkin's character return from the dead as a zombie bee sting kid.  (Don't even get my started on why there was a sequel to that movie.)  And no one wants to feel emotionally cheated that they mourned a character that spontaneously returns with little or no explanation.  If the character will return at some point, at least give the reader a teaser to let them know that "maybe" the end really isn't the end, otherwise they might not buy the next book that will clear up mysterious death.  

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