July 28, 2011

Assassinations and Executions

Morbid a bit? Yes, rather, but I promise that this post is about writing. It is, after all, the only venue in which murders are allowable and assassinations are common fare; writers get to kill people any day of the week without fear of the law (although going around in public saying "I murdered someone yesterday!" is not advisory). It's one of the fascinating things about being a writer that you hold sway over the lives of your characters, despite the fact that the opposite frequently seems to be true.

Unfortunately, this often presents difficulties in stories. Most writers - I have never known one who didn't - become attached to their characters and regard them as friends and children, and some grow so attached that the thought of killing one of the characters terrifies them. I frequently hear things like, "Oh, I love my characters too much to kill them!" and "[Name of Character] insisted that he wanted to die, but I wouldn't let him." This refusal to follow the path of the story may result in a happier ending, but I'm willing to wager that it will not be as satisfying or meaningful a conclusion as it would otherwise have been. The characters live, but to what purpose? They are all happy for ever after, but does that destroy the whole drive of the storyline? Writers, if they want to progress and write solid stories, must pay attention to this as they determine the fates of their characters.

This analysis does not mean that writers should go the route of Diana Barry and kill all their characters indiscriminately; a depressing story does not necessarily equal a profound story. In fact, the stories that end in the death of the main character are and should be a minority, since in general people do not want to follow a person through a tome of six hundred pages only to have him be killed off in the end (unless the novel is Russian, in which case this is to be expected). Death should be doled out sparingly, but it should be doled out.

off with his head!

One important consideration is whether or not the death is necessary for or at least adds to the plot. In The White Sail's Shaking, for example, a good portion of the plot hinges on the murder of one of the characters. I'm fairly certain I'm going to get hate-mail for that, but it is what it is - the character had to die or the story would not work at all. This can also work in a smaller way when the plot itself does not depend on the death of a character, but the main character's development or some other important element of the story does. Although perhaps not as readily evident as when the plot is driven by a character's death, the grief, guilt, or anger that the main character feels at the death of this other person may be important in moving him through his character arc.

Conversely, writers have to consider whether or not the death detracts from the story. In planning my to-be-written novel Tempus Regina I expected to kill one of the major characters toward the end, but then realized that to do so would bring the story full circle and rob it of any point. Therefore, the character lives. Don't kill for the sake of tragedy or drama; make sure it adds to the story as a whole.

Another consideration, which may seem painfully obvious, is whether the death is historically accurate. If dealing with a historical figure, don't kill them at Place A and Time B if they didn't die there and don't have them survive Scene C if they didn't survive. In The Soldier's Cross I got quite attached to one of the characters, but they had to die in order to be accurate to history. (I was extremely cut up about it; I put The Soldier's Cross away for about a month because I didn't want to write the death scene.) Although alternate history is becoming popular, it is in its own genre and shouldn't be mixed with others.

we survived, but we're dead!

The somewhat easier considerations of when to kill a character aside, how do loving writers survive these deaths? All right, so I'm being a little facetious, but I do know the difficulty of killing off a likable character and knowing that he won't be there for the rest of the novel. An enjoyable and helpful solution is to work on fleshing out that character's backstory, which serves the dual purpose of giving you more time with that character and of deepening his personality in the parts of the story where he does show up. The deeper his character is, the more likely it is that his death will resonate with readers and make them care about the rest of the story.


  1. Oh, dear. I have this problem, too.
    Actually, mine began rather heartlessly - I had too many characters. Somebody had to go.
    But I loved them all, and couldn't bring myself to kill them! So, in what turned out to be a stroke of writerly genius, I turned two of the main 'good guys' into villains. Yes! However, I still have to reconcile myself with the death of one of the more beloved characters (and have already gotten some hate mail for the decision, I might add!) Which is NOT going to be easy. However; what is a good story without heart-wrenching drama? My favorite characters in books/movies ALWAYS die; it's time I get back at the world for what they did to me. =D
    ~ Mirriam

  2. I love your writing posts, though I'm a horrible commenter. :)
    Great post... It's funny, because I tried to kill off a character in my last novel, and he refused to die. He insisted that he had to live, until finally I let him, though he still *dies* according to those around him. It's only later they find out that wasn't true.
    But I have yet to truly kill off a main character... :P

  3. This was a marvelous post! I struggled with this every time I sit down to write. I'm currently outlining for NaNoWriMo (of this year) and I have a character who is perceived as the villain but in all actuality is just a pawn. I'm going to kill him. I don't want to, believe me, I've fallen in love with the man, but I'm going to kill him. I planned from the very start that he would die, long before I even got to know his character and now I can not let him persuade me to spare him. It's not going to happen.

  4. Mirriam - I applaud your making two good characters into villains; I'm sure it was difficult to reconcile your brain to that. And I know exactly how you feel about favorite characters always dying! Whenever I mention to my family that I like a particular character, they always say, "Well, that person's doomed!" It's a curse.

    Katherine Sophia - Characters can be so pushy! It does seem that the best course of action is to listen to them, though. Hopefully his not-death will appease him.

    Fin - Don't even talk to me about NaNo. I seriously doubt I'm going to be done with White Sail's by November, so I am reconciling myself to the fact that I'll likely not be doing NaNo this year.

    But anyhow, I sympathize with you in the killing-off of your character. I hate writing deaths, even of bad characters. But be firm - don't let him talk you into sparing his life!

  5. Oh dear, what a picture! I have to admit; that’s scary. I believe both murder and assassinations is something one had to be very careful about. The death on paper will never come close to the evil and horrible reality that we do face and have just faced. It’s gruesome.

    Having said that, I believe killing a character will always mean something to somebody in one way or another. I have already killed a character for Sails, but thankfully, he was a minor one. However, I have some plans and there’s one character that I shall have to end soon, but I don’t want to because I care very muchly about that character. Ack… It’s important for development of somebody though. (I feel like I’m putting an Oliver Twist to the story because that happening could have been in the book. It’s tragic.)

    Talking about killing characters in general, I believe there are some deaths that really move me to tears. (I won’t mention The Death or the Death in Merlin that’s Way Too Similar though.)But yes, there are characters you just want to survive…

  6. *offers sticky-warm snugs to Marthe*

    I think that last paragraph only makes the killing harder, because you, the writer, come to care about that character more...

    I think killing characters is easy, personally. It's picking up and working with the living ones that's difficult - and so often makes it tedious. Some characters barely blink when one of their comrades kicks the bucket; others spend pages and pages of angst on the death of Tiny Tim's second cousin's puppy. It's so hard to find the balance of grief and the understanding that one must soldier on. A writer /must/ grieve over the death of his characters; otherwise, however much the characters bawl, the reader will never get a sense for the tragedy. But a writer must also understand the necessity of that death as part of the greater plot. He cannot be purely mercenary, slaying sheerly for the sake of moving the plot along. It's like pruning a tree: sorrowing over the heap of severed branches, yet never doubting that each cut was true and well-spent, and knowing that the tree will be the more beautiful in spring for it.

    (Mywordverificationhastheword'seas'init. o.O)

  7. Marthe - The best literary deaths are the ones that move the reader to tears, but that does seem to make it even worse, doesn't it? The characters are so real...

    Anna - Why didn't you write this post? Your summary is perfect: "It's like pruning a tree: sorrowing over the heap of severed branches, yet never doubting that each cut was true and well-spent, and knowing that the tree will be the more beautiful in spring for it." Perfect.

  8. Death is a horrid thing.

    (This has been your Daily Dose of Captain Obvious. Thank you for your time.)

    Quite seriously, though, I think character-killing is the job's nastiest aspect. It even beats out editing for me. When you've watched your character live and breathe and speak, as real as reality to you every time you sit down to write, then it's got to hurt when you take the axe to him. It's like destroying a little bit of your soul, especially if you've let him grow like he's supposed to.

    In spite of all that, I kill "loads of people". There is something about death that makes any story more real, more mature, more important: and though I hate everything whenever a favourite character of mine dies, I have to admit that those sorts of stories are really the best. Ripping out the reader's heart is a foolproof way to be sure you're remembered.

    (I think it's somehow your fault that we share the same curse, Abigail. I don't know how that works, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. >.>)

  9. I thought of you while I wrote this, Megan. Strangely, though, I find that I still consider the character who just recently died in White Sail's to be very alive. I still create backstory for him, which is very enjoyable. So I don't feel inconsolably distraught over it. And yet I do agree with you - killing characters is far worse than the process of editing. O.<

  10. Worst of all - editing in a character's untimely demise. I've done that. "Hey, you! You should've died thirty-seven chapters ago and I somehow missed the memo!" >.O

  11. Joss Whedon taught me that the secret to great writing is to create charming, endearing, lovable characters and then kill them. Is that not a good idea?

  12. Wash! Noo...!

    But I think Whedon and Megan are right. In some way, the death of a beloved character somehow brings the story home. Whether it makes it somehow more real, or being burnt by the fury of our own love etches the memory indelibly on our minds, I don't know.

    But Abigail is also right: it depends on the story. I almost killed one of my characters (it was the original plan, anyway) to draw readers in over their heads, but halfway through the first draft I realized that was a rubbishy idea, and that the character simply had to live.

    Not that I mind...

  13. ...or you just end up with people like Ariel, who believes Whedon was bitter about FOX cancelling his show and took it out on Wash. But I won't go into my philosophy on that.

  14. When tragedy strikes the world, especially in those guises which it terms arbitrary, its first impulse is to wonder, why? Even to those of us who know that there is One who both makes well-being and creates calamity, when facing such events with our finite minds and limited perspective, that truth may seem cold comfort. We as authors may feel it important that there be an identifiable why behind our slayings, but are we offering an answer to the world or simply trying to invent one for our own satisfaction? This brings me back to my perennial musing on writing God's providence, but I won't belabor the point here.

    In lieu of attempting to answer my question, I'll simply say that, as a reader, one of my chief tools in deciphering the author's intended communication is to look at the fates he gives his characters, and thus as a writer, who I kill (or don't) and more importantly, why, should derive from the truths I wish to impart. Hmm. Maybe I answered it after all.

    There are myriad reasons why characters have to die, whether as punishment for their actions (Javert), atonement for the same (Sydney Carton), or both (Boromir); as victims of another's passion (Desdemona) or of their own (Quentin Compson); to show the tragic beauty of life (Wash) or the utter pointlessness therein (Snowden); or some magnificent combination of them all (Hamlet). My one recourse, in my own flailing about, is to find some answer, if not in invention, then at least in emulation.

  15. Great post!

    I honestly don't like the "happily ever after" endings -- they don't seem to mean as much as the bittersweet ones -- so I think death's an important element in books. (By the way, practically all of my favorite characters die, too. I'm not allowed to declare favorites in my house anymore.)

    When I first started the series I'm working on, I knew a certain character would have to die. Even after I'd decided that, I got all attached -- and somehow, my brain decided to create a *different* character to die the pre-decided death, so the first one didn't have to.
    Naturally, I ended up getting attached to that character, too.

    I know one or the other has to die, and at this point, I'm pretty sure I know which one it is. Still, it's not a fun feeling. I just have to remember it's for the good of the story -- so this post came at a great time for me. Thank you!

  16. Jonathan - While deaths in my stories usually have a definable why that can't be avoided (coughMurdercough), I think I see what you're saying. It sounds like the sort of thing that a G.K. Chesterton would wrestle with: that question why when applied to fiction, and the questioning in real life that it reflects. On the other hand, though, there is always an answer. It is of course always God's Providence - that is an answer, however weak it may seem, to everything that happens - but there are a myriad of other lesser answers: sin, for instance. So I don't think it is wrong for authors to show a reason in the killing of characters or in any other sort of fictional tragedy, particularly if it sheds light on everyday events.

    Jenna - I do like happily-ever-after endings, myself. I would get very depressed if every story had a bittersweet ending. But you are right: for the most part, the bittersweet and the sad sticks with you longer than the happily ever after.

    "I walked a mile with Pleasure;
    She chatted all the way;
    But left me none the wiser
    For all she had to say.

    I walked a mile with Sorrow,
    And ne’er a word said she;
    But, oh! The things I learned from her,
    When sorrow walked with me."

  17. I'm in the same boat as the rest of you. Decided to kill off a character with a large part in the plot and a big character-building arc- one who (hopefully) really wins over the reader's heart.

    Why? I needed someone to die in the final battle, and there was someone else lined up to marry his girlfriend. Yep. That arbitrary.
    Well, part of the battle-death was to get my slowly-becoming-an-angsty-brat MC off his rear and fighting the bad guy. And I didn't want to kill of his best friend. So Chai (pronounced KHAI. The nerve of that tea becoming popular mid-writing... >.< )took the bite of the sword and the rest is history. The princess is in tears and Mr. Right just happens to be on hand to comfort her. ;-)

    And yes, I got angry feedback on that one.

    But sometimes, sometimes you just *need* those "Just this once, everyone lives" stories. Sometimes you need a story in which nothing horrible happens- a few bumps in the road are all the trials to be expected. It's a retreat for the reader's soul. Sure, we know it isn't real (in that way some modern Christian novels are less real than Lord of the Rings), but a short jaunt in a world of comparative ease now and then...

    I don't know. My life is extremely stressful at the moment, so maybe I'm longing for an easy read more than most.
    "Poor ones, poor, poor ones. Forget for awhile, then home to your empty half-lives..."

    "His voice was wonderful, filled with the echo of faraway hills and laughing country streams... 'There is a real kingdom' he announced, 'and a real King.'"
    ~Tales of the Resistance

    I know that doesn't have much to do with much, but it just came to mind.

  18. I wanted to let you know I've passed the Leibster blog award on to you. There's more about it here: http://literally-ya.blogspot.com/2011/07/liebster-blog-award.html

  19. Sarah - I like the "everyone lives" stories, too. It provides some variety and a bit of lightness to my reading, a bit like lemon meringue. For instance, when I'm feeling particularly down I'll pick up Jane Austen. Really, what would we do without Jane Austen?

    Jenna - Why, thank you! I'm honoured that Scribbles made your top five. I am supposed to give it out to my own five picks now, correct?

  20. I love lemon meringue pie! It is simply made of glory and wonder and splendor... and meringue!

    Achem, anyhow...

    Thank you for this post, Abigail. I have been turning around in my mind the idea of "killing off" one of my characters, but been at a loss for how it would further the plot. I've had the "Someone must die!" attitude, and after reading this, I've somewhat revalued it. Perhaps he will end up living after all...

  21. I am glad that I could do something to assist your character's plight. It would be such a shame if such a nice fellow (actually I have no idea if he is nice after all, but I like to think he is) were to be killed for no purpose. And isn't lemon meringue delicious?

    Also, I didn't want to clutter up my giveaway post by commenting on it, but I want to say that your "I follow you" one amused me greatly. ^.^

  22. Quite welcome! You just pass it on to whichever 5 blogs you choose.

  23. I had a question about the publisher that published your book. Do you have to pay them anything up front for them to publish it (assuming they accept your manuscript, of course). Or, do they get a percentage of every sale?



meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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