Friday, June 29, 2012
Kill Them All: Does Killing Off Characters Make Readers Care Less?
The hubby and I were watching Game of Thrones recently, and I was so worried my favorite character was going to die, he looked it up for me. If the character was doomed, I didn't want to get any more attached to him. I wanted to start preparing myself for his demise.
Then I realized how whacked this was.
Not caring about a character because he might die? Isn't the whole point to make readers care?
(A few tips on making readers care about your characters)
Game of Thrones (both the books and the show) is notorious for killing off characters. A friend of mine describes the books as "as soon as you like someone they die." I haven't read the books, but the show has certainly followed that. I can't tell you how many times I've said, "aw man, I liked them. Why'd they have to kill them off?"
I've also noticed myself caring less about new characters because odds are they aren't long for this world. I'm still loving the show, but my affections are different. I'm not as invested in the people as I used to be. I'm more focused on the plot. The stuff that can't break my heart.
And it's made me rethink how I kill off my own characters.
I have friends who are still mad at me for some of the characters who die in The Healing Wars trilogy. I take it as a compliment because those characters touched them so deeply. But I only knocked off a few, and every one really needed to die.
Had I killed more, would readers have felt differently?
Readers know the main characters aren't going to die. No matter how rough things get, they'll be okay. When you can kill off a major character (as in Game of Thrones, or superbly done in Serenity) then all bets are off. If they can die, anyone can die, and suddenly your tension goes through the roof.
(More tips on keeping tensions high)
But not every story allows for this. Multiple POVs and ensemble casts work best, because there are others to pick up the story. Stories with only two POVs where one dies can be quite the shocker. Orson Scott Card's Empire kills off the main character halfway through the story and I couldn't finish the book after that. Even though there was another character to carry the plot, I'd bonded with the one who died. I didn't care anymore (and was angry it happened).
I think there's a death to care ratio.
Kill too many and the reader becomes numb, and stops caring so they won't be disappointed. Too few and the reader doesn't really believe anything bad will happen. But if you kill the right characters at the right time, you can keep readers biting their nails the rest of the book.
Naturally, not every story needs to kill someone off, but any bad thing can also have a similar effect. If bad things happen all the time, readers might tune out to protect themselves. If bad things never happen, they won't worry at all.
If you're going to kill off a character, think about who and why. What do you gain by doing it? Are they throwaway characters added only to die (yawn) or characters that will make readers worry their favorite might be next?
How do you choose to kill off a character? How do you feel about characters dying?