Friday, June 29, 2012

Kill Them All: Does Killing Off Characters Make Readers Care Less?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When the husband and I were watching Game of Thrones, 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 enjoying 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 looking at this again years later in 2018, I'm no longer watching it).

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? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I think character death needs to serve a purpose. That purpose can be to make it clear that anyone can die, or just to show the savagery of a setting, but there needs to be a conscious reason why such a character is killed off.

    I think that deaths to make the audience feel that anyone could die need to be handled very carefully. Say you kill off a loved character suddenly towards the climax, intending to set the reader on edge for the coming struggle. After that, you've left yourself very little time to potentially kill off any more. Killing off a whole bunch of characters all at once lacks drama, and there's a risk your audience will realise this and either call your bluff, or give up on caring about the characters, because as you found out, why stay invested in the cast of characters if all of them are going to die at once? Massive group deaths have to be very carefully orchestrated in order to maintain drama and tension. Perhaps it's not about whether they'll survive, but what they'll do with their last moments?

    Which is another way to look at it. If you've decided to kill a character, consider how they'll face their own death. As a reader or viewer, can you remain interested and invested in seeing how a doomed character deals with their fate?

  2. I think you are on to something there! I find myself drifting away from shows that never kill anybody off (of course, only talking about shows where dying is a frequent concern) because the stakes stop feeling real.

  3. In a YA fantasy I wrote, a beta reader told me she didn't think I should kill off someone I did. (And there weren't many people dying anyway.) I thought about her suggestion, but honestly, this person really needs to die to bring about an important change in the MC. So I left it as is. Janice, there was a character in Darkfall who dies that I was sad had to go...but sometimes it just has to be done.

  4. I definitely think there's something to this death to care ratio. If you kill some random redshirt, the reader doesn't really care, but if you kill somebody they're really attached to they might put down the book and never come back.

    I remember a couple seasons back on the TV show Bones, they had this ad campaign leading up to one episode where they kept hinting they were going to kill off a major character. And the build up in the episode itself was great, not focusing on anyone character, but making me feel like it could be any one of them at any time. Then at the end of the episode, the character who actually died was a minor recurring character, and while I could see where logically the characters would be attached to him and affected by his death, they hadn't spent any time building up an attachment for the audience at all. So even though I was glad not to lose any of my favorites, from a story standpoint, it was kind of a let down. All that build-up, and then they kill the redshirt.

  5. I think you might be too fixated on death as end of life. If your story revolves around a marathon runner and that is his life, chopping off his legs or permantly destroying his knees is a death in a sense.

    Sure in a lot of stories the stakes are such that the MC is fighting for their lives, and in that case death is the death. But if the stakes are saving a city, you can smash the city and keep your MC alive.

    What I am saying is you can ratchet up the tension without killing a lot of times.

  6. I'm in the "kill the right kind of characters at the right kind of time" camp.

    So far, my WIP series isn't the kind to attract a lot of deaths, but I think it's better to give some emotional weight to some of the deaths.

    Maybe one or two emotion-less deaths would be good if reality demands it, but I don't really believe in killing off people left and right.

  7. This is a great post b/c it made look at the first death in my WIP. I have the antagonist kill someone in the first scene with him (about 8 scenes in) so we would get a sense of his ruthlessness and desperation. But we only know the character he kills from the dialogue in this scene -- there's zero investment in that character. A simple switch w/ the next scene and I can turn him into someone that means a little something to the MC. Thanks so much!

  8. Wow, excellent post. I was an early reader for my brother's novel in the draft stages, and when it became apparent to me that someone was going to have to die, I called him and threatened him with I-don't-know-what if he killed off my favorite character. My fave lived, but three others died; I feel responsible for their deaths.

  9. I used to read a lot of John D. MacDonald. In one of the earlier books I read, the hero was rushing to the rescue of his love and he didn't get there on time. She was killed. I was stunned. And really upset because I liked the character. But it made me love reading his stories because you couldn't count on anything. Sometimes the fair maiden got rescued, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes the hero turned down the bad guy's bribe, sometimes he took it. You just never knew.

  10. I think it works in Game of Thrones because there are at least 7 or 8 POV characters with a lot of page time/screen time, so when one of them died it was truly shocking but you had to keep reading (or watching) to find out about the rest.

  11. I agree with the `needs to be the right character at the right time.' It's so hard to judge when you're in the actual story, though. Me, I'm always making grand plans to kill off this or that person, and then changing my mind at the last moment because I got too attached. (Sigh.)

  12. I'm totally with you on Game of Thrones. I'm still working my way through the series and have found myself creating distance from the characters as early as the second book. George R. R. Martin is an amazing author, but brutal!

    I write epic fantasy and have no qualms in killing people off - but only one main character so far and that broke my heart to write. A great post though - something to consider next time I consider knocking someone off (in print)!

  13. I agree with Michael's "City" analogy. Even if you wreck the homes, parks and schools, you haven't necessarily "killed" the city.

    Buildings and parks can be fixed after the danger ends; living things can't be replaced or fixed the same way.

    While I know this going a bit off-topic, I just have to say it anyway-

    Death, or threat of death, is NOT the only way to explore mortality, etc.


    Okay, got that out of my system. Back on topic-

    Janice, I have to disagree about the reader not believing or getting concerned that the main character(s) won't die.

    I've seen too many (Good, in my opinion) movies lately where lead characters die, and it did make me cry, but the ending was more powerful that way, so there you go.

    A book read recently did kill off a main character, and it was hard to read on after that, but I didn't hate the book solely for that.

    But there was a historical novel I read at 14 that I couldn't finish after a baby dies, it wasn't a senseless, random or nonsensical death at all, I just couldn't finish it after that. It sure wasn't the author's fault, she did her job as far as solid storytelling's concerned.

    I promised myself to finish that book someday. I just don't think I was ready then and perhaps not now either.

    I also think we think so much about the reader when we talk about this, we forget the writer's viewpoint.

    I personally have yet to write a story where someone's death is in view for the reader, usually they're dead before the story starts, and yes, there are valid reasons for it, BTW.

    But I'm really facing this issue now with my WIP.

    I've known from the beginning this death has to happen, I can't escape it or the story will read trite at the point it occurs, but I can't bring myself to do the scene.

    While some writers revel in "Playing God" as it were, I don't think of my characters or writing that way.

    Yes, I make the final decisions of where the character's story ends up, but I also agree with those before me who said you need to do it for the good of the story, or the reader can assume it was a sick thrill on your part.

    I don't take decisions like this lightly, and for me, this is one of those things I don't just waffle back and forth.

    Once I've committed myself to killing off a character, however the story dictates it, I don't change it, even if I have to rewrite the story over and over, once they die, they die.

    The sole exception would be if the story allowed for the character to be physically or spiritually reborn, and not ruin the overall power behind the story up to before that character died the first time.

    I mean let's face it, many writers take pleasure in it, readers too, but it's not for everyone.

    It's why some people like horror in the vein of Psycho or Saw, and others don't.

    I think it depends on the kind of writer you are in the first place. We all get different things out of the same story, otherwise book reviews, whether positive or negative would look the same.

    I also think we can focus so much on stakes as Janice describes, that we ignore other aspects of storytelling that are no less valid.

    I really believe how you handle this depends on the writer or a specific book.

    Hope I'm not talking in riddles today.

  14. "Kill to care ratio." I love that!

    I haven't watched Game of Thrones yet, but I heard it's awesome. Your post reminded me of a movie...I can't remember the title now...the one with Bardem with a weird bowl haircut. Anyway, after two hours, literally every character died. I felt cheated, like I had just wasted two hours of my life I could never get back.

  15. I'm struggling with this myself. I had to kill off my side kick character so my main character could grow. But for some reason my readers don't believe she's really dead. They're quite sure that her coming back will be the twist at the end. I've even thrown in one of those dead person dream sequences, but to no avail. Readers just don't like to believe that major characters are dead. And in all fairness, I started reading Book 7 of Harry Potter from the back forward, fully expecting Dumbledore to be alive afterall.

  16. Paul, Great thoughts. There's a quote from Henry the 5th(?) that says: "When the fall is all that matters, it matters a great deal." Sometimes it is all about how they face the death, and that can be very compelling.

    Sarah, thanks! I was surprised when I started thinking like that. Like stakes have a bell curve :)

    Heather, it really does. I agonized over those Darkfall deaths, but it didn't feel real to me unless they died. Sometimes it just has to be done.

    Gypsyharper, I remember that episode. I felt a little bad because I liked that character, but nothing earth shattering. Oddly enough though, that triggered something that ultimately made me stop watching the show. NCIS had a great "kill a main character" moment. I was shocked for weeks.

    Michael, absolutely. Those stakes are always the more compelling for me, because they can indeed happen.

    C0, like all things writing, when it works, it works. :)

    Monica, most welcome!

    Jan, LOL. I wonder if your face was on the shopping block or not? Did you ever ask?

    LD, I love when a death can make you feel that way. Just the right amount of uncertainty to keep readers scared.

    Margo, I'm finding the opposite true for me, but that might be because I only really care about a few of them.

    Chicory, I'm not sure if I've ever spared someone I planned on killing. But I'm a much meaner writer :)

    Raewyn, it takes a careful hand, and it's very powerful when done right. All we need is that balance ;)

    Taurean, it really does depend on the writer and the story. And even the reader. I don't ever expect a main character to die, so putting them in dire straits where the only risk is death doesn't ring worrisome to me. Injury or mental or emotional anguish sure, but not death. So when it does happen I'm usually surprised. If handled well, killing off a character (literally or metaphorically) can be very compelling.

    Julie, I know that feeling. Stories when the only point is to watch people suffer are terrible. I'm even tired of the "all but one or two people die" trope.

    Marcie, I feel that way about a certain character from The Avengers :) At least you know you made a great connection between your readers and that character. The hard part will be keeping them dead or finding that twist:)

  17. Having had a conversation with a reader about characters being killed off, something which you may want to avoid is killing off the love interest of a supporting character. It's been done to, well, death.

    That actually convinced me to spare the life of one of my characters who was supposed to die. Instead, she ends up in a coma.

    1. Nice. That leaves you all the drama of a death and still gives you story options to bring her back. (And I too have killed off the love interest of a supporting character -sigh-)

  18. I'm thinking of killing off one of my characters who survives the Battle of Gettysburg.

    1. If it works for the story, go for it. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with killing characters, just make sure you have good reasons for it and aren't just doing it for shock value.