Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Writing Advice: Earning Your Character Deaths

The other day I was scribbling down some notes for Pretty When She Destroys while waiting in line for the early screening of The Host. As I wrote out the basic details of a major character death and how it impacts the story and the characters, my thoughts inevitably drifted to how fans of the trilogy will respond. I do like to keep my fans happy, but I have to also make sure that I'm writing a balanced story that stays true to the universe I've created.

Even though I'm known for offing characters, I don't do it lightly. I actually really do agonize over each death. It has to fit within the context of the story and not be just for shock value. I hate it when a writer kills a character just to freak out the readers. I always make sure that the plot, world building, etc, create a dangerous environment for all characters involved, so that if one dies it makes sense. Though there are many senseless deaths in the real world, I don't feel the need to throw a random death into the mix just to upset the readers.

A few vague examples of my characters dying and the set-ups:

  • One of my characters had zero impulse control. None. They acted without thought and purely on instinct. In the dangerous world they lived in, this was not a great idea, though it made them look like an utter badass in the eyes of the fandom.  I feared for their survival. It wasn't a matter of if they was going to die, but when. By the time the character did die, both the character and I knew it was their inevitable fate and we were both okay with it. 
  • On of my characters was very beloved. People would send me emails requesting that they not die. Yet, the character chose a dangerous path in pursuit of saving another person. The character put themselves in danger's way and knew it. When the character was killed by the Big Bad, it came as a shock to some. Yet, the Big Bad had every reason to want the character dead and the character put themselves straight in the villain's cross-hairs  The outcome was pretty much set in stone after that.
  • One of the hardest deaths I ever had to write was for a character who never even got close to a happy ending. Their life was stolen away from them by the incredibly dangerous world they lived in. In fact, the character had already avoided death a few times, but had put themselves in a very dangerous situation to be near someone they loved. The brutality of the environment took the characters life.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock's films. His films slowly burn to the dramatic climaxes, and are always fraught with tension and excitement. He had a gift with creating scenarios that were terrifyingly dangerous to the characters, but often the characters were oblivious until it was too late. It was the audience that knew that the character was in terrible danger. I took note of how masterfully he did this and have tried to emulate it in my writing.

Since I'm a horror writer, I am always dealing with some sort of aspect of horror. Monsters inhabit my books, but the monstrous acts of humanity are also part of the equation. The worlds that my characters live within are dangerous to begin with and the actions of the characters weave difficult webs for them to escape without loss of some sort. Sometimes it's the loss of their very lives.

I recently finished watching the first four seasons of Being Human (UK). One of the aspects I really admired was the slow decline and eventual death of (highlight for spoiler) Mitchell.  Everything about the character's world and past screamed violence, danger and death. The character had lived his life so brutally, it was natural that the character's end would come from violence. Yet, the way the final scene worked out was surprising. Yes, the character died, but not because of hatred, but love. Redemption came through how the character died. It was perfect.

The point of this post, as a prepare for Pretty When She Destroys, is that character deaths are coming. They're going to be brutal and without mercy. Some characters will die unexpectedly. Some will sacrifice themselves. The main protagonist, Amaliya, will make some choices that may not be exactly popular with the fans, but they are the best ones she can make while facing the possible end of the world.

Amaliya never did believe in happily ever after. Chances are, she won't have one, but she's not going to lose her chance for one without a fight.


  1. I think deaths are necessary in certain genres because if there is no real risk then there is no real payoff! I think in any fantasy, horror, or mystery/thriller type of story there needs to be a level of unsureness. There has to be a belief that any one can die at any given moment. It makes the heroes more heroic, the villains more dastardly, and the everyday man more significant in the struggle. Do they always have to die? No because sometimes we need to know that good will defeat evil. However, we need to be guessing when that will be :)

    Oh I totally agree about BBC BH--that was a beautifully told story arc. It was inevitable and yet still heart wrenching when it happened. I thought the game play of emotions in that final episode was just perfect for the character on a whole.

    1. I agree about Being Human. I was enthralled with how well it was done. I just couldn't see it happening any other way.

      I have a real beef with authors who off characters randomly for the shock value. Especially zombie authors who feel the need to kill off all their characters just to satisfy some trope.

    2. I have that problem with any genre. Make the death mean something (either to another character, the storyline, or the world). Just killing one character after another off for no real reason than "it probably would have happened" actually makes me as a reader get less attached to anyone in the story as it goes on. That is probably not what they were aiming for in the long run.


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