A Death is a Terrible Thing to Waste

by Patrick LeClerc

As authors, we control the things that happen to our characters. We put them through the wringer, because we need to show what they are made of, how they react and change when tested.  It wouldn’t be much of a story without a conflict, an obstacle to overcome, adversity to struggle against.

And sometimes, we have to kill one of them. Because the story demands it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But it shouldn’t be done lightly. Killing a character is losing any potential that he or she might have had. As Clint Eastwood’s William Munny said in Unforgiven “Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”

If you are going to take all that from a character that you created, you should get some bang for your buck. Death needs to mean something or it loses its sting. If readers get to the point where they meet a character and just know this one’s not going to make it, they won’t form a deep connection. My friends and I sometimes will play “spot the redshirt” when we watch a movie. You get to know the signs. The soldier who gets a letter from home and shows it to the whole squad, letting them all know he’s going to get married or be a father. The cop who mentions how close he is to retirement. The guy who says something like “Looks pretty safe” or “I think we’re gonna make it.”

These are all worn out tropes. They are attempts to create a bond so we’ll feel something when the character dies, or attempts to make us feel that the character is safe, so we’ll be shocked when they die. But unless your readers just fell off the turnip wagon, they can see the deaths coming up Main Street.

Death happens. And sometimes, predictable death happens. If you’re writing a war or a horror story, we know some of these people aren’t likely to see the end. But treat the audience with some respect.

Don’t kill important characters offstage. It’s insulting. If you’re taking everything they have and all they’re ever gonna have, give them a scene. And get your money’s worth out of that death. Let it be memorable, let it tell us about the character, and about the world and about those who survive and how that death affects them. Make the death advance the story and character development, but don’t hang a lampshade on it as a cheap plot device.

There is an argument to be made that life isn’t neat, death can be random and cruel and pointless. That’s plenty true of life, I know that well enough from my day job as a paramedic.

But life doesn’t need to make narrative sense. Life is pretty bad at that. That’s why you can’t return life or exchange it for a different one, and while you can theoretically just give up on it, that’s a lot messier than doing so with a book.

People want stories to mean something, to entertain, to provoke.

Death is a big deal. It’s one of the most powerful tools in your box. Use it wisely.

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1 Comment

  1. Shakespeare killed Falstaff off-stage. The character was big, but not important enough for a on-stage death. That was point. A clever way to downplay his value to the larger scheme of things.

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