Murder and death fills up fiction, fluffing out and dramatizing the world for the sake of interest and compassion. Most novels contain at least one form of death, especially in modern times, and no fantasy or action sequence is complete without mortal terror. Strangely enough, it is not something reality experiences to a similar magnitude. People who had to deal with death in high levels are often disturbed, distracted, and deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. They are uncommon and situational. We can expect a Vietnam vet to have more experience than a ranch vet. Though most people know at least one person who has died, many times they weren’t close, or as close as they should have been. Someone who has seen death numerous times that is not in a situation that would lend to it is startling and unnerving. Meeting a true orphan is a strange experience, especially if the parents’ deaths were unrelated. For the majority of our lives we don’t have to deal with grief, and usually not without warning.
The main issue with fiction is that it can’t be judged by its comparison to reality. Sure, the best stories are reflections of the truth, but there are many circumstances in which readers do not want or will appreciate how “it really is.” Not only do we not always know what reality is (say the size of the statue of liberty), but most occasions we don’t even want it. I much rather read a book about a couple who are truly fated for each other than one about two people dating because they both happened to be the tallest people on campus.
Killing off characters is a powerful tool that authors utilize in order to craft tension and achieve a higher level of realism. But, like any commonly used tool, the knowledge of its motivation can lead to immediate backfire.
First and foremost, it is the job of the author to conceal his objectives from the audience. We want the readers to be thinking, “Oh, please don’t die, Harry!” not “Oh, please don’t make Harry die, Rowling!” Being immersed in the book means that reader isn’t thinking about what the writer is doing. This reasons that, even when it’s positive, if he is considering the writer, the author didn’t do her job. This is why the goal of the creator should never be to “be good,” because, if successful, it just means the reader will leave thinking, “Wow, Rowling is a good author,” instead of “Harry Potter is awesome!” In essence, the book should be so convincing, the reader should forget that it isn’t real until he chooses to remember, i.e. is asked to do an analysis.
“Killing characters” has become a label for its motivation. In a similar way to how pushing a child away from a moving car is a label for “I am being heroic,” death is a label for, “the author is trying to make me feel bad.” The subject is especially hard because it is in humanity’s nature to question it. It is one of those subjects that people innately say, “Why?”
Asking why often does, but shouldn’t, leads to metareading, or the process of looking at fiction as a book and not as a reality. We think, “Why did this character have to die?” and we answer it in terms of why the author made him die. Since the universe will never answer us when we ask it, we don’t really look at death in terms of being motivated. In that everything in a novel should have a purpose, this difference of life and fiction leads to a conflict of concept. Knowing that there is an author and he has power over life and death makes us demand the answer from him, because, despite the fictional god existing, we know he really wasn’t the one who made it happen.
Metareading, in most circumstances, can be avoided. When readers ask why, they often can turn to the motivation of the character. “Why did John punch Mike in the face?” Because he insulted his girl. Though the author’s motivation is still there—“Why did John punch Mike in the face?” So that he could be kicked out of the military which would lead him to the desperation of taking the deal with the devil—the reader thinks first and foremost from the character’s or narrator’s perspective.
This is not so easy when it comes to death. We can explain why the antagonist would shoot the protagonist, but we can’t explain why that would actually kill him. The characters motivation can only control their actions, but the author chooses the ramifications. Normally, like in the above example, the motivation will explain an obvious ramification, but, because it is so typical for characters to escape from death, and death is so uncommon to us in reality, dying seems to be more the choice then the inevitable result.
What all this comes down to is the complicated aspect of fictional murder. Or, rather, the question of whether or not we should.
Because death is so powerful, people turn to it for an easy way out. They have a character who can just deliver information, then murder her so that they don’t have to figure out what to do with her. Because the situations are supposed to be so horrible, they bring in “useless” people to prove it. The red shirts come down with the Captain so someone can die.
It is important to remember, that as we question death and that as it is an abused choice, death will quickly bring the reader right out of the story.
There are some tips to avoid it.
First and foremost, whenever the author gets something out of a situation, he must punish himself for it. This rule of thumb exceeds just the concept of death, but benefits most decisions to be made.
Things death can do for the author:
-Quickly get a big reaction from the audience.
-Get rid of a character.
-Motivate another character.
-Prove the situation is dangerous.
-Make a permanent resolution to any problem.
If the motivation for murder is any of these things, which most times it is, this does not imply bad writing, the author just needs to make sure it’s not looking like he’s doing what he’s doing. The best way to do this is to make the death harder on the author.
Ways that death hurts the author:
-Dealing with grief.
-Dealing with a long death.
-The character dying before he has achieved his full use.
-Losing a character that is likable or long standing (with exceptions.)
-Dealing with the body and/or legalities.
In essence, it becomes about making this quick death have more of a resonance. Part of the issue is when the author wants the death to end abruptly and not deal with it for a long time. This makes sense because, well, that’s what we want in real life. It is, however, not the way things work, and doing so just belittles the death process, which just contradicts the reason why the author had it happen in the first place.
A writer wants to manipulate feelings; that’s what he does. I tell you a false story to make you have emotions for people that don’t really exist. Manipulation and persuasion is a special talent that takes charm and skill, a process that most people want to skip. One of the methods is by choosing obvious events that should make readers feel a certain way. We’re supposed to care when someone dies, about children, about old people, about bullying, about the earth, about our health, and a whole bunch of other things that society dictates. It’s common to see these things in stories and to be very unimpressed by them.
When the writer wants a reaction for killing someone off, he has to be unpredictable. Part of the reason why death doesn’t have the desired affect is because people tend to treat it in the same way.
If you want a death to have an effect on the audience, it needs to be meaningful. Firstly, you will have to deal with the grieving characters. Having them suck it up and stand strong just because they’re in the face of adversity reads as a cop out, not as an indication of their strength.
If the character isn’t someone they care about, then prolong the death. Injure her, allow them to get away, and then, after they’ve had to struggle with this lump for a good duration of time, she can die. Killing her off right after she’s done whatever it was for her to do just makes her seem like a writer’s connivance, not a person. And, even after the death, forcing the characters to deal with the problem long after it happened makes it seem more like a story point than just an emotional ploy. Because they have to drag the body with them to bury it, or keep getting called in to the police station to deal with a trial, or even seek out the family to let them know what happened, the motivation can be a driving force for the character, lead them to new places, and make it feel like death means something.
Characters should have a purpose outside of dying. Putting in a whole bunch of people just so they can be slaughtered makes the audience shut down and care about none of them. Because it is hard to deal with a lot of characters at once (a lesson I learned when writing children’s shows), it is rare for a story to have a lot of people involved. In Stephan King’s On Writing, he discusses coming to a huge writing block because of the number of people he had to deal with in The Stand. A problem he, ironically, solved with death. This means that nine times out of ten a story with a lot of characters only did that so they get to up the death rate. Because readers will recognize that, they will predict the killing of everyone but the last two or three. That prediction will lead them to stop caring about the character to protect themselves, so they won’t feel as bad when the character dies.
Choosing wisely who goes and who lives is the only way to revamp our assumptions about fictional death. Because the readers have so many expectations about it, some irrational, killing people with meaning becomes a complex game of balance. We know the protagonist won’t die, but killing him won’t make us happy either. Murdering unimportant characters isn’t a good foil for the protagonist’s abilities; it doesn’t illustrate how great he is to have survived, it just makes it all the more unbelievable. Either be heavy handed on frugal on death, and don’t make different choices about the importance of the character. If a lot of people die, some should be main characters and some should be red shirts. If you don’t want your lead group hit, then you need to hit the “peons” less. Watching the protagonist fly through battle undamaged, yet see hundreds of extras go down in one strike only reminds the audience that it is fiction, not that it is really a dangerous situation.
Because death is the ultimate solution, it can often be an unsatisfactory option. Getting rid of characters through other manners proves much more creative than just killing them off in a new way. Having someone desert, get lost, turn traitor, argue about which direction take, and allowing it to end positively for them, or the punishment to be something outside of death can be must more refreshing.
Death actually indicates laziness. It is final and permanent. While most endings can be questionable, death solves all problems. The author does not have to be clever or meaningful. Death just naturally is. But, because the audience knows this, it feels like a cop out. This says that ending a story with the protagonist’s or friend’s demise will only lead the reader to be, not only disappointed by the death, but disappointed by the writer’s cleverness.