When writing fiction, how do you decide when a character should die?
I'm writing a thriller and I have 2 characters that are dispensable. Does that mean I should kill them off? Sometimes it can be a good thing for an audience and your protagonist to get attached to a character, then see what happens in their absence.
I'm trying to decide what to do with the protagonist's heroine/ girlfriend type (They seem to always get knocked off in 24, James Bond, and Jason Bourne stories); I am also trying to decide what to do with the Antagonist's wife who has traded sides and is now on the good side. Anyone have some advice?
That's a good question. I recently thought about changing the victim in my novel to one of the characters who was seriously disliked but then I thought I should stick with the unexpected character's demise. Still on the fence with the issue. Good luck in your decision.
Killing off a well developed character can be a dramatic point in a novel, even if the person is likeable, perhaps even more so. Just make sure you don't kill off any sub plots you've developed that depend on that character, as Mark Helprin did in In Sunlight and in Shadow. Good luck!
I have a couple of rules I follow, one is does the death move the story forward, and if I kill off a likable character have I used enough fore shadowing that my readers will not hate me.
I read an article by the producer or director of "The Great Waldo Pepper". They had two endings. (Spoiler) here, in one they kill off the heroine towards the end of the movie. They previewed both endings and when they left the showings the agreed that at the end of the one the heroine was killed that the audience hated them. They went with that ending for artistic reality. "The Great Waldo Pepper tanked".
I have had characters developed and they took on a mean streak and I had to kill them off.
I love writing detective novels, now if I can just start making money in larger quantities.
I kill off a character when it will add the most to the story, serves a particular purpose, and flows naturally from what else is going on. Ask yourself how it furthers the story and at what point it will produce the changes that need to occur in other characters to make them become the people you envision them to be at the end of the book.
That doesn't mean the cause can't be kind of random. That kind of death can bring a feeling of reality to a story that stretches suspension of disbelief to its limits while enhancing feelings of empathy for the affected characters.
Red shirts and spear carriers reduce suspension of disbelief in almost any story.
I don't think just emulating what other thrillers you admire have done will really work because it's just emulating the action rather than the intent of the action. Without a purpose beyond spicing things up, it's just like adding a decoration rather than furthering the plot and character development.
It definitely seems like certain characters are predestined to die. I went through no fewer than four drafts of my first novel, and in every one the same character died. Her age, physical description, and interactions all went through changes, yet in the end she still died. I attribute it largely as a growing point for my main character, so that's probably why it was so essential to the story. So, in that regard, I think the characters will 'tell' you when they need to die. The story just sort of gravitates in that direction, so you don't necessarily need to plan out a death.
However, I have noticed that the hardest deaths for me are the ones that I didn't plan for. Characters who had great back stories and a bright future. I have plans for them and all of a sudden the narrative wants them dead. I say 'look how much more they could have done' but the narrative won't budge; they're gone for good. I think those are the best deaths in stories because they so closely mirror death in real life. Very rarely are we ready to let someone go. And that's why George R. R. Martin is such a brilliant writer.
A character's death always has to serve some kind of purpose to the overarching story. Maybe one character's death prevents the hero from learning a crucial fact before it's too late, or maybe their death puts the hero in a deep state of depression that he has to pull himself out of in order to solve the story's crisis. When you're thinking of killing someone off, you can't just do it because it's dramatic--it has to add something.
In Gurren Lagann, the side characters' deaths give the main characters the conviction and drive to press on for their sakes. Death adds a sense of purpose to our heroes' journey, to secure a future in which those still alive won't have to live in fear.
In Monster, the many people who've died demonstrate the sheer cold maliciousness of the villain. Death is cheap and plentiful, and it directly conflicts with the hero's unshakable optimism and desire to save everyone.
In Fate/Zero, death is a constant, brutal, bloody reminder of the sins our heroes must commit in order to fulfill their dreams. In order to win the Holy Grail War and attain the titular wish-granting relic, the main character outright claims he'll do whatever it takes to save the world ("I'll make sure the blood I shed in Fuyuki City is the last that humanity will ever shed. Even if that means staining my hands with every evil in this world, I don't care. If it will save the world, I'll do it gladly.").
Just always remember that, while a character's death makes for great drama, there also has to be purpose to it. If nothing in the story really changes as the result of that death--if the diagram of the plot doesn't even make a bump--then it's just going to feel manipulative and pointless. The death of Heel-Face-Turn Femme-Fatale has to have a lingering impact beyond just the scene of her death; it has to be something that haunts the hero or prevents him from solving the mystery or puts the villain in a more vulnerable state.
I have no answer. But I have a joke to share:
There was one famous writer who wrote novels in serial form in monthly magazines. He had several fans. One day he was confronted by a fan questioning him why he killed a particular character unexpectedly in the previous episode. The writer replied: "It is his fate! What can I do?"
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