It’s a beautiful autumn day, with clear skies and a light breeze. The chores of the week begin tomorrow, so today I will sit in a Starbucks. I’ll have an egg and some coffee. It’s Sunday, a holy day. A writing day.
A perfect day to talk about killing characters.
Kill Your Darlings?
Before talking about the wholesale slaughter of your fictional people, I want to disambiguate the idea of killing characters from “kill your darlings.”
When you hear the advice “kill your darlings,” they are not necessarily talking about killing characters. A “darling” in this case is any part of the story the writer loves that does not service the story. This can be anything, from a scene that goes nowhere, to a block of text representing the author’s research, to a chunk of dialog that carries no emotional weight. It can be a character which adds bloat and no substance.
If you are told to kill your darlings, that does not mean to take your favorite character in your story and put them to death. That’s a quick way for a writer to begin hating their story.
On Killing — The George R. R. Martin Section
As soon as I mentioned killing characters, I bet you started thinking of a writer like George R. R. Martin. He has a reputation for slaughtering his imaginary people, carving through them and blotting the page with their inky black blood.
What if I were to tell you that George Martin doesn’t actually kill that many characters? What if I were to tell you that a different George — George Lucas — has killed way more characters on the page than George Martin? That’s a bold statement, and I’m ready to back it up.
When Luke put away the targeting computer and used the Force to destroy the first Death Star, in one stroke, George Lucas slaughtered way more characters than George Martin. Do you know how many people it would take to operate such a space station? Hundreds of thousands, probably. Maybe millions. And that’s a fraction of the number of people killed when Alderaan was destroyed.
The reason we think of George Martin instead of George Lucas when it comes to killing characters is because we don’t care about most of the people Lucas annihilated. These nameless billions are consigned to their fate, and we forget about them almost as quickly as they were destroyed.
We think of George Martin because we care about all of those he killed. Martin takes the time to build empathy between the reader and the characters. Once we have an emotional connection, the character is elevated from the page and begins to live in our hearts and minds. When they’re killed, it’s like a part of us dies with them. It’s painful, memorable, and emotional.
I’ll quit talking about George Martin now, and instead link a video that does a much better job of explaining Martin’s craft:
When to Kill a Character
Characters are story. They are the fuel that keeps the narrative going. They are the channel through which the reader finds an emotional connection. Characters operate as a vehicle by which the reader is transported to a fantastical world, and sometimes, the vehicle runs out of fuel. What do you do, then?
Let’s look at Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He’s set up as the big bad villain in the previous movie, a mentor to our tragic antagonist, Kylo Ren. So what happens when the grooming is finished, and it’s time for Kylo to chop down his mentor and take his rightful place at the head of The First Order? It’s time for Snoke to die.
The Last Jedi gets criticized for the way it handles Snoke — it gets criticized for a lot of things — but I think Snoke was handled perfectly. As story fuel, he was there to spur on our real antagonist, Kylo Ren. There is no relationship between Snoke and our main protagonist, Ray. Snoke is scarred and scary and talks funny, but that’s all he is. Ray and Kylo, on the other hand, have a relationship. It’s been built up and has many facets. In the second movie of our third trilogy, it’s not time for either Ray or Kylo to die, which means there’s no more room in the story for a character like Snoke.
When Snoke is killed, we have an emotional reaction, and not because we know him. It’s because we’ve been getting to know Kylo, the one doing the killing. We feel something because Kylo feels something, and we’re on board.
All of that was to say that when a character no longer serves the story, it is time to remove them. Sometimes this means retiring them, taking them off screen for the remainder of the narrative. Sometimes it means killing them, providing an emotional reaction to the characters, which in turn provides an emotional reaction to the reader.
Killing Characters — Emotional Distance
It is important for the writer to consider the effects and the intention when a character dies. When you kill a character, it’s like setting off an explosive. The distance between the reader and the character is important, so measure the distance before you set it off.
For example, imagine a character like John Wick moving through a scene, squeezing his trigger and dropping nameless thugs while moving through an office building. It’s intense, and we care about John Wick, but we don’t really care about Nameless Thug27, even when Nameless Thug27 has the back of his head blown out in a fine red mist.
There’s enough emotional distance between us and the thugs that the explosion doesn’t impact us. We see it, and we move on, riding along with John Wick, hoping our hero doesn’t get too hurt even as he’s doing all this gun murder.
Now imagine John Wick slowly creeping up on a pair of guards he needs to get past. Before John rounds the corner and fires his weapon, we get the following dialog:
“Bill, did you catch the game last night?”
“Couldn’t. With money stretched so thin, Vanessa and I had to sell the TV. Money’s been so tight lately, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to make our mortgage this month. Plus with the kids in school–“
* BLAM *
* BLAM *
John just killed these two guards, and it’s completely different because the emotional distance between the reader and the murdered characters has been closed. It only took one line of dialog, and now we’re having a harder time rooting for our protagonist. We’re forced to contend with the monstrosity of his actions.
Killing Characters — The Death Toll
We can get behind John Wick killing characters, even when the emotional distance is short between us and John’s victims. John is properly motivated and acknowledges on some level what kind of monster he is. That doesn’t hold true for all characters.
For example, if you replace John Wick with Batman, things go off the rails. It’s not because Batman doesn’t have the skills. It’s because a core aspect of his character, the line he draws that keeps him from being as bad as the rest of his rogue’s gallery, is that Batman does not kill. You can write a compelling story about Batman killing, but you have to do the work. You have to pay attention to the toll on the character and how it affects them.
If you’re writing a YA, and your teenage protagonist just kills someone, accidentally or intentionally, you might want to spend some time dealing with that kind of trauma. Maybe they’re despondent. Maybe they feel a thrill like they’ve never felt before. It’s possible they feel nothing, but then you have to do the work to make the reader care about following a psychopath.
I thought I’d be killing a character in my current work in progress around the same time I’m writing this post. I’m a little bit behind on that story, but even if I were keeping up, I’m not so sure I’m going to kill that character after all. Considering all the things I’ve already talked about, I’m not sure killing this character is actually a good idea.
Some stories are not well served by setting off the explosion that is a character death. It can be a cheap, momentary punch to the reader’s gut, which can leave the reader resenting you for the unexpected pain. It can be a motivation for the characters in your story, but then you’re skating close to the problem of fridging.
Whatever you do in your story, you should do it with intention. This includes killing characters. Know what you’re doing when you put a character to death, and consider the effects it will have on the remaining characters as well as the reader.