On April 16, 2010, Ezmirelda wrote, How do you kill a character you've become attached to? If the plot needs for a certain character to die how do you do it? Have you ever done it before?
I’ve killed characters, but not many. The mother dies early on in Ella Enchanted and in The Princess Test, and Dave’s father dies at the beginning of Dave at Night. A few characters bite the dust in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I won’t say which ones for those who haven’t read the book. I’ve even knocked off a few fairies, tra la, in the Disney Fairies series.
Getting very serious - briefly - people I love have died, real people. I’m sure many of you have lost loved ones too. My father died when I was thirty-eight, my mother when I was thirty-nine. Their deaths were a long time ago; I’m sixty-two now. But I still miss them and think of them often. A situation arises, and I imagine what my father would make of it. In a group of people, it often seems to me I’m observing through my mother’s eyes. Sometimes I picture their astonishment at the technological miracles that have come along since their deaths. The frustration of course is that I can guess what they might say and do; I make them characters in my internal narrative, but I can never be sure if I’m correct. Their absence in flesh and blood will remain sad forever.
If you’re feeling pain at the prospect of killing a character you love, I hope you’ll take comfort. When characters die, they’re not fully dead. I - or you - can bring the dead back to life in imagination. I can make up a new flashback or write out future scenes as if the character hadn’t died. Take Ella’s mother, for example, I could write her first meeting with Ella’s father, Sir Peter. Maybe she’s heard rumors about him. People say he’s dangerous, so she’s curious. Before the ball where he is to be, she dresses with particular care, to Mandy’s dismay. They dance, and she finds the courage to flirt. She tells him about her day, her family, secrets she’s kept for years. His eyes never leave her face. He smiles and compliments her. She hasn’t lost her sense of humor, so she tells herself that this is ridiculous and happening too quickly. Alarms are going off, but she’s taken in anyway. If I like, I can write what she says and how he answers.
Or I can jump ahead and bring the mother back for Ella’s wedding. The reader can see her joy at her daughter happiness. And so on.
You honor your beloved dead character by making the reader love him too. Don’t hold back on giving him qualities you adore, and go easy on the faults. In Dave at Night, I made Dave’s father pretty saintly, so the reader would feel Dave’s grief. You can make the character’s faults endearing ones. Even a villain can be lovable if you make the reader understand the villainy and see where it comes from. It is fine to do in a character for plot reasons, but make the death resonate if this is an important character. What we don’t want to do is rush the death to reduce our own pain. Death is an occasion for wallowing.
You can soothe your pain by keeping the dead character in the reader’s memory. I hate when an author forgets to do this. The character dies; the story is sad for ten pages, and then the character is hardly mentioned again. The consequence is that the living characters who appear to have forgotten the dead one come off as unfeeling. I’ve seen this in thrillers. In the first chapter the hero’s wife is killed. He sets off to avenge her death, which is the whole reason for the book, but the adventure takes over and he stops thinking of her. And I think, How crummy is this! If you go the other way and have the character remembered, whoever is doing the remembering becomes more sympathetic, generally a benefit.
The treatment of a character’s death is masterful in A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I read it a long time ago, so I just read a plot summary and almost cried. If you haven’t read the book, it is marvelous.
Guilt often accompanies death. For example, the sole survivor of a car crash is likely to be burdened with guilt, even if he wasn’t driving. He may play out in his mind many scenarios that don’t end in an accident. If I’d done this, said that, he may think, we wouldn’t even have gotten in the car. If I hadn’t turned on the radio... If I had stopped her from answering her cell phone... When you build in guilt, you make the death more believable.
I’ve been a little prescriptive in saying how to treat a death. Each story is different, and you may need to handle it differently. You may have a main character who can’t deal with sadness and deliberately buries the feelings. Disconnection from feeling may keep the dead character in mind as effectively as wallowing. Oh, we think as we read, he’s being callous because he’s in pain. Why pain? Oh, yes, because Juliette died.
Or you may find another approach that works.
Another option, naturally, is not to kill off the character. You may be able to get rid of him without an actual death. Sometimes a character has to die. You feel it as you’re writing. But sometimes there are other options. He can move away. He and your main character can argue irreconcilably and separate forever. He can live, but he’s in a coma and no one knows if he’ll ever recover. It’s worth thinking about why you want to kill him and why you’re hesitating. If you let him live, you can bring him back into the story later on.
Ever, my Mesopotamian fantasy, could have been a tragedy. Initially, I thought it would be, but I couldn’t go that way, so I steered the story in another direction. Tragedy was too bleak for my temperament. Someday this may change.
As for how my characters have died, I’ve used disease, incineration, a fall, disbelief (in the case of one of the Never fairies), battle, even overeating, and maybe I’m leaving out a few. No murder and no humans killing humans even in battle. In fact, I haven’t staged any battles between peoples, only people against monsters. So far I haven’t had the stomach for it, but that may change, too.
I haven’t treated any of the deaths clinically, but there are resources that can help you get inside dying. For one of my books, won’t say which, I needed to know about poisons and their effects, and I found plenty online. Just now I googled “how to write a death scene,” and many entries popped up. I also found a book series called Howdunit, which is for mystery writers but which would probably have other writing uses.
Here are three deadly prompts:
• Your main character’s best friend died of a rare cancer a year ago. Write notes about the impact this might be having on her. Write a scene showing these effects. Write a session between her and a grief counselor.
• Think about killing off a character in a story you’re working on. Consider which character might die and what the consequences would be for your story. Write notes about this. Write the death scene. (You don’t have to really use it.)
• This may not be to everyone’s taste - this entire post may not be - but for the lighter side of death, write from the vantage point of a happy arch villain who is joyously plotting a murder. Get inside her, the more gruesome you can be, the better. Make the character she is planning to kill a great humanitarian whose death will be an enormous loss for all mankind.
Have fun, and save what you write!