Last month, I posted an article about how people died 100 years ago to help those with historical novels find a way to kill a character. As I mentioned in the post, I wrote a lot of swashbuckling fantasies when I was younger. In a story I wrote in middle school, there was one particular character whom I needed to kill. He was the third wheel in a hero trio. He came in later and was a perfectly nice guy. I needed the other two characters to come together and this guy’s death seemed to be the perfect solution.
This guy, this poor guy. He only died once, but my, oh, my, how many times I killed him. His death was my therapy. If I was angry at school, I’d come home and make his death more violent. If I was feeling depressed, I’d rewrite the mourning scene directly after his death. It was middle school. I rewrote a lot.
I’ve heard that the opening is the most revised piece of a story because that’s the part that the writer sees most often…for this particular story, the death scene was revised to, well, death.
Choosing when a character dies and which one is a tough question that Misty Massey tackles in her month-or-so old blog here.
She’s right about killing someone who matters. At the time, I think I made the best choices I could about who and when. But if I were writing the story now, I would like to think I’d do it differently. If I couldn’t kill someone else in the trio (probably not brave enough), I would have made my guy less of a Red Shirt and more of an influential character.
That said, I think knowing when not to kill a character is just as important. Many stories, including the one Misty Massey references in her post, kill a character to help the main character grow. An obvious example is Obi Wan in Star Wars. If Obi Wan had stuck around, Luke Skywalker wouldn’t have stepped up. I’m not saying killing him was the wrong decision, only that it’s a decision that is almost too easy to make.
This summer my husband and I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series I hadn’t seen in it’s an entirety until then. I love Joss Whedon, the series’ creator. He’s known for taking turns that the audience hates immediately and then ends up cheering a few shows down the line. Whether it’s a killing character, or, in my case, not killing a character.
For those of you who don’t know the series, Buffy kills vampires, demons and other big bads that threaten humanity. Her mentor and teacher (the Obi Wan to her Luke) is Giles the buttoned-down, British school librarian. He becomes the father figure for the whole cast and, apparently, I grew very, very fond of him. Toward the end of the series run, instead of dying to make Buffy/Luke step up by dying, Giles left. Of his own accord. It was a hard decision on everyone, myself included (there was much rending of garments on my side of the screen). Buffy and her friends were all mad at him and sad to see him go.
Imagine what had happened if he had just died? They would have been sad, but then soldiered on. By having the character leave, there was mourning and sadness, yes, but also feelings of betrayal and the thought that maybe he’ll be back and they wouldn’t have to go it alone.
For me that was stronger, more complicated and, ultimately, more satisfying than having the mentor simply poof into thin air at light saber point.
How do you choose who to kill, when to kill or if to kill? Or do your stories not hinge on such life or death matters?