When to Off a Character

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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?

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87 thoughts on “When to Off a Character

  1. bethfinke

    I’ve long said that writing can be very therapeutic. Sad to think of how many lives might have been saved if people sat down and wrote through their emotions rather than buying guns online.
    But then there are those who claim that writing and reading about violence (and seeing it on TV and films) leads to copy-catting.
    Hmm. Is “copy-catting” a noun?

  2. procrastin8or

    Usually I have a good idea from the start whom is going to die, not just the character but also when and why. Just tends to work out that way really.

  3. I’m currently writing a web serial where in the beginning I was going to kill a particular character; but glad I didn’t because he is quickly becoming one of the key characters to entire storyline. S

  4. Reblogged this on So Call Me Captain Backfire and commented:
    I was trying to find a good read here in WordPress, and for some odd reason, I just couldn’t find one that interests me enough. (Not that I think the blogs I’ve found are boring. I just wasn’t in the mood to read their entries at that time.) This one pretty much satisfied my inkling for something refreshing and interesting to read this morning. The “Star Wars” reference probably was the cherry on top.

  5. nanashistudios

    I like to create epic lead-ins to death. I really want the death scene to have a serious emotional impact not only on the reader, but the other characters as well. I don’t like cheesy death dialogue. I much prefer the emotional stress of seperation before death, the feeling of not being in control.

    I’ve found that sometimes it’s the characters who are too perfect that need to die, though it’s a struggle doing so because we feel a need to cling to that purity of heart.

  6. nanashistudios

    I agree that a timing for a death is critical. If done to soon it has no impact, too late and its expected. I like to create epic lead-ins to death. I really want the death scene to have a serious emotional impact not only on the reader, but the other characters as well. I don’t like cheesy death dialogue. I much prefer the emotional stress of seperation before death, the feeling of not being in control.

    I’ve found that sometimes it’s the characters who are too perfect that need to die, though it’s a struggle doing so because we feel a need to cling to that purity of heart.

      • nanashistudios

        An epic lead-in would be something like Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings. It’s tragic yet the leading up to it is very emotional and grand. It’s a death scene that really represents all of that characters faults and best attributes at the same time. By the way, sorry for double posting.

  7. In the case of Giles in BtVS, it was a good call. Buffy already saw her mother die suddenly in season 5 — the mother’s illness was already established, so it made sense. I guess when it comes to killing off a character, it’s all in the preparation.

  8. Introducing a character just to kill him/her off is a serious cliche, one popularized by Star Wars as you mentioned. Of course, it was relatively original then. I believe that a character should only be killed off if the flow of the story demands it. There are better ways of generating pathos than deliberately putting characters into life-or-death situations.

    • True, death is certainly the easiest way to up the emotional stakes…which is why I liked Giles leaving.

      What are the other ways you’ve seen authors do it (or have done yourself)?

      • Actually, I did run into a situation like this in one of my own stories. I was at the conclusion and trying to figure out a way to resolve a love triangle of sorts. The story was written in a specific tradition – one known for really tragic endings – so I thought about killing some of the cast. Instead, I went with something more ambiguous. One of the characters – who’d had a lot of personal problems prior to this – abruptly disappears. It’s possible that he’s dead, but there’s also a chance that he just ran away. Either one works since the conclusion is more about how the other characters react to his absence.

  9. thewritingmom

    This was my first time reading your blog and I very much enjoyed this post. Your point about Giles leaving was an especially good one. Thank you for that!

  10. circlecitadel

    I usually consider the fragility of the human body, so for me anything is fair game. From a small mistake in the beginning that snow balls in the background until it finds itself in the characters face to a simple, pathetic strand of “bad luck.”

    • It certainly is therapeutic to write about it!

      I played soccer in middle school and high school. People always told me that if I was angry at someone, imagine their head as the ball. That never worked…I couldn’t actually kick them. But, boy, what I could do with a pen!

  11. If the character resembles a real life person I can’t stand, it makes it that much easier to plan his or her demise. And if you REALLY can’t stand that individual, you want it slow and painful. What better way to show the true mettle of a person than when they’re faced with death: do they go kicking and screaming, or with courage and dignity.

  12. I read an author once who said that he doesn’t kill characters, he just finds them dead, and I think that’s sort of how I write it. I don’t really plan my stories, I just have a scene that I work towards, and then make it up as I go. There was one story I was writing where I suddenly realized that someone had to die, and then I realized who it had to be, and I was pretty well depressed. C’est tragique.

    • I’m trying to be a better planner in my writing…I’ve always had a scene in mind and written toward it. However, I don’t think I’ve ever just found a character dead. It’s always been an “oh, I have to do this” kind of moment.

      I wonder if finding them that way takes the pressure off or is just really startling.

  13. This is very well written and so true. I have often gotten stuck in the editing process because I could not decide how or whether to kill a character. I build these relationships with my characters as I create them and I hate to let go of any of them, even the ones I hate.

  14. allanbramwell

    I’m fairly new to writing and am doing a series short stories challenges. One of the most recent being a story about travelling to a new world where one character dies in stasis and another during the crash landing. I love posts like this! Food for thought, definitely. Also, yay for Buffy references! I loved that series with the very fibre of my being. Just thought I would add that…

    • Ha ha! It was a great series. I should have watched it sooner, but I’m glad I was able to marathon it…not sure I could have dealt with waiting a week between some of those episodes!

      And welcome to writing! It’s triumphant and hand-wringing…often at the same time. Your challenge sounds interesting…hmmm….

      • allanbramwell

        I got the prompts from a website called creative-writing-now .. they call it “30 days of inspiration” 🙂
        It has genuinely inspired me to pick up writing and even share the short stories I have written.
        Now I may have to have a Buffy marathon and it’s entirely your fault. Thanks! 😀

    • Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. J/K You’re absolutely right.

      The more I hate and author for surprising me with a death, the better the story. So, by that test, I suppose I should shoot for being hated.

  15. Every one of my longer works has some kind of death involved, usually to a character who was close and dear to the protagonist(s). I also think that it’s a way to develop the main character, make him/her see things differently. Plus, it’s a great kick-starter for all kind of drama.

    • Death is certainly a great kick-starter.

      I took a step back and looked at my longer works…I’m also killing people left and right. That’s why I started think about alternate ways to up the drama that left my pen a little less bloody.

  16. In my debut novel, i killed off a couple of my favourite characters. I kinda thought that if i make myself go through some of the anguish, i could transfer that to the reader. I feel that a book must engage the reader on an emotional level if possible.

  17. I laughed about the title of this post because I got a message from a friend yesterday, asking if I was going to kill off a character just so she could prepare herself. And then I laughed about the Red Shirt because we’re a houseful of nerds, and I happen to be wearing a red shirt (Novell, not Trek in case you were wondering) at this moment. So, thank you for the chuckles and for your fresh approach to a difficult dilemma. Unless the story is writing itself, it really is hard to know who to kill and why, however therapeutic 😉

  18. Well I guess there is some truth in that statement to ‘kill your darlings.’ I just know that when I write no one, absolutely no one, is safe from death and/or dismemberment. Death is so very final, but like you said not dying can be even more emotionally wrenching. It’s like a really bad break up. Sometimes you do wish they were dead so you could just mourn them and get over it. There is none of the agonizing over who might say or do what should you meet again.

    On the other hand sometimes death, especially of someone close to the main protag, can give readers a sense that things are very serious. Make them think, ‘Well if so-and-so who was a seasoned pro cannot survive this how can our hero.’ That was always kinda my thought with Obi-Wan’s death. True it gave Luke focus and drive but it also showed that in order to defeat Vader he had to go way beyond anything he thought himself capable of.

    I’ve never watched Buffy (please don’t hate me) but I am a fan of Serenity and I think that in the Avengers Mr. Whedon used a death very effectively. When a certain agent is killed by Loki, its a very personal death of someone each hero was close to in some way. His death showed them that individually they could not fight Loki and Loki wanted them to understand that. He was very deliberate about killing that particular agent. It wasn’t the same type of death as Obi Wan’s but it had a similar affect. It was a catalyst.

    Thanks for a really interesting post. Enjoyed it.

  19. The only story I’ve really ever put forth a major effort on involved a female serial killer. Who was gonna die? Pretty much non-essential character to the storyline. The how was much more difficult. I found it hard to find joy in the killing of character after character. I think if I were to rework the novel into a collection of short stories, I would be able to finish each kill and be done. Move on to the next kill and repeat. Maybe even include several of the kills in one story, but 30,000+ words and most of it was her killing people, just got a little tiresome after a while. I had a lot of trouble building the secondary storyline (about the one guy she doesn’t want to kill and ends up pregnant by)… I need to get working on that. LOL

    • Wow, that’s gotta be a hard book to write. But it’s a good thing that you can’t find the joy in all that killing…right?

      A book of short stories sounds like a very interesting way around your problems. I’m curious to know how it turns out.

  20. Very interesting. I loved your post. It was authentic, fresh, and sarcastic in a way. I never eliminated a character yet, but I do agree that it would be a very interesting and tough process. I’m still too young to have written a book or anything like that, however, writing one, would most definately be a dream come true.

  21. I find it quite ironic coming accross your post “When To Off A Character.” I am currently working on my first novel, and I have going back and forth on who to off, when, and so on. I am only on the 4th chapter as of now…and I think I have an idea on the who, what, when, where scenario. After reading your post, I think it is the way I not only want to go, but need to go in order to provide that ‘random twist’ in the book. I thank you very much for lending a helping hand!! I am excited to read more of your posts and intend on following your blogs!!

  22. I really hate to ‘kill off’ any of my characters. For that reason, in my mental rewrites, the character continues to reappear until I think I’ve got it just right and decide what to do with him or her.

  23. i’m not a fiction writer, but i’m an avid fiction reader…and for me, there’s definitely something scary about offing a character. it’s all very final. but necessary, i guess? i would love to learn more about fiction writing so thanks for sharing!

    • A reader’s view is always helpful!

      When you say the deaths are necessary, you don’t sound so convincing. Do you prefer if they live and everything works out? Or if they live and turn their backs on the protagonist? Or, like most things, does it depend?

      • i think it definitely depends. but mostly i think i sounded unconvincing because more often than not, when a character is offed, it has to be a character of enough substance that the readers will miss him/her. that’s the worst part about character deaths, definitely. it’s all very final. and scary! but necessary in most cases, i think, because it’s something that often fuels the protagonist. or the antagonist. or whoever.

  24. Lee A Jackson

    I haven’t killed off many characters before. It has always been a fascinating area though, the extra emotions that would be stirred up, as opposed to just having someone leave. I guess it becomes hard in some circumstances, because I know from a personal point of view that I get really attached to my characters (aren’t they in some way a part of us?). Even characters I have created who have never had their story completed still hang around in my head like old friends, lol. Great post, thank you!

  25. I’m too fond of my characters to off them. It’d be murder, and that I just couldn’t do. Too much angst and guilt having created them and then to bump them off? Doesn’t sit well with me at all. I do like the idea of taking out your anger on your character though–somewhat therapeutic I imagine.
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse

    • Lee A Jackson and cricketmuse, it’s interesting that you two commented to close together. Everyone else (myself included) seems to be killing characters left and right). Good to see that not all authors have such murderous tendencies.

      What’s your secret to ramping up tension?

      • A bowling ball careening down 5th Avenue into a truckload of elephants usually does it. I’m into subtlety. Ha. Sorry long day in a stuffy copier room can whack a brain.
        Hmm, it depends on what I’m writing, but I do appreciate a slow build up as a reader, and tend to do so as a writer. But I do like to throw in the unexpected. Haven’t used the bowling ball and elephants yet, might give it a try. 😉

  26. I was sad when Giles left as well. I thought that since he hadn’t died he would and could, conceivably, be coming back. The series ended and I was in disbelief that he was still not around. It would have been easier if he’d become a vampire.
    Congrats on the FP!
    iRuniBreathe

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