Sunday, March 17, 2013

To kill off or not to kill off: Some thoughts on killing off a character

I was several years into writing my first novel, a spy thriller, when I had a sudden revelation. If I changed the nationality of a beloved character, I could breathe new life into him. Let me give you an example. In my novel, "Spy Island", the protagonist, a girl named Abigail, is compelled to cross the Caribbean Sea by steamer during WWI to live with her spinster aunt. On the journey, she strikes up a friendship with her room steward, a plucky Venezuelan named José whose character is vital because he teaches Abigail all about the nature of German spies and how she can protect herself from catastrophe. In so doing, José awakens in Abigail an innate love of adventure and intrigue that drives the story forward.

Yet something about José's character remained flat; I couldn't make him dance off the pages. He was nice and everything, but not memorable. And then I had the afore-mentioned revelation. If I turned José into Ian, an Irish sailor, I could incorporate those witty Irish expressions and that unmistakable Irish sense of humor that wraps around you like a Shamrock wool blanket. I recall wrinkling my brow at the notion. Could I do that? I asked myself. Could I just wave my pen and turn José from Maracaibo into an Irishman? Well, I did. And all at once, José took on a whole new life. As Ian, his Irish red hair burned the pages of my manuscript. His Cheshire cat grin, his twinkling eyes, his Gaelic sense of humor and manner of speaking, and his vulnerability captivated my Writing Class. And now we come to the "killing off part". Out of a sense of duty and patriotism, Ian stalks a wanted German spy and turns up dead—a corpse lying in a pool of blood—on the boat deck.

Could this be Ian McShane, our intrepid Irish sailor/amateur sleuth?
The ladies in my Writing Group bristled at the notion. They demanded a rewrite. "But it's crucial to the development of my story," I argued. "If Ian doesn't die, Abigail has no reason to hunt down German spies."  They shook their heads. "Change it!" they demanded. Again my brow wrinkled. Change it? And so, pen in hand, I kept the ominous pool of blood but removed the corpse. The ladies were satisfied. But the question remains. When is it appropriate to kill off a character?

In Peter Benchley's "Jaws", the death of the beautiful, young Chrissie, is the inciting incident for the entire novel. Her death and the subsequent death of a schoolboy are what arouse the feelings of horror and revenge in the protagonist. Likewise, in Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay, the tenuous fate of little boy locked up in the closet gives his sister a vital purpose. She must escape in order to save him. Other times, the death of a character gives a novel a natural ending. Think "Rainwater" by Sandra Brown, "Sunflowers" by Sheramy Bundrick, and "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy. In these cases, the death of a main character signals either a peaceful closure or an ignoble ending.

According to Codey Amprim in Killing off Characters-Knowing When to Drop the Guillotine, there are three conditions to killing off a character:

1) Moving the plot forward. There must be a valid reason for killing off the character and not just as a convenient way of removing him from the story. Make sure a valid outcome arises from his death.
2) Are you killing the character merely for dramatic purposes? Are you trying to shock or frighten your reader like in a horror novel, or does his death enhance or improve the story?
3) Before killing off the character, consider the bond between you, the character and the audience. According to Amprim, some writers become so attached to their characters that they make sure their life is like an aspirin commercial: they're always bundled before they go out and their insurance premiums are always paid. In certain cases, that is a form of torture to the reader because they read to vicariously experience danger through those characters. There are valid and appropriate reasons for killing off certain characters, but withholding the axe may hurt more.
In the final analysis, killing off a character finishes off that part of the story. If his death doesn't cause an unnatural break in the narrative flow or doesn't leave gaping holes in the plot, readers will generally forgive you. But tread carefully. In the words of one blogger, make sure his death doesn't make them want to throw your book across the room.
Writers and Readers:  Let me know what you think.  Did you ever get furious when a beloved character in a favorite novel was killed off?



  1. Hi Sophie ... your post makes me think of my character, Ann Jamieson, in Unravelled. In my first version of the story, Ann dies on the way to her second wedding, just like my own grandmother did. A young woman with a degree in English Lit read the novel and told me in no uncertain terms "SHE CAN'T DIE. YOU CAN'T LET ANN DIE." She said the reader has too much invested in her to see her die. So, Ann is still alive at the end of Unravelled.

    1. That depends. Sometimes there is a certain poetic beauty in the timing of one's death. Isn't that what prompted you to write her story in the first place?

  2. Interesting! I killed off a character in my first book, much to the chagrin of my writer's critique group.
    There was a reason for it, however, but I have to admit part of it was for the shock value.

  3. Hi Marla,
    Are you referring to "She's Not There"? If so, a body or two in a suspense novel is practically de rigeur and definitely builds up suspense! And based on the overwhelming positive reviews your book is generating, it seems you're doing something right! Kudos!