Killing Characters – Finding the Balance

Today’s entry has been brought to you by the PSP game, Corpse Party. I’ll cover it specifically in a future entry, but, for the moment, it has made me want to talk about character death. SPOILERS FOR FULL METAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD AND THE MANGA FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Character death (hereafter referring to the death of major characters) is a somewhat contentious matter in fiction. For every amazing and memorable death out there, there are many that are derided and loathed for their relative pointlessness and the attempts to create false drama. Kill characters and you end up with people complaining that you’re kill happy or dropping the story together, spare them and you get people accusing you of being a softie or unrealistic.

You really can’t win!

So, what is a budding writer to do?

Well, I personally? Fall in the camp of avoiding character death whenever possible. I like my characters. I expect my readers to like them as well. So it is… well… sad to think about killing my characters. If it isn’t necessary, I don’t see a reason to just whack someone to prove that my story is serious. And I like happy endings.

In general, though, I think the answer is somewhere between the two extremes. I mean, let’s be honest. Much as I like to avoid character death, there are simply times where it is appropriate or it works for the narrative. Full Metal Alchemist, for example, really benefitted from the death of Maes Hughes. Much as it was a cheap emotional gut punch (was it EVER cheap) it did a lot to shape future events and resonated throughout the remainder of the story. The deaths of Fu and Buccaneer against Bradley, while not key plot points, were crowning achievements for them and served to both justify how dangerous Bradley was, as well as set-up his eventual defeat.

The problem, I find, is just that high death counts tend to not really create suspense; you don’t really wonder “Will character X survive?” so much as you start to wonder “WHEN will character x die?” Although a relatively minor distinction, it really changes the way your readers (or players or viewers or listeners) approach your characters. Rather than becoming invested and being fearful that a favored character is going to get killed, they instead avoid the connection, because they assume that the character will die.

Not to say of course they won’t still be interested or keep reading, of course. There have been many excellent and well-loved kill happy things out there. It is just that they won’t connect to the characters in the same way because of the anticipation of their deaths.

This is why I tend to think that the sparing, big deal deaths tend to work a little bit better than the incidental, such-is-life style kills. Killing some like Maes Hughes is a notable act that stands out in the series but is also fairly clear that it won’t be replicated. Probably. I mean, surely she wouldn’t kill another character off like that. I’m pretty sure.

You get the idea, right? Sporadic deaths are more effective at generating suspense (as well as shock) when they occur because, once it happens, the seed of doubt is planted in your head. You don’t think they’ll kill off another major character, but there will always be that bit of niggling doubt saying “But it could happen!”

Ultimately, though, despite my personal preferences and thoughts on what the best way to handle character death are, there isn’t really any right answer on how to handle the question of character death. No matter what you do, some portion of your audience is going to hate you for killing their favorite character, killing too many characters, or not killing someone that should have died. So, realistically, the best you can do is treat character death like any other tool and just use it where appropriate.

Useful advice, right?

Well, in all seriousness, it is the best you can do. Is your work a generally light-hearted, high-adventure type story? Then killing someone off through mundane means in a random manner is probably not the right course of action. If you’re writing a gritty war story, having everyone make it out all right probably isn’t the right answer either.

The trick is to not worry about the portion of your audience that you’re going to annoy by killing off a character and instead focus on making sure you’re using death in the right way. Done correctly, the death of a character – even a fan favorite – will be memorable and emotional. Do it the wrong way and you’ll have people dropping your book out of disgust (I’m looking at YOU Death Note).

Oh. And one last piece of advice: never drop a bridge on them. Ever.

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  1. #1 by Adam on May 17, 2012 - 10:25 pm

    You say that there really isn’t an answer to when to kill a character, but I think you gave the best answer in your post when talking about Full Metal Alchemist. If the death of a character works to advance the overall story, then it’s the right move. Killing a character just because you can is absolutely the wrong move.

    The best example of this is probably George RR Martin. In his Song of Ice and Fire (especially the earlier books) there are quite a few character deaths, many of them very shocking, but they all work within the framework of the story.

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