Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why the Decision to Kill off a Character can be Murder on an Author

By Andrew E. Kaufman

Somewhere during the course of my novels, someone has to die—actually, several people do. That’s just the nature of the beast. My stories revolve around evil-doers, and most will stop at nothing to get what they want. Even murder. And really, what’s a mystery without a body or three?

That’s not to say writing them is easy—it isn’t. For an author, killing off characters is a big responsibility and in some cases, risky business. After all, plotting a novel is one thing—plotting a murder is completely another. It has to make sense, has to fit in with the story, and most importantly, has to move things forward in a logical manner. Kill the wrong character and you could wind up with a real mess on your hands (so to speak). The effects can be catastrophic, throwing everything completely off-balance. I know this because on occasion it’s happened to me, and when it has I’ve had to chuck the entire story and start all over again. Trust me, folks, it's no fun: we're talking pull-your-hair-out-of your-head, gnash-your-teeth-to-powder sort of moments.

Then there’s the emotional side. Like readers, we get attached to our characters, too, probably even more so. For me, they’re like my children. I created them, and sometimes I hate to see them go. So when the story dictates that one of them must die, it can be troublesome, to say the least. I often don’t want to do it. I struggle. That’s when I have to step away from my feelings and remember that it’s all about the story. The good news is that hopefully, if I’m feeling the pain, the reader might, too. Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting it right. Or maybe it’s just a sign that I’ve lost my mind. Not sure which.

And there are other risks, implications which can occur off the page. Killing the wrong character can make readers really angry.

That’s what happened to Karin Slaughter (SPOILER ALERT) a few years back when she ended the life of one of her most beloved characters. It created a huge backlash. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. It got so bad in fact that Slaughter ended up having to post a letter on her website explaining her decision. Not sure whether it made a difference, but as an author I can understand what she went through.

So what about you? Readers: ever been really upset over the death of a character? And authors: What have your experiences been while offing one of your peeps?

Let's chat.


  1. Great post, Drew. I've never been upset to the point of refusing to read any more of the author's work, but I have been upset. A woman was killed off in a series I read. She didn't have a major role in any of the books, but she appeared in all of them and was a wonderful character. I was sad to see her go. I tend to get very involved with characters. Especially when I've read a dozen books that they're a part of.
    I was also sorry to see one of the villains go in the same series. He was nasty to the bone, but he was funny. Kind of like Freddy Krueger. I'm sorry, but the guy had personality and even when I was hating him he made me laugh.
    Not sure if I should have admitted that...

  2. Some of my readers are rooting for my detective protag to hook up with another detective on the task force. Meanwhile he has a girlfriend, who other readers like a lot. Yesterday, my husband jokingly suggested I kill off the girlfriend. Now it's on my mind, but I'm not likely to do it. I only want happy emails coming my way. :)

  3. IIRC, Karin Slaughter's online letter actually made some readers even angrier. They accused her of "disrespecting the readers", (which, for the record, she absolutely did not).

    There has to be some suspense in a series, some sense that the protagonist is up against something deadly. Since you can't kill off your protagonist, a supporting character's death can illustrate the magnitude of the risk.

  4. I write romantic suspense, which has a slightly different slant, and expected conventions. Allison Brennan had a character set up as the hero in one of her early books, and she killed him. I was really shocked (but it's also SO GOOD to know there are no real 'rules.')

    My problems have been in giving secondary characters spouses and children, which have to be dealt with when all of a sudden they demand their own story, given the romance requirements of hero/heroine and the promise of that HEA.

    Terry's Place

  5. Speaking as a reader, I think authors should respect that readers get attached to likeable characters, so try not to bump them off! And if you really feel you must, don't have them tortured or beaten or raped first! Have pity on us! (And don't make us wonder about YOUR character!) Just a quick shot through the temple will do the job, right? Don't forget, readers read for escapism and ENJOYMENT! If an author pisses me off too much, I definitely won't read any more of his/her books!

    Whew! Glad I got that out of my system! Back to my latest very engrossing thriller...

  6. In each of the two manuscripts I'm working on, a strong secondary character gets killed. I liked both of them very much. But their murders helped propel the story and add incentive. And Jody, one of them was tortured (off camera). Sorry, but that's the kind of sicko my bad guy is.

    FWIW, L.J., I'd love to see Evans find an absolutely Over-The-Moon relationship with someone and wonder about her silly little crush on Jackson.

  7. Two instances where a character I loved was killed come to mind (neither of them was a principal character). In both instances, I wrote to the author to comment (NOT complain). I remember that one of them told me it was so hard for her to kill him that she was in tears while she was typing it, to the extent that her husband became worried about her.
    It's still difficult for me when one of my favourite characters dies, but at least I know it's probably difficult for the author, too.

  8. Jodie-the problem is that real life isn't always so benign. Murders is hell and it can typically be very ugly. Our job, although writers of fiction, is to depict life in a realistic manner, make the reader forget she's actually reading. To gloss over the harsh aspects is to present it as a fairy tale. Then we pull our readers out of the story, and then we lose credibility.
    It's why I find cozy mysteries difficult to read. They water down reality to the point where it almost feels cartoonish.

    Of course, I realize this is just me and that opinions vary. I respect that. For some, light suspense is perfectly fine. But from where I stand (remember, I'm a former television journalist) as long as the violence is not gratuitous and has a purpose, it is appropriate.

    Besides, if every book featured a simple gunshot to the temple, I think I'd have to stop reading ;)

  9. Just for our favorite characters, Drew! LOL :-)

    Or maybe I should just stay away from not only horror but also the really hard-hitting, graphic thrillers...? So far I'm okay with my fav thriller and mystery authors, who rarely if ever piss me off, so I guess we all find our tolerance level and reading niche. Vive la difference, as we Canadians say!

  10. In all fairness to you, Jodie, my upcoming psychological thriller has very little violence at all--it just wasn't necessary for the story, so I didn't add any.

    So your point is a valid one. A mystery doesn't have to contain extreme violence in order to be good. It's when an author waters down reality that it can be a problem.

    Also, I think as the gratuitous level rises, so does the nausea factor. It feels cheap when not necessary.

  11. Very good points, Drew! Kind of like throwing in sex when the main characters are hiding out from the killer, who is about to find them any minute - gratuitous and stupid! Keep it real, I say.

  12. Exactly, Jodie! I read a book where a couple was running from al-Qaeda- al-Qaeda!- and stopped behind a jeep to..well, you know. So stupid.

  13. I read that the Game of Thrones author was inspired by a book where the main character was killed off mid-sentence. The battle was so brutal that the poor man's death didn't even warrant an entire sentence.

    While I don't necessarily want to kill my main character off, I do want to create the fear in the reader that no one is safe and that the world the characters are living in is brutal. I'm trying to create a secondary character that gets killed off with very little fanfare but I'm struggling to flesh her out since I know her end.

  14. LJ - take note of Peg's suggestion re Lara Evans of the Detective Jackson series - it's a good one! Either that, or get her more involved with Jackson. Or am I trying to veer your suspense-mysteries in romantic suspense-mystery territory? LOL

    Sorry, Drew - back to your topic! :-)

  15. Ah, Melissa. Maybe I was lucky. With both secondary character murders, I had absolutely no idea they would die. Not until the story told me they had to.

  16. Jodie, regarding L.J.'s series. MY preference is for a really solid suspence with an element of romance. Or not.

  17. Drew, you said it well! Fiction has to be larger than life and credible. We have to build a realistic world as we create our stories. So I agree with your comment: “Our job, although writers of fiction, is to depict life in a realistic manner, make the reader forget she's actually reading.” Our characters tell the story they want to tell and sometimes it can be difficult to kill off a character. But the important thing in writing realistic characters is that even the bad guys may have some redeeming features. That makes them human. My husband, Don Pendleton, the “father of action/adventure,” was very good at that. Sometimes you hated when his bad guys were knocked off. He wrote in his book, 'Metaphysics of the Novel: The Inner Workings of a Novel and a Novelist':
    “If you have villains in your story make sure you have made them powerful and resourceful, not reduced to the idiot level. In real life, the bad guys are highly formidable and dangerous individuals. Real life is full of grim games played by grim people. So should your fictional world be, if that is the type of story you are presenting. Do not indulge in some juvenile misunderstanding of the forces that move and shake this world. Some people are dangerous, not because a gun is in their hand, but because something cold and deadly is in their hearts. So make sure you are presenting a credible world with the world of your novel.”

    After all, we are writing about the human situation, no matter what predicaments we place our characters in. Life itself presents challenges, drama, pain, joy, grief, wonder, and more, and a successful novelist is called upon to examine and develop deeper insights into the moving forces that power creativity. Writing is an art, and it is up to the artist to produce a living image of reality.

    The author is in charge of his own fictional world, and that fictional world needs to be understandable, coherent, and credible. But it is our own story to create, and not everybody may like it. And that is just fine.

  18. As a reader, I can understand the emotional connection that is developed for a character. As I read mostly horror fiction, when I come across a character I really, really like, I often skip to the end, not necessarily to read the ending, but to skim the last chapter to see if that character's name is mentioned. If it isn't, I know not to get too attached beyond the point where I am at because I know he/she isn't going to survive until the end.

    However, as I writer, I relish killing off characters, and I do it without batting an eye. In a recently published short story, I wanted so much to kill off the main character, but under advisement of some published authors who warmed be against it, I changed the ending. I made it ambiguous, letting the reader decide if he lived or died. I wasn't happy with it, but after explaining the original ending to some people who had read it, they said they preferred the ending as it was published, much to my dismay. In the novel manuscript I am working on (second draft), I already know the main character is going to die, and there's no talking me out of it. She jumps the gun, makes some bad decisions based on just a bit of information, and she needs to pay the ultimate price. In fact, only three characters make it to the end.

  19. Linda and Nissie, you both bring up an interesting and valid point. Readers can and do end up identifying with the villain in a story. And quite frankly, authors who make us do that are, in my opinion, at the top of their game. It's no easy task, but when done properly, it brings the story up to a whole new level.

    It's all about layers of complexity and inner conflict. Think about Hannibal Lecter: there's no question he's as repugnant and dangerous as they come, and yet we are strangely drawn to his unique yet peculiar brand of charm. We don't want to like him, we know we shouldn't, and yet, on some level, we do. It's the Villain we Love to Hate Syndrome and when done well, is literary genius at its finest.

  20. I guess I just assumed that the author was killing off a character because she/he had to -- about the only time I get upset is if the series (especially a good series) is doing this to end the series! ...then I have to wait for the author to start a new series and THAT does bother me but not enough to make me stop reading things by an author I like!

  21. Drew, Just thinking of Hannibal Lector gives me the chills. LOL But you are right, it is literary genius to dig that deep into all aspects of a character.

    Woofer, that is difficult to decide to kill off your main character as said earlier, but I would suppose sometimes the story calls for that.

  22. I've had hatemail due to the ending of one of my books, but I subscribe to the George R R Martin school of thought. Not one character is so big that they can't die. Where's the realism in that? A powerful story follows the course it takes, even if that means that people we love die.


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