Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why Killing a Character Can Be Murder on the Author

This favorite is by Andrew Kaufman, bestselling thriller author

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?


  1. Loved this post the first time around and I love it this time, too. I've been sad to see some characters bite the dust, but so far none have made me stop reading an author. However,there are a few characters that are like family to me and if they're killed off my reaction won't be pretty. ;)

  2. When I killed a character in my first novel, I actually went through a period of mourning for her. Good to know I'm not alone.

  3. Yep, a major author killed off one of my favorite characters. I resolved to never read another one of her books--and I haven't. Call me a spoiled brat, but I was outraged. I saw her at an event and asked about it, and she coolly told me it was a tactical choice. Humph.

  4. I feel the same way, Andrew. Author Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and his fans went bananas.

    When Preston and Child murdered Smithback (one of my favorite characters) I was heartbroken, and all through the book I was praying they'd bring him back somehow.

    Now I've had to kill off one of my own beloved characters in my novel-in-progress, and, like you said so well, it ain't easy!

  5. Thanks for your great comments, everyone. It's a slippery slope we take as authors when we make the decision to end a character's life--one not to be taken lightly or made hastily. I think the thing to remember is that shock value has no value and usually will backfire. But when it helps to move a plot forward and seems relevant to the story, that's when we know we've made the right decision--whether we like it or not.


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