Friday, March 15, 2013

Killing Off a Character

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

I killed my first recurring character recently, and it still haunts me. She wasn't particularly popular, but the manner of her death was shocking. The ending made my beta readers cry for my protagonist, but they said they loved it. And so did my publisher. So I crossed my fingers and let it go to press.

Still, I knew it was a risk. Readers complain loudly when writers kill characters. They post negative reviews and ratings and often claim they'll never read another book by the author. Some even follow through.

Television writers kill characters even more often than novelists do. Have you seen the third season of Downton Abbey? Viewers were infuriated. Or the last season of Grey's Anatomy? Ouch!

Why do authors do it? For several creative reasons and possibly one egocentric rationale. First, the self-centered reason. Literary experts say if you're not willing to kill a character, then you're not a real writer. They say you lack the courage to be realistic and daring. So killing a character is a challenge that many writers feel compelled to experience.

But that's not why I did it. If a character's full story arc has been told, and there is nothing left for that person to do, then killing him or her is essential for the series. It's only fair to readers to cut the dead weight and allow the story arc of other characters to grow and take new paths. Sometimes a death at the end of one story is the best way to set up a new story that begins with an emotional punch. Also, the action in the climax is often so intense that if no one dies, the story doesn’t feel realistic.

Another reason—which TV writers cite as their main motivation—is that killing a character creates uncertainty. Once readers/viewers realize that anyone could die, that quiet dread ratchets up the suspense.

Which is why readers and viewers keep coming back to a series even after someone they love has been dispatched. Many fans will rant and rave, but eventually they'll accept the development and find themselves ready for more. Only now, their anticipation will be greater than ever.

This pattern is probably truer (safer) for television than novels. Book lovers get more attached to their mainstays, and therefore more upset by unexpected deaths. When you kill a recurring fictional character, you will lose some readers forever.

What is the payoff for novelists? The satisfaction of telling the story the way they envision it. The freedom to take the series or protagonist in a new direction. Maybe even more important—the rush of taking a risk and the confidence that comes with surviving it.

So in Rules of Crime, book seven of the Detective Jackson series, I finally killed a character and I made my protagonist suffer for it. So far, most of my faithful readers have supported—even loved—the decision. But not everyone. I just hope the few who are disappointed will come back to find out what happens next. Book eight is written, and I've made the development pay off in an a rewarding way.

What about you? Have you abandoned an author for knocking off a favorite character? Do you give TV writers more slack than novelists? Tell me what you think.


  1. I've never abandoned an author for killing off a character, but I have written a few and asked why. The dominant response was very similar to your reasons.
    One author told me that she cried the whole time she was typing the character's final scene.

  2. Thanks for this analysis, LJ. I was definitely shocked at that character getting killed off, but now I can see your reasons why. And I can't wait to read, in the next Detective Jackson novel, how you've "made the development pay off in a rewarding way"! -- But don't be killing off anyone we've really gotten attached to, like Jackson, his daughter, or Lara Evans! (I know you wouldn't!)

  3. Third attempt to leave a comment. Ugh.

    The character you've killed off only peripherally impacts the major characters, and although in an important way, the loss can only add to some conflict in the future.

    I'm certain my early comments were much more eruidte and worthwhile… but there you have it.

  4. If I'm reading a novel by a favorite writer, I expect to see major change. Part of the anticipation is seeing how much change that writer is willing to go and that included knocking off a known character, good or evil. Well done LJ.

    Pam Stack
    Authors on the Air radio

  5. Well, Conan Doyle had to bring back Holmes - and we're all glad he did. The Castle TV series begins with the premise of a writer killing off his protagonist; there's a poker game with real-life writers (Patterson, Cannell, some others) where they discuss the idea, pros and cons.

    Sometimes characters have to die; sometimes they can move away or retire or leave the scene (series) some other, equally effective way.

    I have stopped reading a series or an author when a character gets killed if I feel the writer took a cheap route - that the events were false or artificial.

    But there are others that got me hooked even more, because the writer's craft-mastery came through.

    It's a hard write, but the criteria, as always, is honesty and craft.

    Thanks for this post, L.J. Gives me a lot to think about. (Usually the case.) (Now how do I get my picture into these comments?)

    1. Thanks for commenting, David. To get your picture to show, update your profile in Blogger and upload an image.

  6. "Do you give TV writers more slack than novelists?" The answer should be yes from everybody--because good TV is almost always more simple-minded than is a good book. A novel is produced--almost always--by a person sitting alone in a room (or, as in the case of my neighbor, alone at a table in Starbucks). TV episodes are written by a committee sitting around a table in the writers' room. The writers collectively gin up 16-22 episodes a season. The material demands little thought on the viewer's part, is ahistorical, and not much dependent on memory. Loyalty occurs among viewers as it does among readers, but in a much less thoughtful way. This is why a character being eliminated in a novel series is a much bigger deal than the equivalent in a TV series. The novel character has weight and meaning in the reader's mind, because the reader has turned print into meaning in his/her own imagination. TV characters are not the product of the viewer's imagination, so the viewer doesn't so fully "own" them.

  7. I'm dreading the writing out of Detective Inspector Richard Poole from the BBC TV Series 'Death in Paradise' during the third season. The actor who plays hum, Ben Miller has decided to leave after two seasons during season three. It;s because season two was developing a story arc between Poole and his Detective Sergeant Camille Bordey and fans were hoping to see that relationship develop. Personally I would prefer it if they *did* kill off Poole rather than send hi back to London as in the story it transpires he was not a popular man but the reasons were because he was being bullied and marginalised by a colleague. Better to die a Hero than be sent back to a bad situation. I think Ben Miller will be in part of season 3, so at least the character won't just disappear. But yes, a lot of emotional investment is placed in a character so it does hurt when they go. But this thing of 'if you don't kill off a main character, you're not a real writer' is nonsense to me as a reader. Yes, they coem and go and can understand when a story arc has to finish, but killing a loved character off for the sake of reputation to me is shallow and pandering to reputation rather than because the story demands it.


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