Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. â€śI canâ€™t believe you killed him!â€ť he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be doneâ€¦ and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.
When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the characterâ€™s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.
Weâ€™ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone youâ€™ve asked the audience to care about.
The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character Iâ€™ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.
I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole wayâ€¦ but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this characterâ€™s death was vital in the overall power of the story.
Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everythingâ€¦ and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you donâ€™t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:Â if it serves to further strengthen the story, do itâ€¦ and if not, donâ€™t.