Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How will­ing are you to kill your char­ac­ters if the plot so demands it?

I’m extremely serious when it comes to character death.

When a reader picks up my story, I feel like I enter into a contract with that reader. In exchange for their time and attention, I will provide them with a satisfying experience. These satisfying experiences come directly from my characters and the situations they’re in. By killing a character, I kill an opportunity to transmit certain experiences to the reader, and if this is sloppily done, the reader will be unsatisfied, the contract will be void, and they are free to stop reading.

There is almost always a better method to transfer an idea to the reader than killing a character. The sense of loss can be felt through interrupted relationships, injury, separation, missed opportunity, mistrust, and denial. The sense of futility can be felt though powerlessness, destruction, restriction, and oppression. If I kill a character when there’s a different, possibly better way to get the same reaction from the reader, then I will consider myself a failure if I chose the easy way out.

Because "the easy way out" is usually what character death is. If I get a character deep into a heaping pile of stinky poo, then it’s my responsibility as an author to see them through to the end. The audience has pledged me their trust, and if I let the character die, I let the audience die, and no one wants to feel that kind of betrayal.

Exceptions do not exist; however, character death can be a useful tool. I reserve death almost exclusively for side characters who are used as a catalyst for the main character’s action. The death of a main character can be useful in certain stories, but my personal preference is to save that for short stories, where the reader doesn’t have to devote as much time and emotional investment.

It’s tricky and, in my opinion, extremely easy to screw up. My question ultimately is this: Why kill a character when there’s so many options worse than death?

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