Death and New Beginnings
Yeah, serious subject line. But it is a new(ish) year and we all need to climb back on the horse right? Push through to the end, get this project finished (whatever it is you’re working on) I only bring this up in relation to what I’ve been reading recently.
Now I’m not going to throw any spoilers around regarding what it is I’m reading or who I’m talking about, but I was just happily reading along when one of the characters got killed. And I didn’t like that. Not one bit. It wasn’t a main character or anything, but the fact that she got killed, and how it ‘just happened’ threw me for a loop. I guess it’s a success on the authors part that I came to care about the character enough to feel hurt and betrayed that she got offed. It wasn’t exactly a ratings grabber either. Not the kind of ‘shock killing’ that shows like 24 and Spooks are so fond of. It wasn’t a cheap death. But it got me thinking about the subject.
Now I’ve developed a bit of a reputation amongst my non-writerly friends as someone who gets a little slash happy when it comes to my characters. Which is actually very unlike me. Because I do get attached to characters and while I am willing to put them through several degrees of torture, I’m reluctant to kill them off. To the degree I will bring them back from the dead if possible. I should start writing comics.
I guess I shouldn’t use the term ‘shock killing’. Because any time a character gets killed should be a shock. As I said above, shows like 24 seems to have an almost sadistic disrespect for the value of human life. People get killed left right and centre all to drag the plot out, in increasingly contrived ways. Don’t get me wrong, I love 24, but when death is treated as a plot device it loses impact. I do think Spooks handles it a little better, at least in the early season’s, before it became an ‘how do we kill off the main character spectacularly’ competition. Cheap Death is something that should be avoided altogether.
I had this kind of experience when I was throwing around ideas with myself about something I’m working on. It was just an offhand idea about killing one of my characters and the method. Like I say, just idle speculation. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And it wasn’t a cheap death either, or something to move the plot along, it’s just the characters were in this situation, and it unfolded in a particular way and it just made sense. And I was shocked by this. Not so much because I’d grown attached to the character, and didn’t want to see this person die, but more because I felt the impact that this death would have, and the affect it might have on the reader.
If you’re like me, and you write ‘big’ things (sci-fi in my case) where character death is likely (I’m not talking about crime thrillers here, where death is absolutely necessary) then fine-tuning death mechanics is a skill that needs to be practiced. I’ll admit, I write different types of sci-fi, but the situations tend to be the same, the characters are in a near constant state of high peril. Of course, the most necessary element here is – if you’re going to kill a character off – then make it matter to the reader. There are other occasions (aside from the one I mentioned above) where a character has been killed, and it’s had an impact on me. And this is, I think, the biggest failure of 24. Because we don’t really care about the characters. When they die it isn’t a surprise, and even if it is, it loses the impact.
I’ve never really thought about it in terms of my own writing, because like I say, I’m very reluctant to kill characters off. The point I guess I’m trying to make is to create characters that you care about, or more importantly that the reader will care about, and see how it feels to kill them off. Because if killing them off doesn’t have that much of an impact, then the character isn’t successful, right? I guess the only exception to this rule is if the character is deliberately bad (I am hesitant to use the word evil) and their death is cathartic.
Just whatever you do, don’t make the character an annoying f***wit, because honestly, those guys can’t die quick enough for my liking.