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Character Deaths

How important is it that authors "kill off" some of their most beloved characters? I know you don't have to, but there are some instances when you really should - not for shock value or just because.

For example, there are two instances that rather bother me because the author stated that they just "couldn't" kill them because they loved them too much.

One is from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix JK Rowling stated that she couldn't let
Arthur Weasley
die because she loved him too much. The other is from the Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn. Stephanie Meyer couldn't bring herself
to kill any of the Cullens, so there is a big build up for a battle that never takes place
and because the deaths of these characters didn't occur, I didn't feel very satisfied by how it all ended (more with Twilight than OOTP).

So should we be able, as an author, to kill off our most treasured characters no matter how much we love them and no matter how much it may "devastate" the reader? Do any of you have a problem or inability to kill off some of your main characters?
 
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Ravana

Istar
There are two reasons one might find killing a character desirable: (1) it is appropriate to the story, or (2) you don't want to ever be obliged to use that character again. History suggests that (2) doesn't actually work worth a damn–if that's the only reason you did it, your readers will pester you endlessly until you find a way to bring the character back (or, worse, others will start writing their own stories using the character). So don't bother, unless it's for reason (1)… and if that's why you do it, stick to your guns. Sometimes, "And they lived happily ever after" just doesn't work.

(Note that there are equivalent methods of wrapping things up that don't necessarily involve death, but which have the same effect. I'm sure we all felt confident we'd never see the words "Oh, look! An elven ship! And there's Frodo at the bow!" show up in any work we'd've taken seriously.)
 
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Legerdemain

Troubadour
I agree with Ravana regarding the obligation reason. If you want an example of characters that don't stay dead, look at comics, where Superman stayed dead for 3 months, and the significant death involving the second Robin getting killed (as voted on by readers mind you) only lasted for about 15 years... and then, after years of pressure, they bring him back. They killed him because fans hated him and writers hated writing him... but he still came back.

Books and stories offer more cushion from the fan backlash, but I don't know how many of my friend would try to get me to read fan fiction where "What if?" this character's parents did or did not die, or whatever... like if Harry Potter's dad was actually secretly alive as a deatheater or whatever.

I kill people in my stories, but only when I write the story with that character's death being a part. I would never start writing a character without their whole life, including death, in mind.
 
I think that it is important to maintain a certain sense of reality where your characters are concerned. If your characters repeatedly go on adventure after adventure with no more than a few cuts and bruises, a certain unbelievability sets in, at least it does for me. Quite simply no one is as good, or as much of a badass as we like to think our characters are. There is always someone of equal or greater skill, and at that point the price must be paid. Obviously part of writing is the suspension of disbelief, but that only goes so far. (Again, in my own reading experiences).

You have to let your characters (Assuming they are human) be human. And that includes the distinct possibility of death, maiming, psychological scarring, and all the other horrible things we do to our creations. My personal opinion is that my characters are not guaranteed to make it through the story just because I'm telling it through their eyes. I can always find another set of eyes if the story requires them to die. Is it messy? Absolutely. But my opinion is that it adds realism. We all watch movies and read books blithely assuming that the hero will survive because they are the main character. That is what books and movies have conditioned us to believe. In real life there are no guarantees, and I try to make my writing reflect that.
 

Seth

New Member
I think the bigger problem with killing off characters isn't how you as the author feel about them, but how readers may feel about it. Many readers enjoy books because of the characters in them, not the events described - and having a character you come to identify with and enjoy killed off can really turn one away from the story.
 

Behelit

Troubadour
Many good points have been made. Each time I come up with an idea just from looking at the OP I then realize someone has already posted it.

My simple thoughts are that death is ALWAYS an option. I don't think you must kill off any of your characters, I don't necessarily suggest it either. Be able to convince yourself and the reader that it is important to the story.

One thing I personally can't stand in any story is death teasing. If you're gonna kill off a character, leave them alone, do not bring them back. I find it VERY.... tacky, for lack of a better word.
 

Fodwocket

Minstrel
I agree with Donny about it coming down to a sense of realism, and I'd go further by saying that if no one ever dies, you're taking away some of the intensity of your story. If no one dies, if you know no one will die, the story can lose that edge of the seat feeling that can make it really great. And while character deaths can be really sad, if done well, happening as a natural part of the storyline rather than being forced, then readers will usually accept it. I've lost some of my favourite characters in books, but I'd rather this happen than their lives be cheapened to some unrealistic 'everything will be okay' version of events.
 

ZealPropht

Dreamer
Of course, it should go without saying that killing off characters willy-nilly makes it so that a reader fears to get attached to anyone because they might die at any second. As has already been said, character death should happen when appropriate and for good reason. An author shouldn't be afraid to kill their "children", as it were, if it's for the sake of the story, regardless how much an author likes that character.
 

Labochur

Acolyte
I recently had a discussion with a very upset Aunt of mine. I had given her a copy of the "novel" I had written. In my story my MC is at a mage academy. He ends up becoming apprentice to a mage master and after a series of events the Mage Master is killed. The MC is blamed for his death causing the MC to flee for his life.
My Aunt was upset that I had killed the Mage Master off, she couldn't understand why I did it. I responded with a very simple answer. "I had to"
I did not see any other way for the story to progress from that point. I needed the MC to be chased away from the Mage Academy and try as I might I could not find a way around it other than having his Master die. It had to be something so severe that the punishment would be severe. For me the only thing that would cause the MC to flee would be if he was accused of killing his Master and was therefore sentenced to jail etc.
So in answer to your question, there are times when you will need to kill characters off, you may not want, but it may be necessary. I hope this helps.
 
These are all excellent points. Thanks guys. Only real reason I was asking was because my novel has seemed to taken on a life of its own and some of my characters are behaving in ways I never intended them to, but it completely works and I like the direction its taking. But also because of these unexpected character developments, it's leading to the deaths of some of my favorite characters and I was just curious if anyone else had a hard time killing them (when necessary). I don't like "oh by the way they died" writings like some authors I've read.....like they were some sort of after thought and they didn't create an endgame for them.
 
I can completely sympathize with your characters not behaving the way you want them to. I remember writing a chapter for one of my POV characters in my f=big fantasy project, and she was supposed to be more or less going along with what was happening, until she decided to bite someone and threw my entire outline out the window. *sigh* darn demon-possessed priestesses. They never act appropriately in public.
 

Chilari

Staff
Moderator
I find it really difficult to kill of my favourite characters in stories, and sometimes deliberately create a character in order that he or she can be killed at a particular stage in the story, partly for reaslism - if there's a battle scene, and realistically someone would get killed, I need a character who can be killed, and nameless soldier #17 seems cheap to me. Battle scenes in which all "good guys" are significant characters make this even harder, particularly if the "good guys" are outnumbered or outgunned, so realistically speaking someone has to die and some characters being injured in non-life threatening ways also demonstrates the gravity of the situation.

But yes, appropriateness to the story is important too. If you need something pivotal, a death is a good way of changing the direction of the story for one or more characters. In real life, death affects everyone differently, and stories should be no different. Even if a character didn't know the deceased that well, or at all, it might still affect them. A little over a year ago, someone I knew a little died, and his body wasn't found until two days later. Until then I was planning on studying forensics and going into the police force, but thinking of this guy decomposing in his flat, and considering that as a forensic specialist, I would have had to go in there as one of the first officers on scene, I changed my mind. The course of my entire life has changed as a result of the death of someone I didn't even know that well. On the other hand, I can't say it changed much at all when my grandma died, because although it was sad and I saw her every few days because she lived close by, my reaction to her death was very different and it was at a different stage in my life (and for that matter expected - she'd been very ill in hospital for a few weeks).

The same sort of thing can apply to characters - the death of a minor character might remind one character what's at stake, send another character into self-destructive grief, expose the insecurities of another character.
 
darn demon-possessed priestesses. They never act appropriately in public.

HA! HA! Would you expect anything different?! ;) But I do love how things take on a life of their own.

The same sort of thing can apply to characters - the death of a minor character might remind one character what's at stake, send another character into self-destructive grief, expose the insecurities of another character.

Thanks for that. I think that actually explains a lot for some of my unexpected character developments. Cheers! :)
 
Another thing to keep in mind is that usually when someone dies in a story, it has something to do with them being directly involved in some sort of conflict, usually the one driving the story, but not always. An important thing to decide if you kill off that character, is if the conflict they are a part of is now altered by their death. For example, the novel I wrote for NaNo last year was about the zombie apocalypse striking the United States, and more or less the reactions of a small group of the military towards it once society has decayed so far that the military for all intents and purposes ceases to exist.

I had created one character with pretty much no redeeming qualities at all, who was constantly at odds with my lead character. They fought about everything, called each other names, and repeatedly tried to beat the snot out of each other. And then I killed him. Well I didn't, he got shot by a sniper in a gang looking to take my group's supplies.

And that was fine, I didn't particularly miss him. What I did miss was the constant snarking and back-biting that had provided the conflict in so many chapters. Fortunately in the same chapter that he died I brought my other lead character into the group, and now she fights with my main lead instead. :) It's different, but there is still a source of conflict there to drive the story while the bigger events get moving.
 
Meg - While Rawlings didn't let that particular char die.. if you read the complete series.... More major chars in the series in did die... if you haven't read the books and are just going on movies I won't list who said chars are.. you'll find out >.< One death in particular broke my heart.. and no it wasn't Dumbledor's death LOL....

Personally... I've faced this issue in several of my works.. I hate when a char has to die.. But since I let my stories pretty much write themselves, I can never say "well this char is going to live till the end" and when I'm faced with their death.. It kills a piece of me, especially if the char's been around for a good while. The older the char is, the more a apart of you they are. So when one must die it's almost like a personal blow to you... The first time I had to kill a char off.. I felt like a murderer for days LOL Then again I was 10 o_O But it still makes me tear up when it has to be done... But most good stories call for it... Even if they don't most of the time you write yourself into the position and yeah it just sucks generally -.- At least for me
 

Themis

New Member
This isn't directly answering, but I have recently had a similar issue with trying to make one of my main characters betray the others. It just seemed like the only way the story could progress organically and make sense but I love all of them so much and couldn't see any of them doing something like that. I mean I think it's even harder than killing them off because at least in death they maintain their personalities and all the things you "got to know" about them through writing.
 

pmmg

Istar
Well… i doubt the op is still wrestling with this and i believe in giving the story what it needs so mr weasley would not have survived me. Without meaningful deaths the story can lack the elements that their was any real jeopardy.

i have a character is my current wip who i has come close to being killed off twice now but i see his story as being stronger for his long tortured ordeal latter in the tale. So i am hoping there is some pay off for keeping him. But…. He may not make it in the rewrite ;).

And yet another that is also lingering for future reward.

But of the four MCs and 10 or so minor C’s. I think only two of them will survive the tale.

I did have a traitor in one story. I rather liked his reveal.
 
Now that's a zombie topic! But I can't resist...

To paraphrase Evil in Time Bandits... Death! Day One! No characters from those examples would survive my rewrite of their chapter 1's, heh heh.
 
I remember Bernard Cornwell lamenting when he finally killed off Hakeswill - a truly hateful character. Readers would have rejoiced in his (eventual) death but Cornwell hated the fact he could no longer write that character.

Personally (across five novels - six shortly) I've never killed a favourite character except for my historical novel where there was pretty much no alternative. Even then, I did it in a way that was totally novel and not what the well-informed reader would have expected.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Not so much a zombie topic as a vampire topic - it won't lie down and die...

I've never been quite convinced of the need to kill off some favourite character in a novel or series. For me, the need would seem to depend on how much jeopardy you want your characters to be in. A constant threat to them or their world loses it's credibility if nothing unpleasant ever happens to them, so if your characters regularly land in situations where they might get seriously hurt or killed then one or more of them must get killed to maintain that credibiity.

In my books and short stories, deaths are unusual, but that's because the focus isn't on jeopardy or some huge threat to the world. Yes, deaths do occur but they're due to things those characters do (an attempted robbery which goes wrong, to take one example) rather than some overhanging threat. That means that the main characters can't use violence as an easy way out, because for the setting to be consistent using violence must have consequences. That in turn moves the focus in the stories to the way the characters interact with others and the choices they make as a result, rather than some major fight somewhere. In many ways I find that more satisfying to write, but it is also much harder - the hero can't just reach for his sword when some minor official obstructs his attempt to deal with the bad guys.
 
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