Killing characters

Following on my last post, where I talked about finishing my latest work-in-progress, I realized I had more to say about endings. Specifically, a practice that some writers become well-known for, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres: killing characters. While I sometimes get listed among these murderous writers, I don’t kill a lot of characters, really. I tend to fall more into the leave-characters-alive-so-I-can-torture-them-more category, and my body counts just aren’t that high. At the end of this current WIP, though, I did kill a prominent character. Then I felt bad. Did my character really have to die?

I compare this to a major character-killing that happened in the Five Countries books. In that case, it was built into my outline. While attempting to plan out the trilogy (a process I sometimes call “How I wrote a trilogy without even trying,” since I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy until my publisher told me it was) I focused in on one character whose story spanned the three books. He was a fairly minor character in book 1, then I saw how his story could create the arc for the trilogy. In book 2 I wanted him to be faced with a difficult decision, and he was going to make the wrong choice, the selfish choice. In book 3 I wanted him to make the right choice, even if he had to sacrifice himself to do it. Something like 40 years passes over the course of the trilogy, and this character learns a lot and grows up a lot in that time. In this context, his sacrifice made sense. I didn’t feel bad about killing him.

Moving forward to my ship books (a not-yet-published fantasy duology in a new setting – more about this TBA), I was also faced with the option of killing a character. Again, it seemed in line with things, with the problems I built up in the plot and in the character’s personal arc. Having him sacrifice himself seemed like the right way to tie things up. Until I actually wrote it that way and I realized it was absolutely terrible. The message conveyed by having this character end up dead was one of complete pessimism, an absolute lack of redemption. It was like those people who said that Harry Potter should die* at the end: sure, that would have made the series all dark and postmodern and stuff, but if you’re trying to teach kids about why it’s important to be good – and that does tend to be the primary theme of youth fiction – then you can’t have your hero knock himself out trying to do good against impossible odds and NOT survive. So I rewrote the ending so that this character lived. He had to live in a Frodo-goes-sailing-away-because-he-can’t-endure-normal-life-anymore sort of way, but he lived.

So what should I do with my new manuscript? The character I have tentatively killed is in the same boat as the one in the ship books. (Heh – see what I did there?) Everything leading up to the ending suggests there’s no way this character can get out of it alive, that the only plausible way to end things is for her to die. But the message is a lousy, pessimistic shout of It Doesn’t Get Better. I don’t like it. Even a writer like me who loves to torture characters – I torture them so I can see what they’re made of, not to sadistically watch them suffer, tapping my fingers together like a cartoon villain. I don’t want to throw this character under the bus. I want to come up with some way to let her live that doesn’t violate the logic of what I’ve built up.

That’s why you edit. That’s why you let a fresh manuscript settle a bit before doing so. That’s why, ideally, you have some good beta readers. We’ll see where this goes…

* Sorry, I spent half an hour trying to dig up the link but couldn’t find it. You’ll have to rely on your imagination or memories that are equally as fuzzy as mine. And yeah, I know, technically he did die, but that’s another post.

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