Done To Death: The Art of Killing Characters

When you’re reading a story and a character dies, you can tell if it’s just the writer trying to manipulate your emotions or if it’s good storytelling.

In the titular panel at Worldcon77, Patrick Rothfuss, Veronica Roth, Su J Sokel, Amy Ogden, and Daryl Gregory did their best to make sure we know that every death should count.

Before we got started, the panelists listed their credentials…

How many characters have you killed?

  • Su killed 3 in one novel.
  • Veronica, in her Divergent series, asked if we counted “outside of catastrophic events?”
  • Amy killed all of humanity. Twice.
  • Patrick has killed 5 characters.
  • Daryl says his only die offstage.

How To Use Death and What Deaths Are Overdone

Fridging Characters

There are tropes that keep popping up, and one of the most trite ones in fiction is using the horrific death of a 2-dimensional female character to motivate the (usually male) main character.

From TVTropes: “The name of the trope comes from a storyline in Green Lantern, in which the villain Major Force leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find.

We’re not saying horrific deaths are bad (in fiction. Please don’t kill people.) We’re just saying they need to matter beyond character motivation.

Parents

Many stories start off with the parents being killed. Even books for those who aren’t old enough for school. And this is traumatic for small kids. We want to teach empathy. We want them to understand death. This is a bad way to do it.

Daryl’s daughter would always go ask him for a snack during the Lion King stampede and get back just as Simba was running away.

Patrick’s sons loved the 3 Little Pigs and the wolf destroying the houses. But they wanted him to tell it without gobbling the pigs all up.

As Amy said, “as a mom, I’m tired of seeing myself die. As a queer person, I’m tired of seeing myself die.”

Queer Characters and Characters of Color

Either as bad guys or as expendable characters, queer characters or characters of color are often the first to die.

Children

Killing children, just to demonstrate that the villain is a bad guy.

Patrick declared, “if that’s all you can do, you’re a bad writer. I stand by this.”

Other

Veronica, in retrospect, admits that there is a bullshit death in her second book. She could have handled that differently. There are plenty of horrible ways to LIVE!

The list could go on. Do we want to show readers the gritty truth, or a better world?

How Do You Make a Death Not Bullshit?

  1. Give fullness to the dead character’s story arc
  2. Try to only kill well rounded main or secondary characters, but think first if there is another way to progress the plot.
  3. Listen to the character – they should tell you if their death is bullshit.
  4. Feel free to have foreshadowing — best done when it’s only obvious in retrospect.
  5. Context matters — who is being killed by whom?
  6. If you do kill characters — parents, children, lovers, make it matter. Make the reader cry and miss them forever.
  7. Showing life after trauma is important.

The Power Of Writing

At this point, the panel started to meander, but we followed along for the ride.

Patrick shared a story. After the Frog Princess, 70 kids were hospitalized from salmonella (from licking frogs). Now, he worries a lot about the consequences of what he writes.

Veronica asked, “then how do you write?”

Patrick — the man whose audience is still waiting, 8 years later, for book 3 of his series — replied, “I’m the wrong person to ask.”

Where You Are Emotionally Affects Your Writing

For almost all of us, what we’re worried about and what we’re struggling with tries to come through in our writing.

There are two approaches.

  1. You can try to leave it at the door.
    • Personal essays, blogs, etc on whatever is bothering you can be a cathartic way to get it out, so you can focus on the story you want to tell.
  2. You can use your writing to work through it
    • So many writers end up doing this. Even if they don’t know that they are.
      • Veronica’s first series was literally about exposure therapy. Later, she went on to be prescribed it!
      • Patrick was thanked for his handling of PTSD in his writing. 10 years later, he realized where it came from. Now he’s in therapy.
      • Amy notes that as a mom, she’s leaving a worse world for her child than she was given. Everything she writes is about climate change.
    • NOTE: Mission-oriented novels come across like after-school specials. It’s okay to work through things, but forcing the theme doesn’t come across as genuine.

[Audience Question] How Do You Handle Villainous Deaths

Everything should be complex — the desire to simplify makes it less real. Just remember, death is a change and it’s the final one. [source?]

Disney took the violence out. Took the blame out. The hero still wins, the bad guy still dies. But, the hero isn’t the hand by which the villain dies. And that might be wrong. There should be consequence.l

[Audience Question] Which Death Would You Undo?

Veronica said, “Lynn.”

Amy’s answer? “Humanity deserved it.”


What stories have you read where death was handled wrong? Which ones have done it well?

If you write, how many characters have YOU killed?

3 thoughts on “Done To Death: The Art of Killing Characters

  1. “how many characters have you killed?” — I’m pretty sure this question right here gives me PTSD, and that should say everything about my murder count. xD

    The parents dying off thing is so frustrating to me (and I say this totally unironically, knowing that in one of my books the MC is an orphan because her parents died when she was younger … but it’s also not for young kids and there were reasons). Parents can be awesome. There should be more parents in books for younger kids. Parents are not convenient plot points to be thrown under a bus (perhaps literally) so they’re no longer in the way of the protagonist.

    Patrick’s response to the question, “How do you write,” is priceless and makes me appreciate him all the more. xD Love this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed this post very much! It made me think of a certain manuscript I proofread recently for a pal of mine. It was a vampire/horror thing, and there were SO many deaths, COUNTLESS deaths. And you know what? I totally didn’t care about them. The best statement in your post, for me, is: “If you do kill characters — parents, children, lovers, make it matter.” He didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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