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?

Sex, Sexuality, and Worldbuilding

My last post was on asexual representation. Literally. Today, I bring you the flip side. I mostly write younger stuff or fade-to-black scenes to avoid any explicitness of this issue, but a lot of you out there are writing it as the forefront of your novel.

At the titular panel, moderated by Jennifer Povey: D’Amanda Martini, Nobilis Reed, Mark L. Van Name, and Lisa Hawkridge managed to keep on topic WHILE keeping it all about books and writing. I was VERY impressed.

Relationships: Marriage and Divorce

For much of history, sex and sexuality revolved around marriages — on either side of the covers. When writing a story, you don’t have to be bound by your cultural assumptions. Your characters should be bound by the cultural assumptions of the time and place they’re in. In historical or contemporary settings — do your research. In science-fiction or fantasy? You can make relationships look like whatever you decide.

Here are some things to consider when worldbuilding.

  1. How are relationships made official?
    1. Does your world have a body (church/government/etc) recognizing and validating relationships?
    2. Or are relationships self-declared? To oneselves? Or to the gods?
  2. What are the societal expectations that go with a committed relationship?
  3. Who is allowed to have an official relationship? And to whom?
  4. Are marriages for life? Or do they have an expiration date?
  5. How does inheritance work? Blood lines matter more when something’s at stake.
  6. One can look to the animal kingdom for relationship styles beyond the cis-hetero-marriage for life default-assumption of most of the Western world.
  7. Is pregnancy preventable? If so, a lot of options open up for women.

Taboos

All societies have taboos around sex. About who you can and can’t be intimate with. When and where it is most acceptable. When world building, you can use traditional taboos as well as your own.

  1. Depending on your world, there can be all sorts of speciesist taboos:
    • Those who hook up with [the tentacle monster/fae/etc] are bad
    • Only elite/etc hook up with [tentacle monsters/fae/etc]
    • Those who don’t hook up with [tentacle monsters/fae/etc] are bad
  2. Powerful people have different limitations
    • Cersei and Jaime thought they were elite enough to follow the Targaryen rules.
    • Sometimes, the elite have tighter restrictions
  3. Taboos might exist in some places in your world, but not others. Remember that enlightenment isn’t universal, or even uniform.
  4. Upsetting gender role expectations during intimacy. Who does what to whom.
  5. If nothing is taboo, people will make something taboo.

Tips for Writing Erotic Scenes

These come from the panelists. I don’t really have much experience with this, but maybe I’ll eventually give it a try.

  1. Check your own assumptions
  2. Find inspiration – preferably legal with consenting adults
    • Your own experiences
    • Fanfic
    • Film
    • Livestreams
  3. To get past discomfort
    • Just write it.
    • Write something so over the top and ridiculous, that you can hopefully get past your inhibitions
    • Remember that no one has to ever read it.
    • Take suggestions of what to write, so your brain doesn’t get in the way
    • Check in about what is making you uncomfortable, is it something you have a reason to care about? Or is it social pressures/my mom might read this (hi mom!)

For another approach — the natural progression for intimacy has been reduced to a formula that you can put into good effect in your own writing! Here’s a great link.

Writers Who Explored Sexuality

People have been exploring sexuality and relationship structures forever. There’s a long history writers – in novels, tv, and film exploring different concepts within their writing and beyond.

Clearly, this list is incomplete, but the panelists gave us a good start.

  1. Asimov keeps sex short. He wrote one where spores were sex.
  2. Heinlein’s line marriage in Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  3. Le Guin
  4. A Land Fit For Heroes (“darker, gayer, Game of Thrones”)
    • By Richard K Morgan (of Altered Carbon)
  5. Brokeback Mountain
  6. Discovery – Star Trek finally having an onscreen gay couple

What tips do you have for adding sensuality to your writing?

What authors would you recommend?

(Note: Please avoid explicit material in my comment section. It will be removed. Let’s keep this education, folks.)

Writing Motivation For Doomsday Cults

Doomsday cults have been around for a long time, probably since the dawn of civilization. Writers and readers alike have found them endlessly fascinating. But, what motivates someone to start a doomsday cult? And why do people join?

In the titular panel, Gail Z. Martin, Lisa Hawkridge, Tom Doyle, and Darrell Schweitzer discuss real world cults and how to apply them to your writing.

Who Starts Doomsday Cults?

No two doomsday cults are the same, but many leaders share similar traits.

  1. A charismatic leader
  2. A need for control
  3. A professed conviction that something is wrong in society
  4. The ability to turn anything into a sign that they were right

Why Do People Join Doomsday Cults?

For those who have never been involved in a cult, it can seem fascinating and curious, but humans aren’t that complicated.

  1. Typically, people feel drawn to doomsday cults when they are in a transitory period in their lives
    • Leaving home
    • Ending a relationship
    • Death of an immediate family member
    • Job loss
    • etc
  2. Often people who have suffered personal trauma are vulnerable, especially to someone who says they have the answers
  3. They want to believe, and feel that by joining, they will be able to avoid death. Or have a clean death. Or be rewarded in the afterlife.
  4. People enjoy feeling smarter/better/more pious than everyone else.
  5. The peace of not having to make a decision can be addictive.
  6. And some were simply born into cults.

The 5 Stages Of A Doomsday Cult

  1. Recruiting and preaching. Doomsday is often about 30 years out, because it’s not too immediate, but a generation is soon enough to feel like you should care.
  2. Members are encouraged to give away their worldly belongings, and donate their money and services to the “good of the cult.”
  3. Isolate the members from normal society and other opinions.
  4. People start to see cracks in the leader’s story, but because of the sunk-cost fallacy, often don’t want to admit to themselves, (or others), that they were duped.
  5. Doomsday arrives.

What Happens After Doomsday?

When doomsday arrives and nothing happens, the leaders and the followers are left with few options.

  1. The leaders can make something happen
    • Jonesville – Revolutionary suicide – they drank the “kool aid”
    • Aum Shinrikyo – the leaders secretly set off the sarin attacks in Tokyo, causing the ‘end times chaos’ that the faithful expected.
  2. The followers may turn to violence
    • Turn on the leaders – riot, etc
  3. The leaders may double-down
    • Claim this was ‘a test of our faith’
    • Declare they miscalculated, and move the date out a few years
  4. The followers can outlive the leader
    • Either it slowly falls apart into nothing OR
    • It becomes a religion (7th Day Adventists, some say the Mormons, others say Christianity)

A lot to think about, but somehow simpler than it feels it should be.

Note, most doomsday cults take something from reality, some tiny grain of truth, and preach it through the looking glass. Understanding what factors go into real world doomsday cults can help you create people and worlds that contain them. And remember, when writing your own doomsday cult, you need something that is believable, truth can be stranger than fiction.


Anything the panel ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

Let me know how YOU’VE incorporated doomsday cults in your writing. And your favorite fictional cult you’ve read!

And stay tuned as I share more writing tips from the over-24-hours-of-programming I hit at Balticon53.

Vlog: 5 Steps For Creating Mythologies

What Is Mythology?

Mythology is folklore and legends that tell how things came to be.

5 Steps For Creating A New Mythology

Creating Worlds

Built Upon The Shoulders Of Giants

These notes are taken from the titular panel at WorldCon75. The panelists were George RR Martin, Jeffrey A Carver, and Alex Acks. The moderator was Jon Oliver.

Where should one start: with the world or the characters?

Tolkien created his world first, George RR Martin and the rest of the panelists created their characters first.

As with so much in writing, neither way is better, just whatever works for the story you’re working on now.

An Approach to Creating a Magic System

Martin prefers his magic to be truly super natural–not fake-science with a formula. Magic that trifles with forces beyond this world. Unknowable. Uncontrollable. With the chaos-like the feel of elder gods.

In Tolkien’s stories, Gandalf rarely resorted to true magic.

If people in a magical world try to codify their magic, doesn’t mean that they’re right. They might fail, or at least miss some stuff.

When Writing Science Fiction, How Close To Magic Can Your Science Get?

We can bend the rules of physics – but keep it moderately plausible for scientists. After all, what are ‘hyperspace’ and ‘wormholes’ if not science-fiction’s method of time travel? Making time stand still while we travel generations away.

Remember, the concept of plate tectonics was just discovered 50 years ago.

Just because there’s a capability out there that we don’t know if we CAN do, doesn’t mean we know that we CAN’T figure it out eventually!

What Makes A World Stand Out To A Publisher?

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I actually got to ask this question myself! The panel description had promised this, but as you see, they clearly hadn’t addressed it yet!

Publisher Jon Oliver chimed in that there are two things that you want to avoid:

  1. Don’t make your world too complex
  2. Don’t make your world too simple

Most fantasies have a pseudo-medieval European feel. It’s been done! Try something new.

Some stories are too excited about telling you all the information about the world, that they neglect the characters and plot.

Martin says, “make it your own.” If you’re writing something based on historical places, just make a historical fantasy. When inventing a world, “turn it up to 11, and do a left twist!”

It’s hard to figure out, the advice sounds basically like: “how do you win a race? Run Faster!” But if you can figure it out, it’s magical.

The Importance of Consistency

It doesn’t have to be consistent with reality, but it must be internally consistent. Remembering what you wrote earlier can be a challenge.

George RR Martin finds it difficult.

  • He’s “blundered into people who help.” The people who run the Westeros wiki have been very helpful. The site is un-vetted by him, but usually right.
  • He has notes, textbooks, and a DOS computer with search/replace capability
  • Most of his world building is in his head – thanks to a trick or curse of memory he remembers “[his] fake world far better than the real world.”

Another method of keeping track of everything that many authors, including Jeffrey Carver, uses is:

  • A spreadsheet with all names, places, and their descriptions

How Do You Convey World and Plot Building Information In A Sequel?

An info dump is only an info dump if the reader doesn’t care about it. Interweave it with the story–maybe tell it from a new character’s point of view–and you can make it interesting again.

Show what the characters do, and then filter in the world building as you need it.

As the writer, you need to know more than the reader about your world. If you must include everything, you can add appendices or footnotes. Using info HINTS, instead of info dumps, is a better idea, you don’t have to share everything with the reader.

Do Characters Mess With Your Plot?

The final question on the panel was more of a back-and-forth than summarizable tips, with other authors quoted. But I thought you might enjoy the conversation.

Martin said, yeah, they can be bossy. Sometimes they’re wrong. But usually, he just goes with it.

Carver mentioned that Jane Yolen when writing a story, found out part way through the novel that the character was gay.

Connie Willis is quoted as saying, “If my characters get uppity, I kill them!”

To which Alex Acks agreed, it’s true, “characters can be assholes.”

Then George RR Martin replied, “killing your characters? How horrible!”

And with that, my notes for this panel are done.