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?

The Future of Podcasting

Podcasting has had its ups and downs since it first started. The market is big, but there’s a lot of small fish out there and it’s hard to get noticed.

At the titular panel at Balticon53, Mark Redfield, Mike Luoma, Philippa Ballantine, Christiana Ellis, and Fred. G. Yost discussed where podcasting has been and what they hope and fear we’ll see in the future.

What Is Podcasting and Where Did It Come From?

Podcasting, for those who are unfamiliar, is the practice of using the Internet to make digital recordings of broadcasts available for downloading to a computer or mobile device. Traditionally, these were audio-only, but some are on Youtube.

Caveat: I have a vested interest in this topic. The Anansi Storytime and other Legendsmith Productions I help voice are podcasts.

Technically, you could argue that my vlog is a podcast — especially since I’ve been considering downloading the mp3s and setting them up on a server…

Many podcasts grew out of the audio-dramas from radio of yesterday – and these really capitalize on the strengths of the format. Some grew out of blogs. Some grew out of traditional radio talk shows.

Podcasting gone through several phases:

  1. A ‘nerd’ thing
  2. OMG! Podcasts are everywhere!
  3. Yeah, podcasts. *shrug* They’re normal. Like TV.

Podcasting is more democratized than traditional media, but there is the fear that as it gets bigger, it will become more corporatized, regulated, and controlled. Like the internet.

Where Is Podcasting Going?

To the best of my knowledge, none of the panelists were time travelers or gifted with foresight, so all of these are clearly educated guesses, wishful thinking, and/or fears.

  1. There’s a lot of fan content – some image that will only grow
  2. There’s a feel that the podcaster ‘clubhouse’ was invaded by infomercials – but the money’s not there, so this may be temporary.
  3. Niche marketing (with big bucks) from corporations however, is a bigger concern and is competing with home-grown content.
  4. Corporations and old media are just porting stuff wholesale — this doesn’t always work. But they’re risk averse.
  5. Patreon is already helping support podcasters (or at least pay for a little bit of the equipment) — subscriber Podcasts are coming to other medias. Some are now on Luminary.
  6. It’s getting mainstream!
  7. The fear? A lot of the popularity is driven by obnoxious commutes. As self-driving cars become a reality while more and more companies have work-from-home policies, the audience might shrink.

Tips For Podcasters

  1. You need consistency
    • Publish regularly
    • Pick a tone/voice
  2. Don’t be generic — you’ve got to show your passion
  3. Don’t chase trends — grow your community
  4. Professionals having fun does better than a clean, polished lecture. (Where do I fit on that spectrum, peeps?)
  5. Don’t tie all of your media to one service
    • The host might change the rules and flush your content (Tumblr)
    • The host might decide you’ve violated copyright/decency/etc and delete your content.
  6. If you record a long segment, don’t be afraid to break it into sections! A part 1 and 2 can be good for driving more listeners to the earlier content they might have missed

Do you listen to podcasts? What sort of podcasts do you like?

What do you see for the future of podcasting? Did the panelists get this one right?

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.)

Improving Your Readings

From authors who are asked to read their own work at signings, to audiobook narrators, to podcasters, there are a lot of us out there who want — or need — to get better at readings.

At the titular panel, at Balticon 53, Tee Morris, Jean L Cooper, and Mike Luona shared their best tips.

6 Steps Toward Creating Character Voices

  1. Keep the character’s background in mind
  2. Use a key phrase to get into the character’s voice, to help with consistency
  3. Use your ‘normal voice’, (or something close to it), for the narrator and/or main character
  4. For opposite gendered characters, you can pitch up or down a touch, but don’t fake it
    • For some female characters, a breathier tone works, even if you don’t change the pitch
  5. Listen to how other actors present their different characters
    • For a fantasy accent — try combining 2 real world accents badly
  6. Avoid stereotypes!
    • For accents, if you can’t skip it — try acting classes or online videos but do these with a light touch

5 Tips For All Readings

  1. Practice cold-reading
    • Pick up a book at random and just reading a few pages!
  2. Hit the narration just as hard as the dialogue
    • Paint a mental picture with your voice
  3. Know when to pause
  4. When a phrase becomes a stumbling block, slow wayyy down.
    • If in practice — go over it very slowly, mouth it carefully, repeat it a few times, get that muscle memory in thereIf live — pause, mouth it to yourself, then try again
  5. Don’t be afraid to be dramatic – the audience builds off the energy you bring to the table. Feeling a little over the top is probably just right for most of us.

And one bonus tip, specifically for audio books:

  • If you can, read the book to yourself once ahead of time, marking all proper nouns, unfamiliar words/terms, and confirm pronunciation before beginning.

Any tips the panelists ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

What do you do to practice? Any toastmasters out there?


“Coming of Age” versus YA

Now that YA (young adult) novels are such a large part of the book landscape, it can be a challenge to know where a novel fits. Coming of age stories have always been a large part of the fantasy genre in particular, but now, it can be hard to know where to draw the line between YA and Adult novels.

On the titular panel at Balticon 53, Lisa Padol, Leah Cypess, Jean Marie Ward, Ken Altabef, and RR Angell discussed ways to sort out the confusion.

In days of yore, there wasn’t this issue. There was the children’s section — divvied up by reading level, and the adult section — divvied up by genre. But, with the emergence of the YA market, most famously heralded by JK Rowling, the distinction got a lot fuzzier.

What Is A Coming Of Age Story?

Before we can decide if a coming of age story is Adult or YA, we need to define what a coming of age story is.

It’s a character on the cusp of becoming.

The character has to grow, to change, and to find a life that suits their new self. Be it a high schooler graduating, an apprentice slaying that dragon, or a teacher retiring, a story focusing on the transition to the next stage of one’s life is almost always a coming of age story.

6 Ways To Tell If Your Coming Of Age Novel Is YA or Adult

There are a few key things that help determine if your coming-of-age novel should be in the adult section or will find a better home in the YA section.

  1. The length
    • adult should be over 70,000 words
  2. The voice
    • YA should have a genuine teen voice — not necessarily snarky!
    • YA is more often 1st person POV (point of view)
    • YA has faster pacing
  3. The story’s focus
    • Adult novels handle more adult issues
      • aging parents
      • kids
      • jobs
      • etc
    • YA novels typically focus on a single week/month/year. Adult novels are typically more open to a longer time frame. (added thanks to Dal Cecil Runo‘s insightful comment on my vlog version of this post.)
  4. The character’s relationship with authority
    • YA typically has teens breaking away from what was once their authority figures (parents/etc)
  5. Sentence structure
    • Adult tends to dwell more on detail
    • Adult tends to have a higher reading level
      • Reading level is calculated based on some formula including syllables per average word and sentence length.
  6. Where does the marketing department think it’ll do better?

YA Without “Coming Of Age”

YA isn’t just coming of age novels!

  1. The main character learning the truth about their world — or their self
  2. There’s a partial coming-of-age, but the character doesn’t fully come into their own
    • Instead of ‘happily ever after’, there’s a ‘happy for now’ feel
  3. In series novels, especially mysteries, the main character doesn’t usually change. Instead, they follow the genre story template.

Hopefully, these tips can help guide you down the narrow line betwixt and between the two.

One final thought – as a warning for those of us who are writing what we think is YA as adults: teens are SICK of ‘adults in kid-suits’ thinking things teens wouldn’t and the whiny/emo teen is overdone.

We need to represent teens more authentically, or leave it to those who are teens or still close to their teens.


What are YOUR favorite coming of age novels?
Let me know if they’re YA or Adult — and why!

Are there any differentiators I missed or the panel didn’t have time to address?

Image of all the panelists sitting in a row at a table.