Yesterday, I Skyped with my spirit doppelganger and, after about an hour and a half, we got around to the reason why we’d called in the first place – I was stuck in Kenna. I wasn’t stuck where I was, but I didn’t have the ending figured out and I find it impossible to write anything beyond the middle of a novel if I don’t know how it turns out in the end. Hannah, as always, is like a stick of dynamite to my roadblock – she shakes lose whatever was in my way, leaving me free to see through it. We discussed how important it is for characters to die with meaning and how we should milk the emotion for all its worth, and then she threw out, “Okay, so ______ should die in front of Kenna, and someone should commit suicide.”
I blinked. Suicide? But I rolled the thought around for a few seconds and came to the conclusion that for a certain character, it would certainly make a striking statement. As for ______ dying in front of Kenna, I immediately agreed, as that had been the plan all along (more or less).
“It’s not a question about who dies, so much as what they die for,” said Hannah.
I nodded. “True. And I’ve never had a problem with killing characters to begin with.”
She began to laugh. “No,” she agreed with a great deal of enthusiasm, “you haven’t.”
“Then again, you’ve never told me not to kill one.”
“That’s because I know you,” she responded.
I’ve always had a bit of a George R. R. Martin complex – I want readers to never feel as though any of my characters are impervious to harm or death. I want them to be worried for the lives of everyone, because that’s what I enjoy. It’s what keeps me hooked on a story. (I once had a conversation with Jenny about this, and it turns out we disagree on the matter; therefore I’d be interested to know your thoughts on ‘character safety’.)
There are many reasons to kill off a character. Reasons like a) there are too many characters and one of them needs to go, b) their death will motivate another character, c) they must die in order for things to come full circle, d) they must die in order to prove that no one is safe, e) they must die in order to prove something about their killer, ad infinitum. The list goes on – but, as Hannah pointed out, it’s not who dies so much as why.
I’ve read a plethora of books where a character will die for no real reason, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth – especially since I usually have the misfortune of adopting said character before said demise. Examples would be Beleg Cuthalion (looking at you, Professor Tolkien), Finnick Odair (although I suppose I can see where Suzanne Collins was coming from, even if I feel like justice wasn’t served), and Alan a’Dale (although that was a TV show, not a novel).
However, I’ve also read books where the author seemed incapable of killing off any main characters at all, and this became a pattern, until I wasn’t really interested. I was too bored with the knowledge that these characters would survive anything. One shining example of this is Stephanie Meyer.
After all this, you might have drawn the conclusion that I’m a bloodthirsty maniac who enjoys watching my characters bleed out on the floor, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. Not everyone survives. Death is a part of life, and a necessary one – and in my current works-in-progress, there are quite a few characters who won’t survive the last page.
The thing is, none of them die for nothing. Even the villains have a purpose in death, because there is a difference between killing characters simply for killing’s sake, and killing them to make a point. It’s not always an easy job and it takes discernment and thought, but I hold fast to the belief that, for most stories (not all, but most), death isn’t a maybe, it’s a must.
Arnmundur’s voice was like dragonfire. “A hundred years we have avoided death, and now it has found us even here. We cannot stay.”
“No,” agreed Einar. “We cannot.” Then he gestured for Kenna. “Come. Help me gather the men.”