These days high-profile writers get a lot of press for doing awful things to characters. Yes, killing a protagonist can be a very effective way of adding a hint of surprise to your novel. But it’s by no means unusual or original. I mean, if you ever have read any George R. R. Martin or heck, even J.K. Rowling, you know that people make a very big deal about killing characters. It even becomes some writers’ defining characteristic.
The weird thing is that it’s not new. Take the “Song of Roland”. Hint: everybody dies. Well, Roland and Oliver die. And everything falls apart. Pretty much the same story in Arthuriana. Ditto Hamlet. There’s always the Lancelots and Horatios who linger, but on the whole, it’s a bloodbath.
But death sometimes isn’t the right choice. In the first draft of the Aldersgate, I was so invested in what I was writing that I started to get a little overwhelmed with all the characters. As the action drew to a climax, I started killing people, left and right, because I just couldn’t deal with them. I think the excitement and the power got to me a little, and instead of dealing with complicated relationships, I just cut characters out. (As a side note–some of these deaths may or may not occur in the final draft…)
Not to say you should never kill a character, but you have to make sure that the decision is sound, that your choice is the best option for the sake of the story. Here’s some questions that I ask when contemplating death for a character:
- Am I just frustrated with the character arc?
- Has the character done what they needed to do in the plot?
- How will the death affect other characters?
- What does the death represent? (i.e. chaos, destiny?)
- How does this death fit into the main plot?
- Is it easier to kill the character or let him live?
- Ultimately, what other options do I have besides death that I might not have considered?
How about you? Have you ever encountered the death conundrum? If so, what kinds of questions do you ask yourself?