There has been a great deal written about how authors should be “brutal” to their characters and kill them off, whenever the plot requires it, just to keep readers from feeling a character is “safe.” And then, when it happens, there is the inevitable outcry that it was a horrible ending, leaving some readers inconsolable and vowing to never read that author again. How is an author to navigate this difference of opinion?

(Beware: There will be some plot spoilers for Allegiant, The Lord of the Rings, Mansfield Park and other books as this topic is discussed. It’s hard to talk about killing off characters without mentioning some characters that die.) 🙂

Readers’ Expectations
Readers generally expect (and hope) their favorite characters will make it. As Veronica Roth explained in her discussion of the ending of Allegiant, “There’s no way to please everyone, because that mythical book with the ending that every single person wants can’t exist.”

There are some readers who just aren’t ready to let go of a favorite character (I’ve encountered a number of sites that claim that Boromir, for example, shouldn’t have died when he did in The Fellowship of the Rings, but if he hadn’t, it wouldn’t have made Faramir’s struggle with the ring as difficult. His brother succumbed; we wonder that he might do the same, and when he doesn’t, it just further demonstrates how different these two men were.)

I think there are two kinds of readers where character-deaths are concerned: those who read to see if a character will end up happy and those who read to see the life-and-death struggle of characters. The first kind may turn to books to experience happiness vicariously, because their own lives are currently unhappy, or they may just get so attached to characters that losing them is too painful to be part of an activity that is, after all, for fun—while the second group may read for the adventure, the emotional ride, and the journey…and they are open to death being part of that experience. If everything feels too safe, they’ll feel like what they just went through wasn’t “real.”

Great books don’t have to involve killing off characters. In Jane Austen’s books, we rarely wonder if the main characters will live. They always live…but that’s not what the books are about. The books explore whether the characters will attain happiness, and not every character ends up happy. (Mr. Crawford ends up unhappy, losing Fanny due to Maria’s folly in Mansfield Park; Mr. Willoughby has a similarly unhappy ending in Sense and Sensibility, and Marianne is unhappy, and Eleanor nearly so; for the longest time, Anne is unhappy because of her choice in the back-story of Persuasion.)

The readers who want their favorite characters to be happy aren’t going to welcome death, because it is the ultimate of unhappy endings for the characters left behind. With Tris’ death in Allegiant, we are stuck with an unhappy ending for Tobias/Four. Because he loved Tris, he isn’t going to be happy, and unless he somehow gets over her death and the loss he feels, he isn’t ever going to be as happy as he would’ve been if she’d lived.

But there are readers who want to see real life, as they know it, in books. Too many happy endings leave them dissatisfied. According to Writer of Wrongs, this kind of reader (and she is one) likes it “when books devastate me. That means I care. That means the author is so good that she’s moved me and managed to convince me that these characters are not just names on a page, but actual, living, breathing people. Who, any second, may no longer be living or breathing.”

A Character’s Needs
Sometimes, main characters need to lose other characters to achieve their full potential, to realize something about life and to become the person he or she needed to be. As Mark Pryor put it in his article for the Huffington Post, “The death of one character can not only drive the plot, but show us a little something about the other main characters.” As an author, Pryor doesn’t like his readers to be too comfortable. He writes, “I want them to start a book not knowing what might happen, but knowing that anything could.” (But this is likely to appeal only to the second sort of readers. The ones who want to find happiness for their favorite characters aren’t going to like this.)

Sometimes the plot demands that a character dies. Murder mysteries are the obvious, but other stories require deaths. Hamlet wouldn’t have had a plot at all if his father hadn’t been killed, and most of the difficulties faced by Ravenswood in The Bride of Lammermoor would become nonexistent if his father hadn’t died of a broken heart at the hands of the father of Lucy, the woman he loves. Jo March in Little Women wouldn’t have grown into the woman she needed to be if she hadn’t experienced her sister’s death. Death is a necessary part of some characters’ lives, and to omit that is to weaken the plot (and often, the characters).

Dealing with Death
Tess Gerritsen, mystery author, discussed this issue on her website and gave the following advice: “Killing a major character can be a courageous artistic move…or it can be a disastrous one. The difference is in a writer’s reason for doing it. Is it merely to shock? Is it merely to get rid of a character you’ve grown tired of? Then you’re probably going to have legions of angry readers writing you hate mail. But if the character’s demise sets off its own dramatic chain of events, or if it’s necessary to the theme of your story, then you may have to do it. And hope that your readers will understand—and forgive you for it.”

Katherine Hyde adds, “Sometimes death is the only possible resolution…When a character has reached the end of his road, you’re being untrue to your story if you don’t let him die.”

How to Let Them Go
When dealing with the death of a major character, you can’t just treat them like another death—or like the death of a villain. Readers need more time to process what just happened because someone they care about is gone. Gerritsen explains how she allowed a book in which a main character was killed to “coast on for a few chapters longer than I normally would after the mystery was solved. It gave my characters time to grieve as well, and to eventually look back on the death with a sense of perspective. When the book ended, I wanted my readers not to feel grief and dismay, but a bittersweet and healing sense that, yes, life would go on.”
Further resources
Katherine Hyde’s post of Why Do Good Characters Die
Reasons and Methods of Killing Characters by Elizabeth Spann Craig
Kill the character by Tess Gerritsen
In Defense of Killing off Main Characters by Mark Pryor
Veronica Roth about the End of Allegiant
Writer of Wrongs: Brutal Endings to Series and Why They Are the Best

Photo “Rain isn’t always bad” by kennymatic, used per http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

2 thoughts on “Authorial Brutality: Considerations on Killing off Characters

    1. That is certainly a genre where it seems to be a major consideration for the author. Though I would think an action-adventure, sci-fi or fantasy series could have similar challenges where character deaths are concerned. But then, I’ve never written a mystery. 🙂

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