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28 April 2012 @ 09:14 pm
On Character Death  
If you speak to British children of A Certain Age and whisper to them the phrase, 'Otter film', you will witness a remarkable phenomenon. Firstly, their eyes will soften, as they recall the rollick and gambol of the otters and how they were charmed by them, and then there will be a moment where their eyes go wide, perhaps moisten, then crease in despair as they shout 'YOU BASTARD!' at you.

This is because there were two seminal otter films* in the 60s and 70s that were both wonderful and beautiful, save that both ended with the death of the otters.

Character death, even when it's an otter, is hard! Hard to read, hard to view, hard to write convincingly, hard to make work within the context of the wider story. On the other hand, when it's done well, the dramatic payoff can be remarkable. But where is the line between deaths that come organically from the plot and those which are used for exploitative emotional gain? And how can you kill off a character without having generations of British children hating you forever?

I don't pretend to have the definitive answers, but I have a few thoughts. Many of my examples in the following will be drawn from Season 2 of Dance Academy, which practically none of you watch, but you'll be able to follow without any worries. Suffice to say that if you DO watch DA and are behind, there are spoilers abungo! The remaining examples are drawn from Harry Potter, Heathers, The Hunger Games, The Demon's Covenant, Seven Little Australians, Pulp Fiction, Serenity and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. And a few other random books and films that I have forgotten to come back and mention, which you've all either seen or will never see, so it doesn't matter.

1. Why kill characters?
So many reasons ... Leaving aside the 'it's probably better it happen to the fictional people in my life than to the real ones' school of writers (to whom I say, well done, good choice), the death of a character can fulfill several narrative purposes.

Before we get to those, a quick limitation on the following. There are two broad types of character death. The first is the death of the bad guy. We're meant to be happy, or at least relieved, to see the bad guy get it. His or her death has a very different impact in story than the other type, which is the death of the not-bad guy (often the good guy, sometimes just a normal person or random character). The bad guy getting his or her just deserts is usually a satisfying conclusion, and although there are some issues raised by this trope, I won't be looking at them because the following is already long enough.

But for the not-bad guy, each death is a tragedy, not a victory. Of course, there is something satisfying about a fictional tragedy: we have a good weep and feel a genuine sense of loss, but our real loved ones are all OK. Catharsis is a real thing that everyone from the Greeks to dodgy pop psychologists are into. And goodness knows, tragedies have always sold well; from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic, a weepie will put bums on seats. So it can be a real winner with your audience to whack the occasional character over the head. In general, there are five main reasons to kill them off, all of which have different effects on the story.

i. It can ramp up tension, especially in a story where tension has previously come out of near escapes. Harry Potter provides a wonderful set of examples of this: after the first three books in which the only deaths are of The Bad Guys, book four sees the innocent and quite lovely Cedric cop it, and all of a sudden the stakes of the story are raised to a point they have not previously reached. Because if Cedric can die, so can Harry. These deaths are break points in a story, because the safety that was possible to believe in before them is not possible to believe in afterwards. Both the world that you have written, and you as a writer, cannot be trusted to bring everyone home alive anymore.

Additionally, it can ramp up immediate tension: Milly is the only bomb disposal expert in her team, but as they race down Oxford Street towards the bomb they know is in that innocuous red handbag tucked under a chair in John Lewis's shoe department, she is shot by the one remaining enemy agent in the area. Can her team disarm the bomb without her? Is there any way to clear John Lewis of potential civilian victims in the middle of a sale? Has anyone really ever been able to say 'That wire!' when looking ata photo of the triggering device of a bomb transmitted by the camera on a mobile phone?

ii. It can give a Moral to the Story, and sadly, this type of character death often deserves those capitals. You know the ones, where you can watch or read the tale of the Bad Girl who Comes Good but decides on One Last Piece of Risky Behaviour, which you just know = imminent death. Or the Outsider, who is there to teach the others an Important Life Lesson, and is therefore almost as certainly marked for death as a Star Trek redshirt.

Of course, this trope can also be used for good as well as evil. In seminal 80s black comedy Heathers, the moral is that teenagers are treated like so much grist to the media mill, and that it's vital to look for the individual person rather than seeing them as interchangeable types. Here the deaths come through black comedy, and work well. But on the whole, morals require very careful handling. We all know not to drink and drive, text and drive, shag drummers, accept lifts through the Belangalo State Forest … Having a hackneyed 'and then this character did that anyway, and then s/he DIED!' rarely works. Particularly because it's almost always a she. Death here is often a trick piece. Sometimes the trick is good, as in Heathers, mostly it's watching a hat and waiting for a rabbit to come out of it.

iii. It's symbolic of the greater themes. Look, I could give you a long list of Expressionist novels and cinema options here, or send you off to track down some of Kurosawa's more obscure works, or you could just watch or read King Lear. Love? Ends in death. Hope? Death. Order? Death. Kindness? Death. Life? Chaos and death. And what does all that death symbolise? That Shakespeare was secretly a total nihilist of the type that makes Waiting for Godot look positively cheery (and clearly had a bet on with one of his mates as to how many corpses he could litter a stage with in the final scene, see also Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth), bless his cotton socks.

Death in Lear is at the centre of the story, illuminating the flaws of each character. Indeed, most of Symbollic Death stories are about our flaws, our mortality, mutability, and the fickleness (or the inescapability) of fate or other similar themes.

iv. It changes the direction of the story. This week's Dance Academy was a perfect example of this. We're near the end of Season 2 and most of the preceding action has concerned teenaged ballet students overcoming difficulty learning, then competing for roles, places, scholarships and prizes. Also love triangles, quadrangles, ellipses … and the friendships that have sustained them through all of the above (it's a corker of a show, but you don't need to have watched it for this to be clear).

Most of this season has been focussed on who will win a fictional prestigious ballet competition, which is quite a divisive theme. Only one person can win (well, one boy and one girl, in fact). But if the main theme of the story arc is the strength of friendship, and competition is not much help in reinforcing that theme. So last Thursday, the most popular student – though not the best dancer – in the school, the boy who has been the best friend to the other main characters and who had reached a position of surprising success in the competition and may have been able to win it, was run over and killed.

Suddenly everything else ground to a halt as the characters all came together to grieve. And the remaining two episodes of the series put the competition right on the backburner and instead dealt with it entirely in light of Sammy's death, which added gravity and poignancy to what would otherwise have been just yet another dance-off. Character death of this type either propels or informs the rest of the story. Because you are not using it to create tension – it's very unlikely that you'll be bumping anyone else off – but now the reader has to watch the effect of your homicidal writing on the rest of the story's cast, which can be heartbreaking when done well.

v. It IS the main direction of the story. Mysteries, thrillers, horror and dystopian YA all rely on there being at least one corpse to propel the action. It may be a random victim, or it may be someone who we have already been primed to care for. Quite often it's both! And then there are the tricksy plot-focus character deaths, like The Sixth Sense, where ... look, if you don't already know, I'll keep quiet about that one.

Combinations of all the above are certainly possible, especially type v with others. For example, in The Hunger Games, several randoms die before we lose one we care deeply for. The earlier deaths set the direction, the pivotal one both ramps up the tension and changes the direction of what follows, as it's only then that Katniss learns she can kill when she has to.

2. Who should you kill off?
It must be someone who matters.

Well, when I say 'must', you can get away with killing randoms for black comedy, or as the corpse du jour in a mystery, or to establish a sense of general terror, menace, danger or zombies, or because, as in The Hunger Games, death is an essential part of the plot. But for death to really matter in a general work of fiction, it must be someone with whom the main characters are strongly connected.

This may be one of them, or a parent, or a friend, or someone whose actual death is intimately connected with one of the main characters. So a main character who runs over and kills someone is going to be just as affected as one who loses someone in a similar accident. Were they at fault? How do they deal with that guilt? Was it a pure accident? How do they cope with the misfortune of being in that place at that time?

And, of course, for a really strong impact, kill off someone you love, or who your lead character loves. Sirius Black's death in the HP books was partially affecting because Sirius had only just regained his freedom after a long and unfair term in prison, but it mostly affects the reader because he was Harry's hope of a real family, Lupin's hope of a true friend, and then he is suddenly and stupidly snatched away. In fact, Rowling here pulls a classic Character Death Fake, where we were all convinced that the wonderful Mr Weasley was in for the chop just a chapter or two beforehand, and sighed a deep sigh of relief when he was rescued in time, only for a bloody veil to devastate Harry's hopes of happiness yet again.

When Dumbledore dies at the end of Half-Blood Prince, the reader is in a different position. Dumbledore's been a bit marked for death throughout the entire book, and we've all learned from the previous two books, so we're rightly worried. We're still hoping that he'll pull through, but when he dies, the sadness is more of a 'I can't believe she went through with it!' rather than the 'What? NO!' that accompanies Fred's death in Deathly Hallows.

And of course, Fred's death was an excellent example of a tragic reversal. He had only just reconciled with Percy, finding a moment of joy and peace in the midst of war, when a castle wall fell on him. If you really want to make your audience miserable, give your character a moment of heartstopping joy and beauty before they are ploughed down by a car on a Sydney street (why yes, I am talking about Sammy again).

This technique works particularly well when you don't see it coming. I confess that I was very wary about Sammy's chances for surviving the series (see below), while Fred's sudden death blindsided me -- I'd worked myself up to losing Molly, Arthur or (the one my money was on) Hagrid. In The Demon's Covenant, by Sarah Rees Brennan, Annabel, the mother of two of the main characters, moves from being a distant parental unit to going to the aid of her children when they are physically engaged in battle against Magicians (shush, those sorts of things happen in the world of the book. She'd tried grounding the kids earlier, and it hadn't worked.) She is brave, supportive and funny, and then just dead, and it's devastating.

And you can always kill your main character if you want to really break your readers. Seven Little Australians is one of those books that most non-Australians have never hard of. For the first few years of my life I was in this happy group, until on one visit my Mum asked if I had read it yet and I let slip my ignorance. It soon arrived in a gaily wrapped parcel: I opened it, read it, and was further convinced that my parents were locked in a conspiracy to send me into a lifelong existential crisis.

You won't be surprised to learn that the book is about seven young Australians – all siblings. There's Meg the oldest, Pip the oldest boy, Judy the one everyone loves, Nell the vague, Bunty the lazy, Baby the pleasant four-year-old, and The General, who is actually the baby and the son of the stepmother of the other children. They all do the sorts of things that children in the 1880s did, except with kangaroos, though really, you read most of the book for the Adventures of Judy, which are nothing short of brilliant. She ends up with tuberculosis after running away from boarding school, and we watch in horror as she collapses, coughing up blood, but then she gets better and they all go to the country for her to recover her health. And they have a jolly old time running around in sun-drenched sequences to the scent of healthy eucalyptus. At which point she gets crushed by a falling tree!

This was the book that convinced me Australians are Hard Core. They don't just kill their otter heroes, they kill their beloved fictional child heroines!

Just … just be sure they stay dead. I mean, I love a last-minute bleep from the heart monitor as much as the next person, and I can even come at the excellence inherent in a Lucy Westenra-like rise from the grave. Hell, I'll take a decaying zombie lurch if there's a chap called Shaun involved. But by about the third or fourth time Buffy was 'Dead! Oh, no, hang on, spoke too soon ...' I was ready to drop her through the Hellgate myself.

And the one other thing you need to watch out for is killing a character who is marked for death. Oh, your audience will forgive you if it's Star Trek and you've thought to put them into a red shirt, because that's tradition. But if it's a sweet-faced young innocent who comes into the plot and is kind and gentle and makes the hard-hearted old so-and-so reassess their life and probably even fall in love for the first time ever and then the innocent is TRAGICALLY STRUCK DOWN, then your reader will look at your words and say 'Seriously? What is this, Jodi Picoult**?'

3. How should you kill them?
Again, you have a few broad choices. Slowly or quickly? Tragically or ironically?

The how of character death is as important as the who, and dictates how the death will impact on your story. A slow death is known about in advance: an illness, an injury, a deadly situation that cannot be escaped from, an inescapable plot device, such as a wacky curse … It will drive a large part of the story from the time the reader learns about it. Sometimes it becomes the whole story, such as in most of Jodi Picoult's oeuvre, practically every story involving a bright young woman with a cough looking for love, and films like Gladiator. Now you may raise your eyebrows at that last one, but Maximus begins to die the moment he loses his command and family, and the stabby bleedy bits at the end are just the means to stop him actually breathing.

Slow deaths have the advantage of generating a wave of emotional response within the audience. This can be enormously touching as we travel with the characters' journey through despair, denial and, usually, acceptance and hope the one who is dying will fulfill their hopes and dreams along the way and that their friends and loved ones will be able to get past their death. Or it can be manipulative crap as we end up shouting 'Drown! Drown! Drown! For the love of bunnies would you finally go under, you fucker?!' at Leonardo di Caprio. It's possible that I am not the best audience for this type of story.

A quick death can come at any time in a story, and from any cause. Though in books, films and TV, it's most likely to be brain aneurysm, car accident or serial killer. Quick deaths usually come towards the end of a story, most often after you have already been lulled into loving the character (see above) and quite often after you've been lulled into thinking that tragedy has been avoided or averted. If they happen at the start of a story, then they usually exist to set up the plot that follows (a murder mystery, or The Big Chill, for example).

These deaths are most usually the tension-increasing or direction-changing sort, because they come without warning. Beforehand, both your characters and readers had one set of expectations for your story, afterwards, those expectations are all changed. Remember that the fallout will affect your readers as much as your characters – and for goodness' sake, remember that it will affect ALL of your characters who are connected with the death, and many of those one step removed, too.

Most deaths are tragic, by their very nature. Some are also ironic. For example, I've been involved in a ridiculous number of motor vehicle accidents, but am very lucky to still be walking and comparatively unscathed. The worst and most recent ones were all while cycling in Sydney, as a result of which I became active in lobbying for separated bike paths and traffic calming measures. If I were to die being hit by a hipster riding a fixie on a bike path, that would be an ironic death. And potentially comedic. I actually take extra care when crossing roads to make sure that I am not taken out by a Morris Minor because I do not want to put my friends in the awkward situation of having to sit through my funeral desperately trying not to laugh.

Comedic deaths can be ironic, but are more often just surprising or ridiculous. Think of Marvin in Pulp Fiction, chatting away merrily in the back of a car, when, er, I think they went over a bump? I don't know, it's been years. Anyway, some sudden movement occurs, a gun goes off, and he loses his head. After a moment of shocked silence, the cinema I was in erupted in laughter at that scene. Comedy deaths can work to show up life's absurdities, or to fit in with a particular genre such as farce or satire, or else as a darker, more political device. Think about Catherine the Great: I bet the first thing that popped into your head was the slanderous lie spread about her death by her enemies. If you want to eclipse the goodness of a character's life, make their death absurd.

And just one little side note: it's worth a bit of effort to focus on plausibility. Poor old Sammy was run down while jogging on one of the safer stretches of road in Sydney, which is traffic managed to within an inch of its life and usually crawling with rangers and police. The fastest I've seen anyone go down there is 30km/h, which is a broken leg maybe, but you'd have to be incredibly unlucky to be hit let alone killed at that speed***.

4. How do you break the news in story?
There are two basic categories of fictional death: on page/screen and off page/screen.

On page, your characters and readers will experience the death simultaneously, whether it be a tear-jerking slipping away or a shocking sudden disaster. You will deal with the immediate trauma of those present, as well as the follow-up as they break the news or deal with the loss (unless it's the final scene of your work). If you are killing someone on page, you need to get it right, because readers care about these things. If it's a gritty urban drama and your character is killed at 9pm in a real-life alley, you need to make sure that it is not an alley that is actually littered with late-night bars frequented by yuppies and swarming with security staff. If it's a supernatural drama and your werewolf is shot, you need to specify that it is with a silver bullet unless you want your readers waiting for her to reappear. If you are in fact Jodi Picoult, you need to explain how parents can raise a child who is intelligent enough to understand complex issues regarding the morality of foetal testing, but too stupid to know that you shouldn't go messing around on thin ice.

An off-page death can avoid many of these issues, and also the charge of emotionally exploiting your readers, but it runs the risk of coming across as something flat and removed. It doesn't need to be, though. To go back to Dance Academy, this was one thing they did very well. We didn't see Sammy die, we saw him heading out on a jog, and having a brief chat with a guy handing out leaflets. Then we cut to another character, who was at a nearby location. In that character's scene we heard an ambulance siren in the background. We stayed with this character as he walked around towards the Opera House, past police compassionately interviewing the upset leaflet guy. Then we cut back to the ballet school, where the Principal picked up her phone and received the news. She walked down to inform Sammy's main teacher and classmates, after which we cut back to walking lad, who had reached the Opera House and was stopped on the steps by a phone call.

Every moment and reaction layered on top of the last, first to create a sense of dread, then one of grief. It was an extremely effective set of scenes, as was the follow-up back at the ballet school. Some characters responded with hysterics, others with shock, others with practicality, others with simple sadness, and many were shown only in passing, which made for very effective storytelling and very convincing acting and direction. Visual media have the advantage over the written word in this sort of thing, but that started as a screenplay. It's 3am as I write, so I am too tired to come up with a similar example from a book, but they're out there.

One of the most heartbreaking off-page deaths I've ever read is in a memoir, Decca Mitford's Hons and Rebels. She spends 250-odd pages detailing minutely the mischief, madness and marvellousness of her life and adventures, then stops, just as her husband Esmond is heading off to war. His death is mentioned in a footnote on the second-last page. Of the quite-successful 21 years of her life that pass between the last page and her writing the memoir, there is not a word. There is no Esmond, so there's no point talking about them.

If you have an off-page death, consider how the news is broken. It can add another layer to the story at that point. Mostly, writers go for sensitive, kind newsbreakers, which I am all for in both literature and in reality. But a few years ago, a friend of mine died. He had been seriously ill and we weren't sure if he was going to pull through. When he died, I was at work without access to personal email, and the friends who were at the hospital didn't have it in them to ring around. So one mentioned it on email to a few people, one of the recipients of that email forwarded the news to an email list, then a mutual friend rang me at work demanding: 'Is it true?'

It was a shocking and brutal way to learn my friend had died, particularly because I had to hold it together and ring one of the hospital set for confirmation, then pass it onto my tactless boofhead friend. And yet … Duncan, who had died, would often tease me for being unable to tell any of our friends to get knotted when they were being dickheads. And I swear, even at the time, I was thoroughly aware that he would be pissing himself laughing at my predicament, at the same time as patting my shoulder and passing tissues. He would have pointed out that I could make something really dramatic out of that in a scene, and he would have been right. (And then he would have clocked my boofheaded friend in the nose for being such a dick, because he was a good lad.)

5. Should you warn your readers?
And here's one of the few places were I think one rule applies for fandom and another for mainstream media, and am happy with that.

In fandom, there are strong traditions in place warning the reader of character death. Now, as a writer, I fully agree that it can diminish the impact of a plot twist. But since the tradition of warning in fandom exists, hidden character death is not fair dealing with your audience. It's like walking into a G-rated film and discovering it's porn.

Which is not to say that if you, as a writer, are utterly opposed to warning for death in your fanfic that you are wrong. Instead, there are any number of conventions that allow fanfic writers to say 'this fic may or may not "require" warnings, but I choose not to mention any'. The Archive of Our Own warnings are particularly well done for that exact reason.

I think it is entirely reasonable for writers to say upfront that they refuse to use warnings. But they do need to say that, in each and every fic. There's no point saying 'Oh, I'm famous for not believing in warnings', because I was once in a lift with the then-Prime Minister of Australia and asked him what he did for a living. No matter how famous something is, a lot of people will not know about it (I still have no idea what One Direction is, and am fine with that.)

Readers can then choose whether or not they will read your fic not knowing what is in it. And having made that choice, they take the consequences on themselves and agree not to bitch about it afterwards.

In mainstream media, I hate to be forewarned. Character death is used by writers for significant effect in their works, and to have that effect, it needs to come as a surprise. Unless it's a film about otters, dogs or old people – then I usually check with a friend who's seen it first.

It's actually quite hard to remain unspoiled about character death in popular culture these days. Not only are people overly keen on sharing details on Twitter and Tumblr, without the considerate spoiler cuts of LJ's thoughtful denizens, but sometimes books, films and TV spoil themselves through their promotions. You will not be shocked to learn that I have a Dance Academy example: the promos for the second-last week of Season 2 asked 'And how will they deal when tragedy strikes?!' and then showed all the main cast members EXCEPT for Sammy looking shocked and grieving.

Now, you may be dazzled by my powers of perception, but I had my suspicions that Sammy was unlikely to survive. So when I watched the third-last episode of the series and heard the ambulance in the background, I thought, 'Oh, you BASTARDS! You actually killed him!' because I had been half-hoping for a fake-out. Of course, this was the fault of the publicity department, not the writers. In terms of the story-telling, there was nothing to give it away. Which is why writers should be able to vet the publicity materials!

Just … just don't be Jodi Picoult. I can pick up one of her books, read the first 10 pages, and tell you the end, including the body count. Which was actually a good thing when I had to review her for some of the girlier mags I have reviewed for -- saved me a lot of
time. I know that she is a guilty pleasure for some people, the way NCIS is for me (shut up, I know it's totally dodgy, but Mark Harmon!), and there is also a genuine audience for books that are that unashamedly transparent. However, she has that market sewn up, and all its dollars are already hers. You can do something more complex than that, and you probably should.

6. How do you walk the line between emotional effect and exploitation?
If you've managed to read this far, you'll have noticed that some deaths carry more weight on page or on screen than others. And this is because audiences are not stupid: we can spot it when you've decided to kill someone off for narrative convenience. Which is not to say that you can never kill anyone off for narrative convenience – crime fiction wouldn't survive! Just, take a good look at your character's death and check that it is there for a reason.

And if you're not writing a crime novel, then 'because I need it to advance the plot' is not a good reason to kill someone. (Though I am willing to see it as a good reason NOT to kill someone, cf Hamlet.)

Joss Whedon is a writer who's a bit patchy on death. A lot of the deaths in his work have real emotional impact, while some just leave the reader/watcher annoyed. Serenity, the film that followed Firefly, has several character deaths in it and some of them lack the sincerity of others. For example, Shepherd Book is their gentlest and oldest character. He's killed offscreen by the Big Bad who are showing their muscle to Mal, Our Hero, by letting him know that no one he loves will be safe now. Book's death in fact has the opposite effect and inspires Mal to take on the Big Bad.

But Book's death is not super convincing. Mostly because his only reason for appearing in the film seems to be to inspire Mal. He's been there for about two minutes earlier on to say 'remember your conscience, Mal!' , then our heroes fly back to find Book's settlement shot up and Book manages to live just long enough to tell Mal that he needs to have faith. Because clearly, it's all about Mal, not the fact that everyone Book cared for in his community has just been ruthlessly slaughtered.

Later in the film another character dies, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the midst of war, and there's no time to mourn or pay their respects or do anything other than keep going and try to survive. And that death packs a genuine emotional punch.

Probably the best rule of thumb when killing someone off is to ask yourself two questions: Am I doing this because it's a handy way to advance the plot at this point? Am I doing this because I want to make the reader cry here? And if the answer to each of those questions is yes, see if there's another way of accomplishing the same thing.

And then kill that character off two chapters later when no one will be expecting it ;-)

Or else, if you really have to bump someone off and are worried that you may be a little obviousness in your plot devicity, redeem yourself by writing the fallout so beautifully that your readers will forgive you anything.

7. What's the fallout?
The best character deaths seriously matter in the book or film. And they leave the reader with the sense that they will go on mattering after the last page or scene. If you've experienced the death of someone close to you, you will know that it has broad and ongoing effects in life after the immediate grief.

People experience grief differently. I remember at my father's funeral we all made jokes, because he was a funny man, and his friends who hadn't seen him much since university thought that we were all heartless ghouls, as they had forgotten him being jokey and witty and remembered him being soulful and musical (which he had been at uni, it was a far more successful pick-up technique than being funny, his best friend later informed me. Yes, we are an appalling family.) They were mourning the person they had lost, just as we were mourning the person we had lost: it just wasn't exactly the same person.

I remember back in the late 70s going to the funeral of one of Dad's friends, a Courtesy Aunt as it was called in those days. Her family spoke movingly of their grief at her life being cut off so young, before she could marry and have children, ignoring the fact that her longterm girlfriend and the girlfriend's son who they had been raising together were right there, in the third pew, behind the 'family'.

I remember feeling bad for feeling almost nothing at the recent death of an acquaintance, who had been a very close friend to some people I love, but who had also been a terrible husband to someone I really care for, and who had always treated his body like a disposable item. My only shock there was learning that he was nearly 10 years younger than me, when he looked that much older.

Let each of your characters react to the death in ways that are true to them, and your reader will forgive you killing off someone they love, because the payoff in the text is worth it. The narrative resolution that comes out of your character's death will be enough to make your audience forgive you for the death itself, if it is powerful enough.

NB baby otters is NOT sufficient resolution.

For my final Dance Academy example, Tara the young character from the country had been told about Sammy's death by the boy who heard the news outside the Opera House. Together, they walked back to the ballet school, where they found their classmates all mourning in the common room. Cat, the emotional tempest character, was in floods of tears and being supported by Miss Raine, the Principal, when Tara arrived and immediately moved over to hold up and hug her friend. Then Tara looked around the room and saw someone was missing. 'Abigail …' she said, and Cat looked shocked and the two of them left the room. Abigail, who had always been the Dancing Machine, was Sammy's dance partner and ex-girlfriend: she'd removed herself from the group and was crying in the shower with all her clothes on. Each reaction was true to the individual, including Tara's dazed practicality. It revealed truths about them as individuals, and also about the group that the storytelling had previously built a groundwork for. If you can manage this, your audience will appreciate it, even if they're working their way through two boxes of tissues.

Character death can work to bring the other characters closer together, or to push them apart. There doesn't even need to be any sense of guilt or blame attached to the divisions: as one of my old friends said, 'Every time I'm around all of you, I think he should be there, too, and he's not. So it's just easier not to be around you.'

And sometimes death just brings out the worst in people. If you recall my boofheaded friend from an anecdote above, we probably would have got past that, but at the funeral both he and his wife embarked on a chorus of 'if only he'd used natural medicines rather than chemotherapy' (they had a business selling natural medicines) that was the final straw. Which was as much to do with my short-temperedness as it was to do with their inappropriateness. No, that's a lie. It was mostly them. I didn't slap, strangle or swear at either of them, really, I'm practically a saint.

All of this will impact on where in the text you kill off your character, because if it's partway through, then you will need to play out the repercussions. And they will need to affect the rest of your story. I'm not saying that every character will spend the rest of the book weeping, but there will be changes across your textural cast. And if someone does spend the rest of the book weeping, or wearing a wedding dress, or refusing to step outside the house, then that becomes a major part of your plot.

Taking the time to think through your fictional homicidal impulses always pays off, because it means the difference between a death that is believable and that your readers remember crying over and saying to their friends 'Oh god, you have to read it, it'll break your heart, but it's so worth it!' and one that has people shutting their book, closing their laptop or turning off their screen and saying 'Well, that was just shit.'

Readers who say they hate character death don't always really hate it, and even teenaged dance fans can come to grips with a beloved character being taken out if it's done well enough. But if you kill a character badly, they'll never forgive you. Because it's not just a death, it's a waste.

* Tarka the Otter and Ring of Bright Water are the two films to watch out for. And avoid like the plague if you value your cheerful outlook on life. The only thing crueller to inflict on children than these two films is Seven Little Australians. There are a few significant downsides to having an English father and Australian mother, spending my childhood dealing with Character Building Story was one of them!

** In the interests of fairness, Jodi Picoult has some beautiful turns of phrase and pays her readers the credit of being mature and intelligent enough to deal with the discourse of complex emotional, moral and ethical topics. Some people find her novels engaging, involving and profoundly moving. They are all much, much nicer people than I am. 

*** That said, Sydney motorists are 90% lovely and 10% homicidal twats, so it's not impossible.
Current Mood: tiredtired
rosathome on April 28th, 2012 11:59 am (UTC)
The author who I most admire in her handling of character death is Antonia Forest. She takes brave choices in having both liked and unliked characters (and utterly beloved pets) die so that her characters have to struggle with grief and also with the guilt at not feeling grief. In fact it is the grief, rather than the death, which is her main purpose in using this kind of plot.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
I'll have to hunt her down! And yeah, it's the consequences that make character death work or fail for the audience, every time.
(no subject) - rosathome on April 28th, 2012 04:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
mrsquizzicalmrsquizzical on April 28th, 2012 12:04 pm (UTC)
what a wonderful read and a wonderful resource. thank you!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2012 01:21 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome! I'd spent the whole week having thinky thoughts, as they say, so thought I may as well write it all up ;-)
E McGeemelusinahp on April 28th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
Wow, thank you for this, BB. Really fascinating. Lots of food for thought and I'll definitely keep your points in mind in my future writing.

I'm thinking back now over the character deaths that had the most impact on me and also the ones that didn't work. Have you seen Children of Men? Also, the death of some very minor characters in The Beach (the book, not the movie). Fred, definitely (although I was willing to sacrifice anyone if she'd let Harry live), the character who dies near the later third of Mockingjay.

It's a way of presenting a death with a kind of shocking matter of fact-ness. Very hard to pull off, imo, but for me incredibly powerful.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC)
HEE! I, too, was happy to see quite a lot of characters go ahead of Harry. Anyone but Hermione, I think it was ;-)

Children of Men was brilliant, because the writers had set up the world from the start as one in which life had come to mean less and less, so it became a part of the revolution in their world that the deaths we were witnessing meant more and more.

And as for that Mockingjay death -- super, super-clever writing there because it was both convincing as an organic death within the context of the novel for us as readers, and as an identifiably manufactured death from the POV of the characters. I only read that trilogy last month, and was so impressed. Must get to my March books write-up, but I have a fic to finish ...
ecosopherecosopher on April 28th, 2012 01:11 pm (UTC)
Oh, Jodi Picoult. Yes.

Some excellent thoughts here. My current story involves a character death, and it was only today that I was just deciding how she should die (quickly, I think). But your musings also prompted me to question my real reasons, and whether it's necessary. (It certainly would make things neater).

Great job. And thanks for the Dance Academy refs... I don't get the chance to watch it much these days, so thanks for catching me up :)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2012 01:38 pm (UTC)
I confess that I am just not Jodi Picoult's intended audience. She frustrates me, because she clearly wants to respect her readers by engaging in Big Issues, but then, the way she does it … Well, at least she's better than what passes for political debate on moral issues in most of the Anglosphere.

Your stories that I have read have all treated the characters with respect, which is the only real 'trick' to killing characters well, so I have faith in you!

And OH GOD! DANCE ACADEMY BROKE MY HEART! It was terrific. The writing this season has been through the roof. I'm too broke to afford the DVDs yet (and unsure if they're even out), but I will happily lend you my Season 2 when I get it if you like. And you can borrow S1, too ;-)
(no subject) - ecosopher on April 29th, 2012 02:02 am (UTC) (Expand)
something clevershantismurf on April 28th, 2012 03:39 pm (UTC)
Fascinating treatise...you put a lot of work into this! If I ever decide to kill off a character or beta for someone who does, I will send them here!

Your initial otter example instantly made me think of Bambi, perhaps one of the most emotionally scarring children's movies ever imo.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
Obviously it's a secret plan to make everyone curious about Dance Academy ;-)

Bambi is DEEPLY scarring! So was Dumbo, actually. The only reason I could cope with them was that they were animated -- American kids flicks were tougher in the old days.
(no subject) - shantismurf on April 28th, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on April 29th, 2012 12:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - ladyjaneva on April 30th, 2012 06:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - ladyjaneva on April 30th, 2012 06:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - blamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 04:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
auntpurl: jayne excuse me while I whip this outauntpurl on April 28th, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
Great post! Thanks very much for writing it up.

Jodi Picoult is a plodder. She's at A and has to get to B and you can watch her methodically, grindingly get from A to B. We all know what both A and B are from the beginning, and all the gears and mechanisms are showing as she plods along. It's crap.

I, too, was willing to sacrifice anyone except Hermione as long as Harry lived. I thought Ron was destined for the chop maybe, til she killed off Fred, then I knew Ron was safe. Remus and Tonks' deaths were rather cheap, I thought. Especially Remus. And the fact it was both of them, and they had a brand-new baby.

And I'm using my Jayne icon in honour of the Firefly/Serenity references.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 29th, 2012 12:48 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!

Poor old Jodes! I think that she just comes from a different school of storytelling, and she obviously has a devoted audience, just … well, I'm so not it. And nor are you. We're the naughty girls at the back of the theatre snacking on chocolate ;-)

THERE WAS GREAT FEAR FOR RON! Though I confess I was willing to let him go if it kept Hermione alive. It would have hurt, though.

I think she was trying to say something about the vagaries and unfairness of war with Tonks and Remus dying, but it was just too throwaway -- poor old Harry has no emotions left for them when it came to it -- so it lost its impact.

I really, really need to rewatch Firefly. Ah Jayne ... and his hat ...
(no subject) - josephinestone on April 25th, 2013 04:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Lisbet Karlsdottirlisbet on April 28th, 2012 04:55 pm (UTC)
I remember a Charlaine Harris series (a non-Sookie Stackhouse book) where she killed off a person who was very close to the main character. That death hurt me deeply, and I didn't see the point of it, unless she had wanted to cause her readers to sink into deep depression. I still read her books (she's my guilty pleasure!) but I don't trust her one bit anymore.

John Steinbeck was like that, too. In almost every one of his books, people have tragedies and die horribly. He used to be practically required reading for all middle and/or high school literature classes in the US. I was never sure why, unless the goal was to teach young, impressionable adolescents that the world was a horrible and cruel place, full of untrustworthy people who would lie to you (especially your parents!), or others who would hunt you down and kill your family. Or the next best thing, you could just live in unspeakable poverty, and then die young. (sorry for ranting, I dislike his work intensely, while recognizing his talent. My parents had all his books and they both liked him. I just wish he had used his powers for good, instead...)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 29th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
I do like Charlaine's Sookie books! But yeah, a character death that is just there to make everyone weep isn't much chop. And she is trigger-happy when it comes to her characters! I feel confident that Sookie and Eric will survive, but no one else!

And OH GOD, JOHN STEINBECK! I had managed to wipe all of his novels from my memory, but they've just come back. Look, at least the deaths in his novels worked to show up a world of injustices and corruption, but they were depressing as hell nonetheless ...
(no subject) - lisbet on April 29th, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - scificionado on May 6th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lisbet on May 8th, 2012 12:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
ozdobeozdobe on April 28th, 2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for a great post to liven up my dull and dreary Saturday morning in Oregon - it is drizzling of course and the leaden skies promise more to come, possibly via buckets - ha!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 30th, 2012 06:49 am (UTC)
You're very welcome! We've had a wet few months down in Sydney, so I know the feeling!
κάτι τρέχει στα γύφτικα_inbetween_ on April 28th, 2012 05:24 pm (UTC)
I just read one line inside the cut, and I agree heartily (number 5, line 1).
Also I want to try that otter test on someone but my OZ friends don't have webcams.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:09 pm (UTC)
I don't know they were big films in Oz, few of my friends here have seen them. It would be too cruel to show them just for experiment's sake!
(no subject) - _inbetween_ on May 10th, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Shivshiv5468 on April 28th, 2012 05:40 pm (UTC)
Kill all the children, just leave the Otters alone!!

Can you imagine the fuss there would be if little kiddies saw those films today?

(also, I am just about able to breathe again and will be picking up the threads of the project soon ie next week)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)
YAY PROJECT! I am looking forward to you picking it up as I am only just restraining myself from leaping ahead. Impatience is my middle name!

And yes, there would be long letters pages online if they were re-released today ...
secretsolitairesecretsolitaire on April 28th, 2012 06:21 pm (UTC)
Very interesting essay! As a reader I've definitely felt like some deaths were done well and some were just...senseless, narratively speaking. Played for cheap emotion. (And sometimes it works, even when I'm annoyed!)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:18 pm (UTC)
I agree that sometimes an annoying death still works, I think it's because either the rest of the story is strong enough to get past it, or else it's only a cheap death in one area of narrative construction and is written more thoughtfully in the others. Or, you know, it's Mark Harmon …
Dedicated Escape Artistjadzialove on April 28th, 2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
I so love to read your words! Informative or entertaining and in this case, both.

All of it was well-said and I wanted you to know I thought so, but my true reason for making this comment is: I nearly peed myself laughing when I discovered that we share an embarrassing and somewhat inexplicable (on my part) liking of NCIS. I do love Abby, so maybe that's my reasoning... But it struck me so close to home because I spend countless hours defending this choice of entertainment to Paige, who thinks it is the dumbest show ever created, which is absolutely ridiculous as there have been (and actively are) very many crap shows on TV.

Solidarity, sister!

blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
It's SO not the stupidest show on TV! It's not even top 20! I mean, sure, it's not clever, but … well, Abby! Who is brilliant! And Gibbs, who is … Gibbs!

And on our other conversation, from you, hugs would always be cool :-)
pioniepionie on April 28th, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
Interesting essay! I have to say that Annabel's death was one of the most affecting literary deaths I've encountered. I actually did mental hand-ringing and 'oh the waste' for ages after finishing the book. I really liked her!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
Me too! I was half-bereft that she was bopped on the head, because I thought that the author could have made a really interesting story while keeping a parental figure in the mix, but it would have been very hard to get to the places she wanted to push the characters to for the third book, so, alas, a-bopping it was. But she was SUCH a great character!
Meredythmeredyth_13 on April 28th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
They killed Cedric?

You Bastards!!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
Just the once ;-)
anna_unfoldinganna_unfolding on April 28th, 2012 09:12 pm (UTC)
Brammers. Wow, this is so incredibly well-done and helpful and a little cathartic, too, for all of us who have felt exploited by improperly written character death. I just kept thinking as I was reading, that I couldn't wait to send this link out to my friends in other fandoms so that your thoughts can be taken to heart in many places/genres/etc. I also kept smiling at the little bits of YOU in here; you are really delightful and your experiences that you shared were intimate and general all at once, and not gratuitous. In a way, your sharing of the personal stories follows your guideline for character death: it illuminated what you were saying and made it personal, without devolving into a journal entry where everyone wants to comment with sth like "OH HOW AWFUL FOR YOU!" So great job with that!

I also kept wanting a discussion group after each section:

Come up with your own example of a fic/book/film/play that embodies Brammer's point(s) here, share them, and discuss. Do you agree with her/our examples? Why or why not? Are there exceptions to her point here?

lol. Thank you so much! Def bookmarking to read through again next time I consider writing char death. <3
blamebramptonblamebrampton on May 10th, 2012 05:28 pm (UTC)
I think my idea of hell is everyone saying 'Oh, how awful for you' -- at the points in my life when that is the only thing that a kind person would say to me, I've usually run away and hidden until there is the possibility of a spot of comedy. This is what comes of learning your coping mechanisms from pets ...

I'm so pleased it all made sense: this is not a given with my ramblings! And oh, you made me laugh with the idea of critiquing the critic. That would be fun, I could argue for and against myself! XXX (And sorry for the late reply, but you know I am crap!)
(no subject) - anna_unfolding on May 10th, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anna_unfolding on May 10th, 2012 09:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)