Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Killing off characters? Don’t mind if I do!

Mama, just killed a man.
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.
Mama, life had just begun,
But now I've gone and thrown it all away.
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

PLEASE NOTE: There be spoilers ahead.  You have been warned, matey!
You dig it the most!

For writer’s, even those playing the Writer as Evil Bastard, killing off a main character (MC for those in the know) is not something to be undertaken lightly.  Sure, sure, George R.R. Martin kills a baker’s dozen of MCs before brunch, but there’s a reason that’s so shocking and not the norm.  MCs are the eyes and ears and heart of the story.  They’re the characters through which we experience the world the author has created.  They’re the ones that we fall in love with and alongside.  We feel their hurts, their pains, their fear.  In 99.44% of the cases, they are the hero of the story, someone who is faster, stronger, quicker, smarter and sometimes just plain luckier than everyone else around them.  They fight bad guys, and bad gals, and Big Bads and monsters.

Most of all, when done correctly, readers want to experience more of the MC in other stories.  We encourage the author to write them by buying the books and leaving positive reviews.

But he's in the sequel, right?
But into every life, a little death must fall.  It certainly has to be done correctly. The mood needs to be set and the death needs to be justified. It should feed the story, forward the plot, make the other characters react.  It should not be done just for shock value.

Back in early 2001-2002 there was a rumor going around that Peter Jackson was going to kill off Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings.  Fans of nearly every stripe, from the hardcore Redbook-thumpers to the more casual read-once-a-year, aimed balls of fire and lightening in his direction.  But I recall writing a defense of Jackson for forwarding a bold concept that is actually part of the books. Tolkien stated that fighting evil takes a toll—you don't walk away unscathed.  Frodo was scarred, his body and his soul, from fighting the evil of the One Ring. More than just having Boromir die, Tolkien could have killed off Frodo and it would have been in the same light, the same tone and theme, as the rest of the story.

It’s true, you don’t have to kill off your character.  You can kill them, but then have them come back,
Druss.  'Nuf said.
sometimes stronger and better than ever.  J.K. Rowling does this for us in Harry Potter, George R.R. Martin sorta does this to us a few times.  Even Tolkien did this to us with Gandalf getting a change of clothing.  The emotional impact of a character dying, but then not dying, isn't the same as the character actually being killed and mourned over.  Think here of Boromir, or Druss the Legend, or Hoban Washburne (look it up).

If you’re going to kill off a character—really kill them—remember the audience and the impact.  Sean Bean’s death in Game of Thrones was sudden, violent, and a huge twist largely because audiences have witnessed this Hollywood scene play out happily so many times in the past.  Instead, Martin showed us what would realistically happen if a hero falls into the clutches of a Big Bad.  But the lead up to that moment, and everything about it, built a beautifully unforgettable and tragic moment that will never be forgotten.  

Or, just get Sean Bean.  That dude knows how to die!

And he dies very well!

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