Life's a game I cannot win
Both good and bad must surely end....
Everyone I love is dead
-Type O Negative, Everyone I Love Is Dead
Picture yourself as the reader: you've picked up a book, immersed yourself in it, gotten friendly with the main character and are looking forward with interest to his/her future career. This is a person you could spend the rest of your life with, you think. You're quite willing to follow him/her/possibly it to the ends of the world and beyond. And then the author wields the dread scissors and cuts that brilliant life short on page 32.
You're going to throw the book across the room, aren't you? You've done it. We've all done it. And plotted the author's grisly death in the bargain. Other authors have killed their major characters without awakening homicidal mania in you, but this one's an exception. They promised you a story about Bob and then summarily executed Bob, blithely expecting you to jump into the viewpoint of the Next Best Character (or This Was Really Who it was About All Along; or This Guy's Much Less Boring, You'll Like Him Better) without a quibble. Well, we quibble. Very much so.
There's a fine art to Killing Your Darlings. In this article, and in the series to come (because Death is such a fruitful topic, and it's the dying season, after all), I hope to make you certified sensei masters of the authorly art of character killing. Let's get started with a brief overview of the killing fields, and then we'll get into the blood and bone of it. Lots of blood. Lots of bone.
"But Dana, I Don't Want to Kill My Darlings!"
Of course not. And maybe you won't. And maybe that's okay, but if you're writing a multi-layered war epic, a mystery, a commentary on the brevity of human existence, a horror novel, or anything else that puts folks in mortal peril, you'd better get your scissors out and practice snicking. Don't be the wimpy author who never kills off anyone who matters. The readers will catch you out. They'll know you're being a sniveling coward if only the bad, the ugly, and the extras feel the sharp edge of your scissors. They'll lose respect.
And do shut up about all the authors who've gotten away with never killing off their main characters. I know all about them. That was then, this is now. And now, readers expect someone damned important to get the snick. Life works that way. People we love die. If they didn't, Type O Negative couldn't have provided that nifty title quote.
You can't even get away with killing off sidekicks anymore. Readers are wise to this tactic. Maybe you will only kill off sidekicks, but you're going to have to do some impressive prestidigitation and make it look like that unfortunate soul was never a sidekick at all. At least in a case or two.
It comes down to this, my dears, and only this: death is a huge thing, and it needs to happen to someone who matters intensely. That way the readers know you're serious.
"Fine. I'll Kill off Everybody."
Whoa, there, Captain Morbid. Don't go insane with the scissors there.
The only thing worse than the novel in which no one of any importance dies is the novel in which everybody dies. What's your reader left with? Angst. Anomie. Depression. Despair. And if that's what you want to leave them with, well and good, but most of us want to have at least a glimmer of hope shining through at the end. We're not the artsy-fartsy types who think art is only Art if it makes statements like "It's all so meaningless." We want to tell ripping good stories, not drive our readers onto Zoloft.
So wield your scissors selectively. It means more that way.
"Then Who Should I Kill and When?"
So glad you asked.
Let us formulate a set of rules here. And keep in mind what Captain Barbossa said to Elizabeth Swan: they're not rules so much as what you might call guidelines. But they're a good set of guidelines and will function as a useful navigation device through this morass of gloom and doom.
1. If you're putting your characters in mortal peril, important people must die from time to time.
2. When you kill off one of the main characters, there shall be another strong viewpoint character to pass the torch to.
3. After such a death, things shouldn't go on as if nothing much happened.
4. Refrain from bringing people back from the dead.
5. Make death matter; no killing for the sake of killing.
6. Remember that death often happens at inconvenient times, to important people in the midst of doing important things, and leaves a lot of chaos in its wake.
And to the above, big things, let me add some smaller but no less important things. Such as: keep the deathbed speeches to a minimum. Please do not torment your readers with pages of sappy words and stunning revelations while the dying person takes his/her/its time perishing.
Let there be unfinished business. Life and death are messy that way.
Don't make it easy on the good guys and brutal for the bad guys. The good can die just as hard as the bad. The bad occasionally slip the noose and end up dying in bed at a ripe old age. Life isn't fair: don't let your deaths all be.
Don't fall into obvious patterns of black and white: the good will not always die heroic, the bad not always evil to the end, although you can get away with nice crisp blacks and whites on occasion.
Research the ways of your characters' dying: I do not want to have people with crushing head wounds speaking coherently while their brains drip out their ears. I don't want people dying cleanly and swiftly from arsenic poisoning. Neither do any of your readers who are morbid enough to watch informative programs on such things.
Don't shy away from icky reality, in other words. And if you don't, the readers will know you're serious about all this death stuff. They'll know that the stakes in your books are extremely high.
"But Dana, You Still Haven't Answered My Question!"
In a minute, you harpy.
Who and when are excellent questions. Far more important than how, really: how usually takes care of itself. After all, if you're planning to kill your victim off in the middle of a huge medieval battle fought with swords and morningstars and spears and arrows, you're probably not going to end up bonking him on the head with a meteor. You'd better not, anyway. Unless of course it's a meteor thrown by an angry god, which could work depending on the sort of story you're telling.
Why's a good question, with usually a very simple answer: because. Because if you're on a chaotic battlefield, you're likely to get in the way of something sharp or heavy. If you've pissed off the Mafia, you're likely to end up fitted with concrete footwear. Stands to reason. Because bad things happen to bad people and good people and indifferent people. Unless your whole story is focused on answering that question, why usually doesn't have to be given much of an answer at all. Just... because it was liable to happen in that situation, that's why.
Where is also liable to arise naturally. No sweat there. And what kind of slides in via how, so there we are: most of the five W's and one H taken care of, leaving us with
Told you we'd get there.
Let's start with who. Who you gonna kill? Hopefully not the person presented at the beginning as the focal point of the whole story. That's just frankly annoying. You're the author, damn it: if you could see it coming, why the hell did you set this person up as the main character? That's what your reader's going to be thinking. And you're probably going to smirk and say, "Well, I did it that way so I could trick you, and it worked!" -which is never a good answer to give to your formerly-loyal readers.
A caveat, here: if the main character dies at the very end of the story, and his/her/its death was the point, then it's fine. No problem. Even I, A Very Tough Egg as a reader, will let you get away with that, and cheer you on. Think Braveheart. That's a main-character-death that worked.
So, not the main character. Not THE main character, or the person you've promised as the main character. If you spend the entire first third of the book building that one person up only to go snickety-snick, you're going to have angry readers. You made a promise you didn't keep. And sure, life happens that way, but stories shouldn't. If you're writing the book and it turns out that the person you've placed all of your focus and hope into turns out dead well before the end, make sure you go back and lay the foundations for who the real main character is. Doesn't have to be obvious, mind. You can make it subtle, but at least hint to the reader that there's someone even more important coming to take up the torch.
I shall give you a couple of cautionary tales here. First, Emerson, my favorite whipping boy. You remember "Call me Ishmael." You remember how he suddenly decided, after many chapters of building one character, that the story wasn't really about that guy at all and summarily washed him overboard to dispose of him and get on with the real story. Don't do that to your readers. Rewrite the beginning. Don't be lazy.
Then there's The Dreaming Tree. I think the author wanted to show things through an elf's eyes, how short mortal spans are and all that. She seems to be aiming for a multi-generational novel, but she has no strong central character or characters to pull it all together. What she's got is an elf that you never really warm to and only appears sporadically, and a bunch of folks who you latch on to saying "Ah-ha! This is who it's all about!" and then die before you've gotten to where you care about them. The book quickly loses meaning.
So, who.... let it be one (or more) of the main characters, not the main character (except with rare exceptions), and let it be someone whose death matters intensely. Let it be someone the reader would never expect, whose death is extremely inconvenient to all involved, including the author, but who is not the central focus of the tale. Ask yourself, "Whose death is going to wreak the most havoc and make the main character's cunning plans all go awry?" and then whip out your scissors. Snick.
When killing villains: do not kill off the main baddie unless you've got someone much, much worse in reserve. Someone who makes Baddie #1 look like a puppy-loving sop.
Now we come to when. And there's really several answers to that. Not too early is generally a good rule of thumb. If you're writing a genre novel, you'll need to follow, at least somewhat, the conventions of that genre (a murder mystery, after all, needs a warm body lying about before too long). But as far as vitally important characters go, well.... the reader won't think they're vitally important if you kill them off in the first few chapters.
This is what I generally advocate: kill off the important folk after you've established them as important, after the reader's gotten a chance to see how important they are, and when it's going to blow the whole thing wide open. Choose a time when the main character is going to lose someone they can't afford to lose just then. Do it when the reader is lulled into thinking that the important folk are pretty much safe from your scissors. There's nothing like the death of a really crucial character, a viewpoint character or someone very close to a viewpoint character, coming at a time when they've dodged many of the bullets aimed at them, to shock the reader out of complacency and make them really pay attention.
I'll give you a good example: The Lions of al-Rassan. There's actually two crucial folk who die there. One of them is completely unexpected, a sidekick you expect will be a sidekick forever. That death happens during one of the most beautiful parts of the book, when all seems well and the world is everybody's oyster. Things go wrong in a flash, and then a person vital to one of the main characters lies dead. It's a huge shock, especially since, up till then (nearly two-thirds along), all the important folk have gotten off with nothing more than warnings. And then, very close to the end, one of the viewpoint characters gets the scissors. Completely unexpected and, looking back on it, completely inevitable. And thus, harrowing.
Your story may support an early death or two, but don't stop there. Have more important folk in reserve to sacrifice. The most important deaths, after all, generally should take place late in the game, when the tension is almost at the climax and you really want to show that nobody's sacred here. Kill off a fairly important person within the first half to show you mean business. Kill off the REALLY important person towards the end to show just how bad it's about to get and make the reader think, "Oh, shit, I don't think X is going to survive this!"
And, whatever you do, don't space out the deaths in predictable patterns. The readers will pick up on that, consciously or otherwise. If you have a habit of killing off an important person every ten chapters, they'll start saying their goodbyes on the eighth chapter. You don't want that.
Thus ends the first part of our discussion. In later episodes, we'll go into the rules a bit more thoroughly. Consider this the introductory course, and hold on: there's more Death on the way.