Character Death

Most people reading popular modern fantasy are used to seeing characters die, maybe even popular characters. On the other side of the text it can be hard to pull the trigger even if the plot demands it. You grow attached to those characters.

Sometimes, though, it’s harder than usual. Yesterday as I was writing some of the final scene of my newest book I suddenly realized the scene would be heightened if one of the characters died.

I was already running out of interesting scenes that featured a particular character, and I’m balancing a rather large cast, so it seemed as though it would be one of those spontaneous decisions that would improve the book. The death didn’t even change the outline because the character didn’t get a mention in the final sections.

And yet once I wrote the scene and its aftermath, I myself felt as though I was going into mourning. It didn’t take me long to realize why.

Back when I regularly collected rejection letters for short stories I was working with a pretty generic couple of characters. I didn’t keep much from those old stories, but I did keep some of their names, and some of the descriptions, and this particular character was one of those guys — one of the lead ones, in fact, a fellow I once liked enough to try featuring in multiple tales. I’ve recycled a number of them as supporting characters into various projects. This guy had a similar name and a similar description to that original character — but like me he was at least twenty years older.

I’d known the guy since I was a teenager, and I’d just written a death scene for him. I didn’t burst into tears, but all the sudden I felt pretty somber. And older. But then a lot of stuff I do these days reminds me that I’m getting older…

So any of you out there have character death stories you want to share? You think there’s anything fellow writers can learn from this sort of thing?

6 Comments on “Character Death

  1. In Storm Phase 4: The Blood King’s Apprentice, which is now in revisions, I killed one of my favorite characters. I had planned an out for them, but as I wrote it, I realized the out made their sacrifice meaningless. And it isn’t the sort of story where characters should get out unscathed. Looking back at the draft, it’s obvious that the character’s death was the only way, and from plot to actual draft (for me, only about 50% of what I plot stays) every bit of the story is built to make that work. So consciously I knew the sacrifice, and subconsciously, I knew there could be no out.

    But I wanted the character to live, and that’s why I planned the out. In the end, I did what was right for the story. And I trembled when I wrote it, and I cried when I was done. And I’ve never before written anything that left me quite so shaken afterward.

    And I’m going to have to do it again with another character in Book 5, and it’s going to be far worse.

    • I don’t know how I missed this for so long, David. That’s a great description of the kind of anguish a good story can put you through, even in the creation, not to mention the reading!

      I think that if you have enough distance that you’re feeling that emotional pain while you’re creating it you’re probably doing something right.

  2. I killed off a character I was quite fond of in “Alias Hook,” because his death had to have a profound effect on Hook himself, as well as the story. So it had to affect me as well, although I knew it was coming.

    But this thread reminds of one of my favorite TV show scenes from my (distant) misspent childhood. Once, on The Patty Duke Show, Patty decides to “become” a writer. She moves into the attic of the family home and starts wearing a beret. One day, her mother comes in and finds her sobbing over her writing table, and asks what’s wrong. “I’ve just killed Reginald!” Patty wails.

    • Thanks for sharing, Lisa.

      I remember seeing one or two episodes of Patty Duke, but I didn’t catch that one. I bet whoever wrote that bit had a hoot with it, and that fellow writers watching it got a chuckle…

  3. To be honest the death of Lydia in Bones of the Old Ones was one of the few supporting character deaths that emotionally affected me. Beyond the fact that the character strongly reminds me of my wife, there was a redemptive cycle that she went through that invested me emotionally in her. In some ways she transformed the most as a character.

    I look forward to seeing your newest book, I’m sure I will grieve vicariously at the death of whatever character ends up getting it.

    This is the power of not just fiction, but all narrative story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction narrative. The ability to not just give us a glimpse of another life, virtual as it may be, but to magically emotionally invest us in it.

    • I’m glad you liked Lydia; she’s one of my favorites as well. It may interest you to know that I left it open who would live and who would die in that text up until the very end of the third draft. I certainly concur that she changed the most.

      “The ability to not just give us a glimpse of another life, virtual as it may be, but to magically emotionally invest us in it.” Indeed, and it pleases me mightily that you found that in my own work. Thanks for letting me know.

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