Dispatches from the Word Mines: When Should a Writer Kill Off Their Characters? by T. Eric Bakutis

Dispatches from the Word Mines is an irregular blog series about literature and writing from the perspective of writers themselves. This entry comes to us from T. Eric Bakutis, author of Glyphbinder, a finalist for the 2014 Compton Crook Award. In this dispatch, he gives us three good reasons to kill a character. Many thanks, Eric!

As authors and readers, all of us remain tangentially aware of what we jokingly refer to as "plot armor". No matter the peril our characters face, no matter how dire their situation, somehow, some way, they'll survive. That's the thrill of reading - learning how our hero survives. If they die, it changes everything.

Important characters have been dying in stories for as long as there have been storytellers, all the way back to the Iliad. Stories without death rarely impart a true sense of peril, but we must be careful about killing off characters before their stories have played out. Unlike in real life, where deaths happen randomly and stories end without resolution all the time, death in genre fiction needs a rationale.

Why? Because killing a pivotal character too soon or for the wrong reason breaks the storytelling compact between the author (the storyteller) and the reader (the listener), which is "I'm going to tell you an interesting story." Killing off a character before resolving the interesting story elements you've introduced is no different from ending your novel on a cliffhanger. It leaves your readers unsatisfied and scratching their heads, asking the last question an author wants to hear. "Why did you waste my time?"

Good genre fiction, unlike life, is not random. Pivotal characters must die at the right times for the right reasons or their death, which would otherwise be a memorable event, falls flat. A well planned death leaves your readers sad, shocked, and entertained. A poorly planned death just leaves them annoyed.

So why should you kill a pivotal character? When should you do it? What follows is one author's opinion, referencing examples of a character death's done right in popular books and movies. Be warned: following are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire, Serenity, and Lord of the Rings.

Reason 1 to Kill a Character: The Story Cannot Proceed without the Character's Death.

Many consider the unexpected beheading of Ned Stark, the primary POV character in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, to be a shocking twist and a sign Martin will kill off anyone at any time. While this is arguable, there are very good reasons Ned dies. It's the only way Martin's story occurs as it does, and by the time Ned loses his head his personal story is over. He fought. He lost. Time to go home.

A Song of Ice and Fire begins in a time of (relative) peace in a Westeros still weary of war, and war can't start again without a truly significant catalyst. Ned Stark's death is that catalyst. Like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in World War I, Joffrey's execution of Ned Stark (when everyone, Lannisters included, agreed he would take the black and leave King's Landing) plunges the houses into civil war.

If Ned Stark doesn't die, the north doesn't attack the south. Robb Stark never promises to marry Walder Frey's daughter, never meets Jeyne Poole, and never dies at the Red Wedding. Caitlyn Stark returns to Winterfell with Ned. Tyrion Lannister remains comfortable and drunk, and Jaime Lannister isn't captured and never loses his hand. The repercussions of Ned's death play out through every other book in the series.

The majority of these pivotal events and character arcs can only occur because Joffrey, in a capricious fit, executed a man he should have released. Ned Stark's death must occur to tell this story. He must die.

Reason 2 to Kill a Character: To Build Suspense for the Final Act.

Another death often considered (wrongly) to occur only for shock value is that of Wash, professional dinosaur puppeteer and intrepid pilot of Serenity. It's often said that Joss Whedon kills characters purely because it makes fans cry, and yes, Wash's death was very sad - but what's more important than the fact that Wash dies without warning is when he dies. Right before a horde of reavers attack our crew.

In the swan song to a long running serial, we expect some amount of death. A few characters will die heroically and with great fanfare, their purpose in the story long concluded. In Serenity, Shepherd Book is our sacrificial lamb. He has happily retired, his death is appropriately heroic, and he gets some great last words. His death satisfies our need for "realism". With the seemingly obligatory heroic death now safely out of the way, we can watch in relative comfort and find out how the rest of heroes survive.

Except Wash doesn't survive. Serenity crash lands, the crew is surrounded by reavers, and Wash takes a stake through the heart. Dead, just like that. At that moment, every other character is suddenly in peril.

Wash's death shocks us out of our comfort zone. If he can die, anyone can die. When Simon takes a bolt from a reaver, will he bleed out? When River jumps through the door into dozens of reavers, will they tear her apart? Will Mal somehow defeat the Operative or die heroically saving his crew?

It's not Shepherd's death or Wash's death alone that does the trick - it's the one-two punch of both. Ultimately, no one else dies and the rest of Serenity's crew makes it out alive, but during the crew's last stand, we were convinced anyone might die. Why? Because Wash died at the right time.

Reason 3 to Kill a Character: The Character's Death Makes All the Other Story Arcs More Interesting

There comes a point in a character's arc where, in the words of a great Demotivational poster "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others". The author has introduced this character, drama has unfolded, plot threads have arisen and subsequently been resolved. With their character arc now completed, our character can walk off into the sunset, never to return ... or they can die. And in dying, change how every surviving character experiences the remaining story.

A great example of this is Gandalf's death in The Lord of the Rings. By the time we enter the Mines of Moria, Gandalf's story (at least as told in the original books) has largely concluded. The Hobbit happened a long time ago, and there's little more to reveal about the Gray Wanderer. We know who Gandalf is and what he's about. He is powerful, but success due to his presence is by no means guaranteed.

When Gandalf falls into the pit with the Balrog, the story's destination doesn't necessarily change, but how its characters experience it does. The Fellowship fractures and its members follow unexpected paths. Everyone is affected by Gandalf's death and their character arcs become much more interesting.Boromir, left without guidance, succumbs the One Ring's pull. Aragorn, left without leadership, is forced to step from the shadows and become the leader he was born to be. Frodo, seeing the ring's power over all others, realizes he can't depend on anyone else to deliver it to Mordor - he must do it himself.

None of these characters would have developed as they do if Gandalf had defeated the Balrog and stayed with them through the rest of the book. And when he does finally reappear (as Gandalf the White, ultimate badass) the other characters have already completed the character arcs put into motion when Gandalf the Gray fell into the pit. The repercussions of his death have run their course.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day all we can do, as authors, is do our best to tell you a good story. If that story involves tragic death, all the better, but I feel authors have a responsibility to handle death properly, at least in genre fiction (literary fiction is a whole different game). Death should and must occur, but never in a way that simply frustrates readers or leaves previously critical plot threads forever unresolved.

As a final option, I'd like to point out that ending a character, while tragic and memorable, doesn't necessarily mean that character has to die. A character can lose everything that makes them who they are and still survive, forever changed. It's often far more interesting to destroy an established character in a way that changes them forever, and then tell the brand new story resulting from that change.

To offer one final example, a dead Jaime Lannister is another dead knight on the corpse pile. A Jaime Lannister without his sword hand is a changed character with a whole new interesting story to tell.

About the Blogger:

T. Eric Bakutis is an author and professional videogame designer living in Maryland. The staff of Balticon selected his first adventure fantasy novel, Glyphbinder, as a finalist for the 2014 Compton Crook Award. Its sequel, Demonkin, is due in December 2015. Eric's short fiction has appeared in a number of markets and he's a regular member of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle.

He blogs about virtual reality, videogame design, and writing on Gamewords, posts interesting links about writing and gaming on Twitter, and links to all of these various things on Facebook. His professional website, www.tebakutis.com, includes movies showing off videogame projects, excerpts from his short fiction, and lore and artwork fleshing out the world of his books, the Five Provinces.

Those interested in sampling his work can read the first five chapters of Glyphbinder here for free.