On Killing Your Characters

We live in an age where it’s trendy to kill off your characters but let me give you a word of caution:

If you kill off all the characters I care about in your story, I no longer care about your story.

This has happened to me a few times, actually. It’s a difficult thing to manage, because the really likeable characters, the characters that everyone loves and adores, those are the ones that are often the most tempting to kill off. Look at FMA. Hughes was pretty instantly a likeable character. I don’t know anyone who won’t join me in my mourning throes whenever he gets brought up.

Huuughes! Whyyyy! Huuuuughes!

But the thing about FMA is that I also really, really like Edward. Who is the main character, after all. I like Al, I like Winry, I came to like Scar, I like Mustang and Riza and Armstrong and Bradley and – well, there are a lot of characters! And I like them.

There was a book series, Heart’s Blood I think, it was about like a dragon fighting ring thing or something. I didn’t finish it. It was a trilogy that my bestie liked a lot, and the thing about books that she likes is that somehow, I never do. (The inverse is also true. You’d think two fantasy lovers could find some common ground!) There’s nothing inherently wrong with the series but I didn’t like it much, and the only character that I really liked, to which I had a real attachment, was murdered by an angry mob in like the first book. I finished the chapter, and then because it was near the end of the book, I finished the book. But then I just didn’t…care. I hadn’t attached to any of the other characters because none of them appealed to me and I just…stopped reading.

The same thing has happened with Homestuck.

Homestuck.full.708613

Yoinked from Zerochan, posted by user Bigadoo57. There are probably still twice as many characters as are drawn here.

Homestuck has about a million and half characters. It’s an ex-treme-ly long webcomic and the plot is so convoluted that despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to adequately sum it up, not to my own satisfaction. It’s written in a series of acts, and last I checked it was still trudging towards the end in a mangled and over-drawn Act 6.

I loved Acts 1-4 of Homestuck, which followed the original main cast and encompasses everyone shown in the picture, I think… Act 5 and 6 just about doubled the cast from 1-4. Unless you count ALL THE EFFING GHOSTS in which case it multiplied the cast by infinity and I’m not really exaggerating here when I say that. Act 5 involved a lot of character death. The characters that were left that I liked, a lot of them started developing in ways that made them different enough from their original selves that I…didn’t like them so much anymore. Then we introduced a whole slew of new characters and I didn’t like almost any of them. Most of them were douchebags and a-holes. And then things got weirder in a way I couldn’t get behind, and I could get behind a lot of the weird that had happened in 1-4. It felt like the original flavor of those acts was totally lost. And then Hussie went and killed all the rest of the characters I cared about and just

I’m out.

Sadface

You killed them all. I’m out.

I’ll still wear my Terezi cosplay. I’ll still try to come up with a hyper-accurate Bec Noir cosplay because I’m insane and want to get that sword perfect. But I’m not going to finish reading Homestuck. I just…don’t care what happens to the ghosts or the kids or anything anymore because Hussie went and massacred them. And even if there’s a huge cast and there’s still more than plenty of characters left to tell the story, the homicide on all the ones I LIKED means I DON’T CARE.

I don’t hate Homestuck! And to all you Stuckies out there, glad you’re still enjoying it, I really am! I’d still even call myself a fan of Homestuck because I still really like Acts 1-4 and even some of 5. And like I said, I’d still cosplay from Homestuck.

Terezi cosplay

Myself as Terezi – used a blindfold since I couldn’t create/buy adequate glasses – and my husband as Phoenix Wright. Photo was taken by a friend of ours at Anime Banzai in Layton, UT. Yes I am short. Shut up.

But I’m not going to finish reading the story and if anyone tries to talk to me about it, I’ll just shrug and say, “eh.”

Almost all my favorite characters in Harry Potter died, too. Luckily for me, the last slew of deaths happened in the last book so I could and can finish the series without despair and apathy sinking in to the point where I don’t care.

So what do you do? If you are going to kill a character, review what you have left. In Firefly, the whole cast is friggun amazing. I love them. I love them ALL. The character deaths in Serenity were really hard. Any reminders make me want to cry all over again. But what we had left was still an amazing cast. If you kill your best character, take inventory and make sure there’s still a reason to keep on keeping on – for the reader.

If there’s not, re-evaluate your other characters. Sometimes you can’t tell they were weak until the load-bearing character is shot down, but if you see it, fix it. If your other character is crappy because they were supposed to develop to be cool, make sure they’re at least cool enough when you axe the other cool character. If you’re not sure, ask a wide variety of people who they like! If you just get one Rii who says, “Yeah I don’t care about any of your other characters”, don’t be discouraged. You can’t ever make anyone happy. But be careful with killing your best character if it seems like everyone who reads dwells too much on only the death after it happens.

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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
This entry was posted in And Other Things, General Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On Killing Your Characters

  1. I take it that A Song of Ice and Fire is not near the top of your reading list?

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  2. “If you kill off all the characters I care about in your story, I no longer care about your story.”
    Lols that made me laugh. It sounded like, “I refuse to like your story” 😛
    But yeah I agree with you. Some characters are stronger than others, and if they need to be killed off, you should work on making the other characters more compelling. That’s the only reason FMA was able to be so awesome even after Hughes’ death imo.

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  3. Caroline says:

    I don’t think anyone dies in the first Dragon’s Blood books. The second one, yeah. But the second and third books were just generally not as good anyway.
    Anyway, yeah, your point is a good one. I find it happens more with a lot of serials (incl. Homestuck of course.) For example I used to watch the original CSI religiously, for six seasons or so—a while, anyway. But eventually all the original characters were gone. I didn’t really care about the new ones. It’s a flaw on the writers’ part for not making me care about the new characters, but it’s hard to avoid with long-running TV shows because actors eventually want to move on and do other things. It’s why I do tend to get more attached to stories with a finite story arc, even when it’s a serial. (Example: the radio show Cabin Pressure, which is a four-season serial that I think was started as indefinite, but eventually came to a really satisfying ending that was better than the show just running forever and getting weaker as it goes. This may be why I’ve dropped off listening to Night Vale.)

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    • I don’t really remember super well. I just know they killed Heart’s Blood and she was the only one I liked. I mean they had her whole brood but new dragonlings as a character set rarely appeal to me much.
      Ooh, yeah, I think that is kind of a big thing with serials. The one that I’ve heard of doing things pretty well is Dr. Who, which has a fairly reasonable way of switching out characters.

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      • Caroline says:

        Yeah, that happened at the end of the secnd book, which is probably my least favorite. And then the third one was weird and surreal. First one though, great.
        Dr Who does better than most, but there’s still a definite jar when new characters are introduced. But it forces you to get closer to the new characters because there are fewer of them than the large cast of CSI, for example, and you’re usually continuing with at least one of the actors/characters you liked. Even then it’s a risk. (Actually what’s diminished my enthusiasm for Dr Who hasn’t been killing characters at all, it’s been Moffat taking over as head writer, which is a whole different problem.)

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  4. Medusa says:

    Ha, my husband would STRONGLY disagree with you on this point. It seems like we’re always coming out of some movie with him complaining about how the story would have been “richer” if so-and-so had died. He believes it makes the sacrifice of the hero’s quest that much more meaningful, and shows that when things get bad, they don’t always resolve the way we want them to. (Actually, I’m realizing now that this is totally the reason he loved the ending of Mockingjay.) Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. I don’t think every story needs a death to be emotionally gripping.

    (Random question for you, Rii. Any thoughts/advice on writing epic fight scenes? I’m struggling with one in my current WIP, and the resources I’ve found online are all for one-on-one combat. What about one-on-fifty or two-on-twenty kind of stuff? I know it’s improbable that anyone would survive that kind of situation, but that isn’t my issue. How to even begin writing it is my biggest problem.)

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    • I don’t have anything against character death, just gratuitous and excessive character death. But we’d probably disagree anyway – both my husband and I despised all the character death in Mockingjay since we didn’t find it compelling, it just felt like a gratuitous slaughter to us, heh. I do love poignant character death, but I also agree that most stories would be fine if everyone lived, too.

      Hmm…big epic fights…most of what I know comes from roleplaying, so usually I’m in a one-on-one situation. Course with my current WIP, I’ve had to work on bigger fights, and I have tried to pay attention to other epic fighters with swaths of enemies. Because even doing a one-on-one fight can be really hard to write, there’d be a lot to say. Lemmie go ahead and do next Monday’s blog post on it – that gives me time to ask my bestie about it, she’s better with fight scenes. Also gives me the space to talk about it.

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