Thou Shalt Always Kill

Last night, Sam Sykes, Chuck Wendig and Kate Elliott were chatting about character death and whether it’s becoming an overused trope in fantasy. Unfortunately, I was asleep for most of it, because: time difference, but I’m awake now and ready to stick my oar in. So without further ado…

Five Reasons not to literally Kill Your Darlings

1) It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters:

The question at the heart of almost every story is ‘what do the characters want?’ These are the stakes, and they drive the character’s actions and so drive the plot. They’re also a fantastic opportunity to say something fascinating and specific about the characters themselves. If your lead character is a budding trapeze artist, desperate for a spot on big-top roster, or a burnt-out competitive eater with one last shot at the Carolina Cronut-Consumption Cup, then those stakes give you all manner of fascinating ways into their brains. If, on the other hand, the answer to the question ‘what do they want?’ is just ‘to stay alive,’ then well, so what? Almost everybody wants to stay alive. The stakes express nothing about the people. More than that, the story doesn’t have to be about them at all, it could be about anyone.

2) Dull, dull, dullity dull.

But least life and death stakes make things exciting, right? Well, sadly no. Not for me anyway. The problem is that so much fantasy fiction defaults to life and death stakes that it’s become kinda empty. ‘Life or death’ is now often just another way of saying ‘Win or lose’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can’t construct a riveting narrative around life and death stakes. The Hunger Games is a perfect example. In the games, winning literally is living, and losing literally means death and I am totally rooting for Katniss to stay alive. But I am rooting for her to live because I like her and want her to win. She’s won me over, by being all brave and resourceful and fragile and resilient and human, and I want her to have what she wants – I would do even if it was an X-factor recording contract. I don’t want her to win merely because it’ll keep her alive.

3) The Tragedy of the Commons

Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, the economics-based argument! (Why am I the only one cheering?)

Ready? Okay, so there’s a field, right? And everyone in town gets to graze their cows on it, and everyone agrees not to graze their cows during September because you need to give the grass time to regrow. Only everyone has an incentive to cheat, and take their cows out at night to graze during September because it saves on buying hay. So everyone does that. Result: the grass has no time to regrow, it dies, the cows die, the field gets sold to developers who build a David Hasselhoff Theme Park on it, everyone loses (or wins, I’m not sure.)

Everyone with me? The field we’re all sharing in common is our reader’s sympathy and attention. They invest both in our characters. Individually, we can generate great shock value by say, beheading the guy you thought was going to be the hero of our epic trilogy at the end of book one, but collectively if everyone does that then readers will just stop trusting us, stop investing in our characters and ultimately just feel less when they read. According to some folks, this is already happening. Which, forsooth, doth roundly suck.

4) When they’re dead, they’re dead.

All future narrative choices to do with that character are now stuck in the fridge next to them, under the eggs stuck to the jam. They’re the funny one? No more jokes. They’re the lovable one? (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon) Someone else needs to make the puppy-eyes from now on. They’re the one with the awesome cobra-launching crossbow? Too bad, NO MORE SHALL THE SKY DARKEN WITH OPHIDIAN QUARRELS FLYING TO SMITE THINE ENEMIES. All the work you and the reader have put in building that character up ends here, so you’d better make it worth it, unless…

5) …you pull @*%~#ing resurrection.

Seriously guys? Seriously. It’s one thing to have life or death stakes, and then follow through on that by killing someone (or a bunch of people.) But it is narrative anthrax to then jerk the reader around by bringing your character back to life just because you decide you miss them. It is just possible to do this in a way that works. But probably only once, and it requires rebasing the narrative stakes away from life and death and putting something else equally weighty in to replace them. Doing it over and over to your lead character (*glares at Steven Moffat*) just eliminates all sense of tension and makes it feel like we’re living in a world where nothing has any consequences.

However, with all of that said, here’s…

One Reason to kill your darlings as dead as a very dead thing:

Because you want to write about death.

Death’s a big deal, it has a hundred per cent fatality rate. It doesn’t make any sense at all to say you shouldn’t include it in a story, because at the end of the day it’s how all stories end. Plus, it’s one of Pratchett’s best characters.

It’s helpful to distinguish death as stakes from death as subject. Loads of stories take death as the latter, which makes sense, because there’s a lot to say. I just finished reading one of the best stories about death I’ve ever seen, George Saunders’ The Tenth Of December. It’s extraordinary because it’s really a story about second chances, and mistakes and forgiveness, and above all about love, which is the only real reason that death matters in the first place.

As ever, write whatever you want to write, read whatever you want to read, and either way godspeed. All I’m saying is that for me as a reader (and as a writer I guess, although it’s a lesson I am totally still learning), the real suspense for any character comes not from one question: Not ‘Will they live?’ not even ‘What do they want?’ but ‘What will they choose?’

Here, have some Dan Le Sac:

P.S. Many, if not all of these points were made on Twitter night by Sam, Chuck, Kate, Jon Grimwood and several others. This is my just my attempt to summarize, catch up and expand on those points.


2 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Always Kill

  1. #3 is the real kicker for me. When people say “The way to enjoy GRRM is just not to get attached to any of the characters” I feel like I watched a beautiful flower die in the frost.

  2. Great post! I missed this on Twitter as well, but I love your summary. With respect to cobra-launching crossbows: probably the best way to “kill your darlings”…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *