Sunday, May 20, 2012

How To Kill Your Characters

As a reader, I have a couple pet peeves when it comes to the books and series that I read.  One of those is when an author cops out.  When they set up huge battle scenes, but somehow every single character manages to survive.  This may seem like a good thing, because my favourite characters get to live!  Shouldn't I be happy?  The thing is, I would prefer being connected to the story more.  To get upset over the lose of a character.  I may be mad, but I will keep coming back to see what the author is going to do next.  I hate it when the author is unwilling to lose a character.  I understand the feeling, but sometimes the story just isn't as good if they don't make the hard decision.

On the flip side are the authors who kill off all of their characters.  Maybe they're overcompensating for keeping a small group of main characters alive, but whatever the reason their characters are slaughtered left and right.  Characters that I've fallen in love with and never wanted to see die.  I know, I know.  This sounds like a complete contradiction to what I was saying before.  The problem comes when all of my favourites are killed off.  It's no longer a question of wondering who's going to die, or thinking that it could be anyone, because at the end of the day nearly every character is being buried.

So, as a writer, how do I use these pet peeves to make my writing better?

I don't want to be the writer that my readers hate.  I don't want to kill of all of their favourite characters (but I really don't mind one or two).  I want my readers to get mad and throw my book across the room, only to go pick it up a couple of minutes later because they have to know what's going to happen.

Now, of course, I've managed to develop a bit of a complex.  I'm terrified to kill off a character, because what if it's the wrong character?  What if I lose my readers because that was the one character that kept them reading the books?  What if I don't kill any characters, and my readers get bored or annoyed because they're going through all of these dangerous situations and nobody ever dies?  How do I find that happy medium where the readers get mad, but don't boycott the books?

I've come to realize that this is an issue that most writers probably struggle with.  Who do you kill off, and who gets the happy ever after ending?

In the series I've been working on I have a character that has had a lot of ups and downs.  Originally I thought he was going to be one of my favourites, but have realized that he's not as great as I thought.  Often I find myself calling him a jackass, and basically wanting to punch him.  Near the end of the book he starts to redeem himself, and in the next one I know he'll probably get back up there as one of my favourites.  So, of course, he's going to be dying.

I'm terrified about this decision.  I know he needs to die, because I need that catalyst to bind the group together while still breaking them apart.  (I realize that doesn't make sense, but I can't explain it without ruining the book, which I refuse to do!)  I need to it happen, but I'm scared that he'll redeem himself too much.  that my readers will start to imagine his life, will start to hope for him to be with one of the other couples.  That killing him off will do more than just make them cry.  (Though, if they do cry, I think I would be elated.  Not cause they're crying, of course, but because I did my job as an author.)

While this fear makes me occasionally think that I'm not going to do it.  That I'm going to let him live, I know that I can't do that.  I have to stick to my guns.  The character needs to die, and I can't allow myself to back down from the challenge.

I've decided to give myself a goal, in order to help myself overcome the fear that I've managed to develop.  My goal is to kill off enough characters that my readers never know who could die next.  This is almost strategic in that main characters have to die.  Characters that they thought I would never kill off will have to be killed.  I still have to make sure, though, that I'm not killing so many characters that my readers become jaded.  That they start to think that everyone is going to die and just put the book down because what's the point.

It's going to be a challenge, but I'm up for it.  I'll have to say a few tearful goodbyes, but in the end, the story will be the better for it, and isn't that really what writing is all about?

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