"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Kill 'em all: A writing tip

he fiction writer has the unfortunate task of serving as both creator and destroyer. And it’s always painful to tear down something you’ve built. But don’t fear the reaper, because in many cases, character death is a sacrifice worth making. But what about context? And what about characters who don’t stay dead? The fantasy genre – and especially comic books – constantly suffer from too many resurrections, so let’s tackle this issue first.

Death serves such an important narrative function not only because it often enriches the plot, but also because it creates real emotion and drama, both for the other characters and the reader. It’s the act of taking a character you’re invested in – and ideally empathizing with – and completely ending them. If done right, this can completely shock, enrage, or sadden the reader, and regardless of which emotion it stirs up, it makes the reader feel something, which is the duty of a good story.

George R.R. Martin understands this tool very well, and has demonstrated it time and again in Game of Thrones. And because he kills off many characters, it creates a constant state of tension and apprehension for the reader, who never knows which characters are safe – if any. Game of Thrones, of course, killed off Jon Snow, and then, unlike with every other main character, brought him back from the dead. This leads me to a point: you’re allowed one resurrection, maybe two at most, in your story, before things start to feel cheapened and death loses its significance and emotional impact. But resurrection is not the only way to ruin death as a plot device.

Circling back to comic books, Marvel is releasing the Black Widow movie next year. It’s a prequel, because Black Widow died in Avengers Endgame. Of course, by not resurrecting her, they’re not completely doing a disservice to her final scene, but her return in yet another film, even one set in the past, still takes away from the impact of her death. It’s a loophole; a way to bring back a character that works maybe one time out of a hundred. Marvel has exploited another loophole to bring back the character of Loki – the idea of alternate timelines or a multiverse. This is a common plot device in comic books, but again, the upcoming Loki series on Disney+ will take away from the character’s death scene in Avengers Infinity War. And it feels especially disingenuous after Thanos’ line: “No resurrections this time.”

So use those resurrections sparingly, if at all. Even one of them can place that character in a precarious position afterward, narratively speaking. After Jon Snow returned, any subsequent scenes where it seemed like he would die (again) felt a bit artificial, emotionally speaking, since as the viewer, I kind of felt that the writers were unnecessarily toying with us, because they wouldn’t have brought this character back just to kill him again.

Supernatural is especially guilty of this. Sam and Dean have died and come back so many times that death no longer means anything on the show. In fact, the writers have had to grasp at straws to come up with ways to walk that back, or reinforce the sense of danger in potential death, with mixed results. Concepts like the Empty or absolute death by way of prophecy (“this time you won’t come back!”) almost make you wonder why the writers bother to go there. We all know there’s no chance of ever permanently losing our main characters.

This show also provides a perfect example for my next tip: know when to kill your characters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen books or shows keep a character around long past their expiration date. Case in point: Castiel is a great character played by a great actor, but Supernatural should have killed him off a long time ago, or returned him to Heaven. Since at least Season 8, he’s served little to no purpose, and shallow plots have been constructed for him to make us feel like his story isn’t merely spinning its wheels. Well, that, and the rabid Supernatural fanbase would riot if Castiel were permanently removed from the show – and that touches upon something I’ll get back to in a few moments.

My point, though, is that I think every writer instinctually feels when a character’s story has reached its natural conclusion. Don’t be afraid to act on that impulse. You or the readers may love a character you’ve created, but by forcing that character to continue to fit into the narrative when it no longer feels organic, you’re doing a disservice to that character and potentially ruining the character’s already established legacy. Castiel used to have the interesting dichotomy of being powerful and threatening, and also unintentionally comedic with his misunderstandings of humans and everyday concepts. Now he’s become so depowered (and I’ll touch upon power scaling in a future blog post) and so humanized that the line between human and angel might as well be removed altogether.

Some characters remain in the story from beginning to end, and if it feels right, go with that. Others become fan favorites and often become so intriguing precisely because of how rarely they appear. Pay attention to how the character serves the greater story and what the character contributes. If the narrative benefits from not overusing that character, don’t try and force that square peg into a round hole. These types of characters are like a spice – add too much and it ruins the taste; add just the right amount and it gives great flavor.

One series that did this well was the science fiction show Fringe. Robert Bell, played by Leonard Nimoy, was one of the most compelling and interesting characters on the show. Fringe ran for 100 episodes. Do you know how many episodes featured Nimoy’s character? Eight. (11 if you count additional voice credits.)

Characters are not always kept around, however, simply because a writer resists the urge to kill them. Sometimes it all boils down to pressure felt from a raging fanbase, who want the writer to do exactly what they want, or out come the pitchforks and the outrage on social media begins. This is a relatively new and modern problem that writers are now facing, and I can tell you this much: changing your story because of what fans are demanding is bad, bad, bad.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t value the input of your readers – sometimes they can alert you to truths or ideas that you weren’t aware of before. But don’t become so beholden to your readers’ opinions that you let them dictate what happens to your characters. The consumer of the writing doesn’t have the right to have a say in what happens. You’re the writer. If they were so good at knowing what was best for your story, they’d be writers too. Fans who act this way are like the backseat drivers of the writing world. To paraphrase Dean Winchester, “Driver writes the story. Shotgun shuts his cakehole.”

Unfortunately, so many stories have given into this pressure, with unpleasant – often disastrous – results. Look at Arrow. Fans started shipping Oliver and Felicity, when the chemistry between Oliver and Laurel felt much more natural. Both Oliver and Felicity are great characters in their own ways, but when the writers started to force them into a relationship to appease the fans, not only did it negatively impact Laurel’s story, shunting the character to the side after being so central in Seasons One and Two...It also felt extremely contrived, with even the characters’ dialogue exchanges feeling awkward and cumbersome.

We can see plenty of other examples, in The Walking Dead (“If Daryl Dies, We Riot”), Harry Potter (come on, it’s obvious fan favorites like Hagrid and Hermione were purposely kept alive), and even Game of Thrones (in the final season, everything felt much too safe – it’s unbelievable that Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Tyrion would all just happen to make it to the end). Again, I think this is a new problem. Writers are afraid of being crucified by the fanbase if they step out of line, and it shouldn’t be that way. So never be afraid to give a character the axe if you feel it’s necessary.

Whether they’d like to admit it or not, most readers are more interested in tragedies than happy endings, and that is one of many reasons why death is a good tool to have at your disposal. Walter had to die at the end of Breaking Bad. It couldn’t have been any other way, and if it had, the entire series would have been an exercise in narrative redundancy, so many of its motifs rendered hypocritically pointless. Ragnar’s death in Vikings was horrible and hard to watch – and perfect; it felt like the right time for his character arc to come to a permanent end, and it opened up unforeseen pathways for viewers, who for the first time in a while, truly didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the series.

And finally, here’s something that I believe writers today aren’t understanding: the outraged reactions of fans when you kill off a character they love is not a problem; it’s not something that you have a responsibility to “correct” or address. That emotional response is exactly what you want. It means you’re doing your job right. If a reader becomes so enraged or upset at a character’s death that they chuck the book at a wall and scream profanities about you, it means they were invested enough in your story that they cared so much about these characters, that it almost feels to them as if they’ve lost a real person. That means it’s damn good writing, and beyond that, it means that even if you’ve written the coda on a particular character, that character left behind a great legacy.

In the real world, it’s only the good people who are missed. The people who were loved by many. And so it is with the characters you create. If a character dies and the response is a collective “meh,” you’re failing to provoke an emotional response, probably because you’ve failed to construct a compelling character. Kill your darlings. After the anger and the denial and the tears, the fans who truly “get it” will look back on it later and understand why it had to happen. Killing characters is just part of the job. In the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”

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