Killing our Darlings – Writers on Death


I wondered this week about how we writers relate to the act of ending the lives of some of our characters. Bumping off major characters has become big in fiction recently. However as authors, we do have conflicted thoughts about killing characters in our works. Sometimes we plan a character’s death, but spare them at the last second. Other times we actually want to do in a character, then can’t find the ideal way to do the deed. In trying to get a handle on these ideas, I again contacted author friends to ask their opinions.

Stephanie Barr gave me her thoughts, “I’m a character writer, so it takes a lot for me to even consider killing off a major characters. My characters do get injured and bloody and tired and stuff, but I usually find some way to squeak ’em out because, well, I love them. But I have done it, in the Taming of Dracul Morsus (first time for a major player in a novel–done it in the odd short story) and, they key element, if I do kill someone off there and in short stories, is to make that death mean something for whoever is left behind. They fight for something as a result. They learn something they never would have learned elsewhere. They’re saved. I give that death meaning so it’s not just an emotional manipulation but a step to a better story.”

Mirren Hogan also commented, “I thrive on bumping off characters. I had a king I was going to kill off in a coup but I couldn’t do it. Turns out he had to wait and be beheaded in front of opposing armies.”

Megan Haskell responded with these ideas, “There are times when killing a character is necessary, and times when it’s not. In my case, there have been two characters that came up to the chopping block. The first was a secondary character in book 2 of my series, Sanyare: The Heir Apparent. The guy was a reader favorite, and I literally debated up to, and through, sending the book to my developmental editor. However, we agreed that he did in fact need to die for emotional resonance. It increased the stakes for my protagonist, and was a turning point for her growth and development. She saw his death as a personal failure, and it became a later insecurity as she tries to lead others in her journey.”

The second character I ultimately chose not to kill, for the opposite reason as the first. This was an important secondary character who had been an integral part of her team since the first book. His survival was a sign of her growing power, and also her ability to trust her allies. She needed to save him to grow into her abilities as a leader. I don’t like killing characters for shock value. It seems a waste. But when done correctly, and for the right reasons, killing a character can add depth and dimension to your protagonist’s story.”

As we see, different authors have alternative approaches to the issue of removing a character. At times, we each face hard decisions, and some characters teeter on the edge between life and death. For me, giving the coup de grâce to a character is always a struggle. I often spare them after a long debate with myself, and agonize over the ones who are lost. Like most authors I lost a few. There is one saving grace for us science fiction and fantasy writers, if we change our mind, there is a way we can write our character back to life…

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