Every Wednesday I meet with the Laie Young Writers Club for a short discussion on the art of writing, and then readings by club members. This week our lesson will be on killing characters. Yes, it's fun, but it must be done carefully.
So why do we kill characters in stories? Well, death happens, and exploring the powerful emotions that surround this most final of all events is one of the great themes of storytelling throughout human history. Stories, as a road map for life, also give us a road map to navigate our grief at the death of a loved one, and eventually our own meeting with the infinite beyond.
And, on a more practical level, threatening the life of a character is one of the tried and true ways of raising tension and keeping readers turning pages.
So, how to do it right? First of all, don't expect your readers to care if you kill off a character before the reader has time to get to know and love that character. If you kill or threaten to kill someone in the first few pages of a story, you can't get anywhere near the emotional reaction you would have if you saved that sort of thing for the end.
A tangent to this -- if your readers know a character is going to die during the story, they may have a hard time forming an emotional attachment to them.
Second, make sure dead characters stay dead, UNLESS you build it into the rules of your fictional world and prepare the reader for it. Killing someone only to bring them back later can make the reader feel cheated. You want death to have all of its emotional power, so don't weaken it by making it less than permanent.
Third, the death of a character only has as much emotional impact for the reader as it has for the other characters. If some unfortunate member of the adventuring party dies and the other characters have an, "Oh well, too bad, let's keep hiking. Do you suppose there's a pub in the next village?" sort of attitude, then the reader won't care either. Maybe that's what you want, but if it isn't, make sure the other characters show some shock and grief.
Anyone have some other pointers on character death for us? Leave a comment and we'll share it at club meeting.