The Art of Killing Off Characters

This month’s post just had to encompass Kingdom of Rebels, my current work in progress, simply because I’ve been concentrating on little else at the moment. It is a little scary though doing a post about work which is getting close to completion in the first draft. This blog piece is not about who dies, or even about my storylines; it’s about the method that gets me there – that gets characters killed.

Disclaimer: I’m not an experienced author yet – this only my third book and I don’t put forward what follows as any sort of blueprint for success – or for that matter, failure. It’s just the way I do it, for better or worse.

In my books people die and towards the end of each book the body count increases significantly. It’s just what happens, I’m afraid. Often those that die are unpleasant characters and I dare say that the average reader is quite relieved when they go. But sometimes … I kill off one or two of the “good guys” and that’s not always quite so popular.

Why kill someone off? Well, several reasons really: you can’t have a story of fast-paced action without someone dying or getting injured – it would be ridiculous. You also introduce many characters in the course of several books and killing some off is essential if there is not to be an embarrassing, not to say confusing, surfeit of characters. Readers should be very glad therefore that someone dies.

Fair enough, kill off the ‘bad guys’ – but why kill off well liked characters? I still haven’t really forgiven GRR Martin for the demise of certain characters I loved in Game of Thrones, but, hey-ho, shit happens. The reason is simple: I want the readers to be in doubt as to what is going to happen next. Yes, you might expect the main few protagonists to survive but, other than that, you can’t be sure in my books which other character will go. The death of a well-liked character has far more impact than the death of a ‘villain’. It shocks – or it should shock – the readers. It may also disappoint them but hopefully they will ‘enjoy’ not being able to predict what happens next.

I’ve entitled it an ‘Art’ because I believe it is really a microcosm of the creative process that somehow or other enables me to come up with a book. It’s an art because it’s organic and somehow, mysterious. For example, I have been known to write a fight scene intending to kill off one character only to end up killing off their opponent. Why? I don’t know – to quote my favourite line from ‘Shakespeare in Love’ – “it’s a mystery.”

In all three of my books so far, the idea is to build to a climax like a rollercoaster ride. This requires the various different strands of the story to be brought to a head in quick succession. It’s like stacking the planes up over Heathrow Airport and then inviting them all to land at the same time. Someone has to crash first and yes, I know it’ll be carnage, but the law of averages suggests that someone will survive.

So how do I decide on the multiple deaths and horrendous injuries which are going to occur? Well, with the current book, I knew when I started to write the climactic scenes that certain characters must survive to appear in the final book of the series – but that only applies to a very few. At this stage I still have a lot of flexibility and I will sweat blood deciding who will stay and who will go.

I have a complex spreadsheet which, amongst other useful pages, has a whole page on how the climactic scenes will develop. I say ‘develop’ because it’s a moveable feast. I plan it all out in order but as I start writing it will evolve and gather a momentum all of its own.

The story strands weave their own paths and the trick is to get them to meet sometime before the end! OK, so why don’t I make up my mind on who goes until the last moment? I’m sure many other writers must have it all cut and dried but I like the spontaneity of not being entirely sure. It makes it fun for me and I write that way because I like doing it.

From the reader’s viewpoint it means that few deaths are going to be ‘inevitable’ because I’m not sure about them myself. If all this is sounding very muddled then let me assure you that you can’t build in flexibility without being very organised – hence the detailed and multi-faceted spreadsheets. Each character or group of characters has its own thread or timeline and these threads cross and re-cross as the final chapters of the story play out. I will have worked through these possibilities endlessly in the weeks before I actually write it.

The key point is that the deaths must have meaning in the story otherwise they are just gratuitous and pointless. I’m not interested in killing a character unless it has an impact upon the story. Let me give you an example – and I don’t think this is giving too much away. In book two, Ned Elder – the chief protagonist – kills two men who are hunting him. He could have just given them the slip, but he needs to be wounded in the fight so that when he meets a new character, very soon afterwards, he is in a bad way. The relationship with the new character is defined by the state he is in when they meet.

Yes, there are exceptions and sometimes I’ll get rid of someone because I don’t like them – but not often! Sometimes when I’m writing, the characters take over a little. On occasions their bravery gets to me and having decided to kill off a popular character, I just can’t do it. The reverse is also true – characters can talk themselves into an early grave! But not all the “bad guys” die; that would be equally predictable and, besides, some must live to fight another day.

The manner of a character’s death matters too.  An heroic death might be seen as a reward but it’s not usually perceived in that way. In “real life” people are killed, sometimes accidentally or unexpectedly and such deaths are no more final than any other death but they often seem different to us, especially if the victim is young. In my story there are a lot of young people and some of them die. Yes, it is tragic but in the middle ages – as now – young people died. The story would feel less real to me if no-one was hurt badly or died. The story shows how the remaining characters deal with the death of friends or indeed their own serious injuries.

The story of Rebels and Brothers is very much the story of several young siblings and their comrades battling the odds to survive a period of chaos. A lot of our heroes won’t make it through the four books of the story – indeed some didn’t make it through the first book!

I change my mind on a daily basis about who will actually survive in the end, so what hope have you got?

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