Murder, She Writes—Kill Those Characters by Suzanne Johnson
Every author, early in his or her career, hears the old adage to “murder your darlings.” Generally, it means being willing to kill off favorite scenes when they don’t serve to advance the plot of one’s story.
It also should mean to be willing to take risks in plot and character. Burn it down. Kill them off. It’s like reader crack, addictive and water-cooler discussion-worthy. You think people are nuts over George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and its TV spinoff “Game of Thrones” because characters look good in medieval wear?
No, it’s to see which character gets slaughtered next.
(Well, okay, it’s awesome storytelling, but GMMR is NOT afraid to murder his darlings—or ours.)
I always like to say that the only person in your novel you can’t kill is your point-of-view character, because then there’s no one to tell the story. In a romance, it’s your hero and heroine, even if you have other POV characters. And technically, since we write fantasy, futuristic and paranormal fiction, we can even kill off our hero or heroine as long as we still figure out a way to get the happily-for-now in there. (Vishous and Doc Jane, anyone? Although I still say he was robbed.)
Here are some places to consider killing off someone you love:
The climactic, epic turning point. This is the most common POD (point of death) in novels. Your main character has had that inevitable black moment—an epic battle when it looks as if all is lost, an ultimate betrayal, a final ramping up of emotion that will be turned around by the final, climactic turning point. It’s a really good time for someone to bite the big one—usually the villain or the person standing in the way of your happily-for-now. But if someone else gets taken down in the process, the stakes get ramped up even more.
The great swampy middle. You know…that eighty thousand words between your opening scene and your ending, what novelist Jim Butcher calls “the great swampy middle.” It needs a few turning points to get your plot from beginning to end; killing off a character is a great way to make story turns. And it shouldn’t be just any random character (that is true for all these examples—you’re killing darlings, remember, not nameless bit players). It needs to be someone the reader is invested in to some degree. I went on a corpse-count through my published novels, and in seven books, I killed nineteen characters. Two of them were strangers we got to know posthumously. Several were major characters. Two of them kinda got resurrected. There were about eight unnamed dead folks I didn’t count.
The red herring.If there’s a mystery involved in your story, as there are in many novels of all genres, you want to set up some false leads along the way. One way to turn your plot around (as well as your reader’s brain) is to kill off one of your chief suspects, preferably the one you’ve set up as the biggest red herring. The reader gasps, certain that Mr. Zippo was the murderer—but Mr. Zippo has suddenly gotten whacked in chapter fifteen. It’s why murder mysteries are so addictive. Readers love to try and solve whodunit, so kill off someone to keep them on their mental toes.
The inciting incident.I mentioned those two dead people in one of my books that the readers got to know posthumously. Their deaths set up the action for the rest of the book as the heroine tries to figure out why they were killed and what killed them (because she could tell it wasn’t human). And the part of the Mississippi River where they were found had been poisoned. And they were both wizards. And the mermen were involved. Lots of problems to solve, beginning with those two deaths.
Character growth.We do horrible things to our characters. I’ve burned mine with acid, impaled one through the shoulder with a sword, injected one in the stomach with poison, had another shot with poisoned-coated buckshot, burned down a town and forced all the characters to move underground, and branded a heroine—you know, like with a branding iron. (Now that I read this list, I’m thinking therapy might be called for.) Torture makes for good character growth. So does death. Losing someone a hero or heroine loves or feels responsible for is a great way to have a character make an emotional turn, whether it’s a sudden, unexpected loss, a slow, painful loss the character has to work through, or a guilt-inducing death caused by your protagonist.
As you write or revise your next book, think about death: how can it be used to help your characters grow? How can it advance your plot? Whose loss would really shake things up? Remember, no one but the hero and/or heroine are un-killable.
Everyone else is fair game to be a game-changer.