Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Killing Off Characters

Summer continues, and I'm still reading a lot. I actually found a pretty good children's series called The Guardians by William Joyce. It's not about owls; that's a different series. The first book is called Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King and is about the magical beings that protect children. Santa Claus, apparently, got his start as a Russian bandit and then became a wizard's apprentice. There's a movie coming out this winter called Rise of the Guardians based on these books. It's made by the people who made How to Train Your Dragon and the trailer looks awesome.

So, from that whimsical comment, I want to change directions and talk about killing off characters in stories. I think it's necessary sometimes, but it can be dangerous ground. I have seen so many books and movies were this isn't handled well or done for the right reasons. Personally, I think the death of a character should impact the story just as much if not more than it impacts the reader/viewer. It should not be done for the purposes of emotional manipulation.I know the movie Moulin Rouge is very popular, and I respect that people like it, but it does this. The death at the end has little to do with the development of the characters or the overt message of the movie - that love is the greatest thing in the world and all you need is love. Apparently a tuberculosis cure would have been better. One can argue that the death influences the plot, but that influence isn't strong enough to justify it. The story could have been done another way, just as strong.

That's not to say killing off characters is a bad idea. When you're writing a story where the stakes are high (think war or the end of the world) sacrifices are going to be made. People die in war. Killing characters, including main characters, is a way of showing the seriousness of the situation as well as the ugly reality of war. J.K. Rowling does an excellent job of this in the Harry Potter series, particularly in the last one. I think everyone who read it felt the weight of loss. On another note, the "moral" of the Harry Potter story seems to be about accepting death as part of life, so the death of characters  actually adds to the message as other characters react to it in different ways.

Likewise, when the main theme of a story is death it makes sense to have a character die. It almost goes without saying. If the story is about someone who is terminally ill and the conflict comes from that character's or their family's struggle accepting it and moving on, then the death is acceptable in the context of the story and is not simply there for emotional manipulation.

But on the whole, I think killing characters should be something a writer thinks deeply about. When you kill off a character, you take away the possibility of that character influencing the story later in a brilliant, creative way. Imagine how The Lord of the Rings would have ended differently if Tolkien had written that Bilbo kills Gollum in The Hobbit! If the story is better served by having that character die - if it influences another character to behave a certain way, or if it strengthens the theme - then by all means, do it. But if it's only to create an emotional response in the reader, that's not good enough. Your writing should be strong enough to do that on its own.

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