I originally wrote this mini-essay in January of ‘10, and reposted it on my tumblr in August of ’11. I think the philosophy behind it still holds true.
I just killed a character. A major character. This person, I spent months designing him, figuring out his backstory, his life, his appearance, his family, his educational and work history. I agonized over his name, mannerisms, and personality. I gave him touching moments with multiple coworkers and loved ones. I made him smart and heroic and awesome. And then I had him get killed in a fairly gruesome and upsetting way just a few sections short of the ending of my book.
This was not part of my outline or plan. It just sort of happened. And certainly I’m not on the final draft of my novel, nor do those reading it as a work-in-progress know I’ve done this. They will react, and whether this death stands may have something to do with their reaction.
But why did I feel the need to do this in the first place? I hate when writers I like do this. Albus Dumbledore. Ianto Jones. Anya Jenkins. All such needless deaths and each one was Not Cool. I sobbed like a freaking baby at every one, and I arguably care just as much about my character dude as Rowling, Davies, and Whedon cared about their characters, and they had to know that stuff wouldn’t go down smoothly with their entire audience either.
Why do something that, as a reader or viewer, bugs me? Because when you’re writing fiction, even if you’re not writing straightforwardly realistic literary fiction, you know that in order to resonate, there has to be something about the struggle your characters are facing that makes the stakes real. We can’t be invested if we suspect that someone’s going to swoop in and save the say ten seconds to closing credits. We have to believe this is life and death.
I’m writing an urban fantasy novel about grand struggles between forces of good and evil. For the forces of evil to never threaten the forces of good in a way that puts their lives in jeopardy is not realistic. I’m not writing for children. And while I’m writing characters who themselves are somewhat and sometimes comedic, this is not a comedy. It’s not a tragedy, either. It just is, and the people in danger have to feel like real people in danger. If danger is limited to getting a paper cut, or relegated to background people (“guest stars,” basically), then it will not touch the reader the same way as if a major supporting character bites it.
I’m shocked this happened, as sometimes when I’m writing I do deviate from outline and find the plot going somewhere surprising, even as it’s my fingers on the keyboard. But perhaps I’m a merciless god, because unless my little group of readers objects too vociferously, his death will stand.