“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” begs Stephen King (Stephen King, On Writing a Memoir of the Craft) quoting the great William Faulkner.
And indeed, from the dawn of the written fictional word, killing off one’s characters was a major weapon writers used to excite, confuse, motivate, and generally make things more interesting for the readers.
A well-known example is Shakespeare’s tragedies – and truth be told, all of his works in general. Whether it’s a star-crossed lover or red-handed villain, cheating parent or deranged lady, once the playwright decides the audience’s attention could be wandering, stabbings, drownings, poison and murders start scourging characters.
Obviously, characters cannot be killed off randomly. It is important for the writer to first decide what kind of emotions s/he wants to evoke. Another significant aspect is the timing of the death within the whole storyline, as well as obviously the cause of death.
However, the most important thing is undisputedly the aftermath. Who/what/why is dead and how/who/what killed him are issues which mostly pale in comparison to WHO is mostly affected by the death, WHAT happens afterwards, and HOW the reader reacts to all these issues which not only ripple throughout the plot at the moment of his destruction, but may affect even the scenes which came before.
Let us take this theory closer to home (meaning talk about more current novels we are mostly all familiar with). A very good example is Harry Potter’s Professor Severus Snape, whom we actually get to know and understand only after his death.
And what about little Rue from The Hunger Games? Her death inspired great emotion, not to mention gave the heroine the will to go on and do what had to be done, in order to further her cause and change society.
This does not mean that without people dying, a story is not interesting or exciting; we could simply view it as a means to an end. An untidy way of showing us readers that death too, is part of life, and that one’s story does not necessarily end once he is dead. And no, I am not speaking of all those instances when someone dies, comes back, is killed once more and resurrected again and again ad infinitum, Dragon Ball style (though TV series like Supernatural and X-Files do seem to adore this cycle). I am not saying killing off one of your main characters is easy, quite the opposite in fact!
Imagine months and months of research and scribbles, drafts upon drafts and coffee break after coffee break, and suddenly you realize that in order for there to be a certain backlash, the character upon whom the whole structure of the last 400 pages you wrote stands, has to die!
If a novel was a castle made of cards, this would surely mean the end. However THIS is when we see whether the writer is a real professional or not. Can s/he concretely sustain the narrative without what before had been the key character? Are there other characters whom the reader can relate to? If not, this surely means that the writer had focussed only on one of his characters, leaving the others flat and cardboard-like, without any real life of their own. If the plot stands on its own, without any actual characters the reader can empathise with, with no one he can dream with, laugh with, love with and generally live through – then it is an arid and boring novel indeed.
This then, is the challenge of the writer. To write believable multi-faceted characters, yet not characters which take over the story so much, as to be indispensable to the plot. The castle of cards should have a solid foundation and be based on many different columns, not just on a couple.
A good example which comes to mind is George R. R. Martin and his Game of Thrones saga. As anyone who has read the books or watched the TV series knows, in the tumultuous events of a civil war, any character could die. In fact Martin seems to make it a point to somehow massacre one or two main characters (or more) in every book/season. And yet, the plot is thicker, more interesting and richer than ever afterwards, instead of being less intense as one might think.
And what is the definition of a truly exciting novel, if not one which keeps you always on edge wanting more?