Loss of Character

The other night my kids asked where I was going as I strode through the living room with a grim look on my face.

“To kill someone.”

RIPThey didn’t even bat an eyelash…probably because I was carrying my laptop. The perils of being a writer, I suppose, especially one who writes an urban fantasy series involving monster-hunting teenagers who work with the military. Unfortunately, characters die.

Sometimes, a bunch do (which is why I usually have an ensemble of “red shirts” at the ready).

But the hardest nights are when I have to write a farewell to a character I’ve grown to know and care about. Fair warning — the first three Matt Archer books weren’t necessarily kind (I’m kind of mean to my characters), but the last two will be pretty rough. Is this a spoiler? Maybe, but I think most of Matt’s readers can see it’s going to be a tough road ahead. Still, even knowing that’s where the story has to go, it’s gut-wrenching to sit down and kill off someone. I have to put myself in touch with the main character’s emotions in that moment. I have to try to feel the same pain, shock, and horror he feels, or it won’t translate onto the page.

It can be hard to shake it off afterwards, too. Part of that’s me–I took a personality test at work and my number one strength was empathy. Like off the charts empathetic. If I’m at a baseball game and the crowd goes nuts, so do I. If someone around me is frustrated, I get knotted up too if I don’t compartmentalize the situation quickly enough. If someone I love is hurting, I’m in pain and trying to figure out how to fix it. Part of this goes deeper, though, and I think this is true for many writers (y’all tell me if I’m full of it or not), in that we’re the creators of this small world, and it hurts to take someone out of it. Not just for our characters’ sake, but for ours. “Kill your darlings” takes on a much darker cast when you end the life of one of yours.

Readers often feel the same way. I get attached to characters in books I enjoy. I still haven’t forgiven her Wizardliness J.K. Rowling (sp) for killing Fred Weasley. I totally understood why it was necessary–Death Eaters and Voldy on a killing spree? People gonna die, and not just red shirts. But George without his twin? That stung…I worried how George would get on without Fred and it made me sad. Here’s the funny thing–Rowling said in interviews after OTOP that after Sirius’s death, she cried. See–it happens to a lot of us. We get attached.

The question is…why? It’s certainly not as hard as losing a close loved-one, but why does losing our favorite characters fill us with grief?

That’s easy–emotion.

A well-written book takes you on a journey with the main character(s). If the emotions of that journey are conveyed effectively, then you’ll feel what the character feels. Or, to quote Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” You’ll pump your fist in exultation when great stuff happens, and ache when the dark times come. That’s why character and emotional resonance is so important in a story .

So, what scene has tugged at your heart-strings? Is there a character you miss terribly? Writers–does killing a character hurt just a little?

8 comments

  • I totally agree with this, both as a writer and a reader. I have recently read the final book in one of my favourite indie authors series (Lindsay Buroker) and, although I found the ending perfect in a novel sense, having to read as she killed off a character who has been a favourite since the beginning made me cry.

    Equally, I write novels (only for personally enjoyment) but very often the tides of the story require a character who is close to the main character to die: I cry everytime I write it and again when going back and editing it. But if it was all happy all of the time, the stories would neither make us read on or be believable.

    • Exactly — happy books tend to be a little, well, boring. You need adventure, or romance, and almost always some kind of emotional trigger. Death tends to be one of the most powerful. And I teared up in the end of EE7, too.

  • When a certain character in the blades edge died! I cried my eyes out during his funeral. Oh man that was terrible 🙁 your writing is incredible! I feel so connected to Matt and his team! Keep up the amazing writing (but stop killing off the cool people 😉

    • Thanks, Kaytee! I can’t promise not to kill off cool characters. 😉 Unfortunately, in a series about a paranormal war, a few heroes end up making an ultimate sacrifice. But, yeah, that funeral scene had me choked up for days. I probably won’t have one of those scenes again. It was really hard on me…and the readers.

  • This post really hit me where I live!!! It is so great to be so in touch emotionally with one’s characters, but I’m a coward who has yet to really kill anyone save for ‘red shirts’. I know that in the final book in my Niflheim trilogy, SOMEONE is gonna kick it…I just haven’t decided who yet (or whos). Great post!!

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