I was asked about this the other day: killing off literary characters… yea or nay? Having engaged in a little murderous writing of my own, I’m forced to admit, I had to confess I have killed off at least one major literary character --- concerning others, we neither confirm nor deny --- and it was someone I originally thought had major romantic potential for my protagonist. Alas, he said sadly, ‘twas not to be, and before you can reverently intone sic transit gloria mundi or requiescat in pacem, she was burned alive in a very public execution, forcing our dashing hero to consider several equally unpleasant alternatives, none of which could remotely be considered wins. Bwahahaha, indeed.
So here’s my rule of thumb about offing characters: yes, but. Or to clarify: sure, it may be necessary, and sure, as author/creator you can commit ‘murder most foul,’ but it should never be gratuitous i.e. a killing that’s there only to shock readers, or which doesn’t serve to advance the plot at all. In pondering this topic for today’s epistle, I combed through vaults of memory for memorable scenes of characters ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ From a veritable cornucopia of literary misery, I’ll discuss four neatly falling into categories --- and I’ve helpfully given each its own summary title. You’re welcome.
This is one of every writer’s (many) worst nightmares: you go to all the trouble of screwing up your courage, killing off a (possibly beloved) character… and nobody gives a damn. Why’d you even bother? Oh, the humanity. An example is Cedric Diggory from J.K. Rowling’s fourth Harry Potter book. Perhaps Rowling should’ve taken a clue from her daughter, whom Rowling thought would be traumatized by Cedric’s death. Turns out, the kid wasn’t… not even remotely. Nope, she was just glad it wasn’t Ron or Hermione. Why does this kind of thing happen? Because the author kills a character the readers just aren’t invested in. To be brutally honest, we don’t care about them, because the author hasn’t done enough to make us care.
I Come Not To Bury Caesar, But To Praise Him
Ah, the glorious death. Time for my obligatory Tolkien reference of the day: the death of Boromir. It’s sad, of course, but simultaneously noble, even uplifting in a weird way. Now, as I used to tell my high school English classes, Boromir is the perfect example of the classical Tragic Hero --- a man of high estate, possessed of a fatal flaw (in this case, Coveting Someone Else’s Jewellery). Trying to take the Ring from Frodo is an unforgivable act, dramatically speaking, and will/must result in Boromir’s death as a consequence… but he’ll be given opportunity to redeem himself before dying. Which, of course, he does, in spectacular fashion --- and though it pains me immeasurably to say it, Jackson’s film version provides Boromir with a far grander, more eloquent, nobler death scene than Tolkien’s written version.
Really? Man, I’m So Glad The Bastard’s (Finally) Dead!
We could subtitle this one, ‘Author, what the hell took you so long?’ These are deaths occurring to really repulsive characters whom, as readers, we’ve hated since first learning of their perfidies, their malice, their purely evil, moustache-twirling, gloating natures. Black Jack Randall is a character from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels who immediately comes to mind. He’s a rapist, a pedophile, and a sadist who’s visited unspeakable atrocities on numerous characters, including one of the protagonists, and by the time he’s belatedly, bloodily killed at the Battle of Culloden, there’s not a reader to be found wi’ a single tear in his/her eye.
This Tore My Heart And I May Never Be The Same Again
I don’t think modern readers run across these situations very often (well, except for Weepy Willies/Willas) because, unfortunately, we’re too desensitized/jaded by modern lit and especially film, where offerings like Game of Thrones have taught us just how dangerous it is for our emotional stability to become too attached to any given character. Nonetheless, it is to the similarly grim TV series The Walking Dead that I turn for an example. In its fourth season, Carol Pelletier, one of the main characters, encounters a couple of young girls, Lizzie Samuels and her younger sister Mika. Now, in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited mostly by shambling zombies and a handful of dazed survivors, it’s unrealistic to think any kids wandering around wouldn’t be severely emotionally/psychologically traumatized, and Lizzie is no exception. Wanting to convince Carol and others that the zombies are still people, she kills Mika… without comprehending the enormity of what she’s done. There’s probably a proper psychiatric term for it, but ‘extreme dissociation’ will do. Lizzie’s fearful but innocent lack of understanding, and Carol’s subsequent anguished realization that Lizzie is so emotionally damaged, she must be killed for everyone’s safety, was a heart-rending moment.
So there you are, Reader, my thoughts regarding handing literary characters the ultimate pink slip. Sure, it can happen --- practically all protagonists, and many other characters, live extremely dangerous lives, after all, and ask not for whom the bell tolls, because it tolls for thee and don’t thou forget it --- but don’t do it cavalierly, carelessly, or with all the drama of brushing one’s teeth --- because then, to paraphrase Will, it becomes ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
Not a consummation devoutly to be wished.