To Bump Or Not To Bump Should You Kill Off A Character?
There can be few things more heart-breaking/satisfying/controversial* for the writer of a series to kill off a regular character. *Pick the most appropriate response.
Killing off a long-standing character happens regularly in TV soaps. The reasons for the decision can vary from the actor wishing to move on/being sacked for sexual impropriety, the character not engaging viewers, the story arc reaching a natural conclusion or the producers needing an excuse to get their flagging show on the front page of TV Quick. Most of those reasons don't apply to novelists, obviously, but there are still good reasons that a writer may decide that it is time to get rid of someone. There are also reasons why you should think carefully before doing it.
The Pros It proves that nobody is safe. One of the best TV dramas of the early 2000s was the BBC's Spooks. Not only was it full of lots of fun spy stuff and intrigue, they also made a very brave decision that stuck with me.
Spoiler Start - skip the next few lines if you've never watched the series!
The publicity for the first season centred largely on two of the main characters, Matthew McFadden's Tom and Lisa Faulkner's Helen. In the second episode, Helen is murdered, brutally, never to reappear. The series runners pulled a similar stunt for series eight, with Rupert Penry-Jones doing large amounts of publicity, only for his character to be killed off early in the first episode. Other series regulars also met grisly ends.
Spoiler End - it's safe to continue reading!
By killing off series regulars - with no warning - the writers sent a clear message. In Spooks nobody is safe; and when a character is in mortal peril, they might not make it. If you compare this to James Bond, we all know that ultimately, he will defeat the odds and save the day. His companion for that film might not make it to the end credits, but Bond will. In Spooks we really couldn't bank on that certainty.
It was incredibly powerful and it stuck with me. I wanted to recreate that feeling of genuine jeopardy in my series. Without giving anything away, there are major characters in the first books that are no longer in the later books. Hopefully, now when I place my creations in mortal danger the reader can't be sure if they will survive. I also place some of them in dreadful situations that may not be resolved happily. Not only do I want my readers to have the same response that my beta-reader Cheryl did when editing one of my books - she literally greeted me with "you bastard!" when she got to that part of the book - I also want my readers to find themselves thinking, "Is this all going to end badly? Because he's shown that he's a big enough git to do it!"
It's an opportunity to take the series in a new direction Killing off a series regular is like throwing a hand grenade into a crowded room. There will always be collateral damage. What will be the emotional impact on everyone left behind? Will that death have unforeseen repercussions, such as other team mates being blamed? Will it cause others to re-evaluate their priorities?
In literature, a number of really big authors have taken what seemed to be a very dangerous gamble and killed off a beloved character, often as a cliff-hanger at the end of the book. In fact one author even placed a hidden page on their website where they explained that yes, they had indeed killed that person and that no, they wouldn't be coming back. Another author killed the person that his hero loved most in the world and was the primary motivation for why they did what they did. It felt like a needlessly cruel ending to the series - until I looked online and saw that the next book was due out the following year. There was no way it could be a trick with the character not really dead, the series was continuing without them. In both of these cases I read the following books with a sense of trepidation, worrying that the author may have screwed up. In both of these cases, the series suddenly became turbo-charged; the fallout lead to the need for something of a reset for everyone and a wealth of new and exciting narrative opportunities.
It stops the series getting stale In neither of the previously mentioned series did I feel that things were getting stale. Which tells me that the author timed their bombshell just right; with hindsight, I can see that in their current configurations, the series' set-up might have started to get repetitive, and so I applaud their decision.
You can bring in fresh blood My series has a number of core and supporting characters that are there in every book. There is the team that work with Warren, and his family. By having characters leave, I am reflecting reality; death, promotion, illness etc. Warren has been in Middlesbury for several years now. It would be peculiar if nobody moved on. Every change brings opportunities. In Warren's investigative team, there are roles that will need to be filled. Do I do a straight substitution - character X leaves, to be replaced by character X version 2? Do I instead move an existing character into that role and use it as an opportunity to get to know them better? Do I rejig the whole set-up? What will new people bring to the ensemble? I have used the opportunity to bring in entirely new types of person, exploring different character traits.
Ambiguity - was the death final or does their shadow hang over the series? A character's apparent death, or disablement, doesn't have to be permanent. With enough foresight, you can write it so that they can return. But this may require planning. Somebody stabbed to death in front of loved ones is more tricky to bring back plausibly than somebody who drowns at sea, with their body never recovered. And what about that return? Will it be a surprise for characters and reader alike, or will their absence loom over the series? Are they really gone or not?
The Cons: It can really upset your readers! Readers become attached to characters, and there might be those that decide that with their favourite gone, there's no point continuing to read the series.
It can limit your future choices. You might have just scuppered your chances of writing a brilliant future story that the character was essential for. This is another reason why you need to think carefully before doing it. However, there can be ways around this. Flashbacks with the character, a short story released as a treat for readers, or even a prequel are potential options. Of course another option is to write the story about your character and then include their demise at the end. This is a potential double-whammy, as if the story is central to this person, then your readers will be especially invested when you bump them off at the end.
It may look desperate. Readers will forgive you if the next book in the series is really good, but killing the character off because you can't think of what else to do can be dangerous and readers aren't fools.
Their replacement isn't sufficiently different. Think carefully about how you will fill that void. If you just swap them for somebody almost identical, like trading your car every three years when its lease is up, then you may as well just have stuck with the original. Take the time to sketch out this new person fully. See it as an opportunity to bring something new to the series, not just a way of getting you out of a creative hole.
Of course, all of the above can be mitigated somewhat by careful planning. Killing off a character that you may have lived with for years can be heart-breaking and shouldn't be done on a whim - but do it right, and it may be one of the best decisions you ever make.
What do you think about killing off characters?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.