Killing Off Characters – Hurtful or Necessary?
Posted on February 28, 2013
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Harry Potter, Breaking Dawn or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, or not watched Downton Abbey (season 3) or any of Joss Whedon’s works, figure that the title has already done some spoiling and keep reading!
The most recent uproar over a character’s death came with the end to Downton Abbey‘s season finale with the death of beloved character Matthew. It was not a secret that actor Dan Stevens wanted to pursue other acting possibilities, and no one should have been truly surprised when it happened. But that didn’t stop the uproar from fans when the season came to a close with Matthew’s death. Perhaps it was because it came so soon after another family member’s death. My Facebook had many posts of sadness and ultimately perturbed fans. Why did they kill him off? No amount of justification from Julian Fellowes quieted the masses for days.
Unlike many of my friends, my reaction landed more on the side of support for Fellowes and the decision to close the door of a leaving character’s return by having them die. Joss Whedon makes a living off of killing off major characters – so much so that I have termed his name as a verb: Whedon: (v.) – to kill off a major character that will emotionally affect the viewer. And let’s face it – no one is safe in George R.R. Martin’s world.
I am all for killing a character IF the story supports it. When J.K. Rowling killed off Cedric Diggory in book 4, it meant that any character could be next. By doing that, it heightened the action. If no one is safe, than what he or she does in a story becomes more important. When the final Harry Potter book came out, I knew it was going to be a bloodbath when Hedwig bit it early on. But with the huge inevitable battle, characters had to die. There is no battle – real or fictional – that doesn’t have casualties.
Consider an example of hurting a story by not killing off characters. In the end of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, there is a huge potential battle. All four books led up to the big showdown with the enemy. And in the end? She backed out of it! How unsatisfying to know that the main character Bella finally brought some strength to the story and yet she never got to do much with it. The whole battle got called off, and everyone lived happily ever after. Meyer and the director of the movie Breaking Dawn: Part Two rectified the mistake by making a “let’s imagine” scene where the actual casualties that should have happened occur. Just that addition made the movie marginally better than the book.
Now I’m not saying that every writer should start their story thinking, “I’ve got to create a character in order to kill them.” However, I do think that if the story indicates that a death might be necessary, a writer shouldn’t be afraid to go there. Even in YA lit, we can’t assume that the readers are innocents who aren’t touched by death. Think about the world they live in and the access to information they have. Perhaps Middle Grade is a little too young to kill off characters, but definitely YA writers can consider a character’s mortality.
I think there would be nothing better as a writer than to hear an uproar out of killing a beloved character. If the readers of my work are upset because I dared to take someone away who had become real to them, I think I would pop a bottle of nice champagne. So Fellowes shouldn’t be that worried about his job working with Downton Abbey. The commotion just means he did his job well – he created a character that people loved and hated to see go.
I’m not sure I want the reputation of being the writer who consistently kills off someone important (like Whedon) or the writer who will kill any character at any time (like Martin). If it makes sense in the story, and if the death is written well, then I am not afraid to take the plunge. Although interestingly, as I write this I am thinking about my current WIP and wondering if one of them will not last all the way through. It makes me excited and interested to see where the story takes me and them.