ConCarolinas 2014: Killing Characters

Panelists: David Weber, Tamsin Silver, David B. Coe, A.J. Hartley, John Hartness

Moderator: Allen Wold

Question 1

At some point in your story, someone will die.  How do you know who will die and how they will die?

David Weber:

When you’re writing military/combat, people will die or it is too sanitized.

There are two extremes to writing a death.

  1. There and gone.  There’s no reason.  It’s unexpected.  The plot strings are not tied off.  It hits the reader unexpectedly.
  2. The death of a character that the readers are connected to.  Must have a good death.  They have to go out doing something significant.  It concludes their story arc.

David B. Coe:

In a mystery, murder starts the story.  It is like a time clock (plot device) for the protagonist.

A writer shouldn’t just kill another character because the clock is ticking.  Try to get closer to the protagonist with each death.

Tamsin Silver: 

There are casualties of war.  People die serving what they believe in.

The death of others moves the characters, whether for good or bad.

John Hartness:

In Sci-fi and Urban Fantasy, the writer lives and dies by the series.  Characters grow and develop.

Learn, live, lose = how a protagonist evolves.  (Harry Dresden is the example)

Torture the characters to torture the readers.

We’ve all lost people. 

You have to be able to show your character is as real as the real world.

The death of characters moves the main characters along.

Question 2

What genre do you write? And how does death factor in?

A.J. Hartley:

Comedy is not just about being funny.  It’s about how the story ends.

If you want the emotional weight of death, there are ways to do it without killing.

The idea of a sacrifice is the core of a good character dying well.

Question 3

How do you feel about the enemy characters that you have to kill?

A.J. Hartley:

Someone will cry.  Someone will care about the person.

The villains should be real people too.

John Hartness:

In my books the villains are monsters.  Monsters bad.  Shoot it.

Killing a named villain is just as hard or you cheat everyone.

“We’re all servants of the stories…and the royalties.”

Actions have consequences.  The person who cries at the crime scene may become the next villain.

Death creates in its own way.  It can create a new hero or a new villain.

David Weber: 

Most bad guys don’t wake up evil.

Have to have good on one side and evil on the other; dehumanize the other side so they’re easier to kill.

David B. Coe: 

Death for Ethan (in Thieftaker) also affects readers.  Death is binary; people are not.

All the characters have dark sides and flaws.

Everyone he is forced to deal with as an antagonist is the hero of his/her own story.

David Weber: 

In monsters, the sense of empathy has been destroyed.  They’re a destroyed human being.  We rejoice when they go.

David B. Coe: 

Example: the horcrux in Harry Potter.  It gives immortality but is a broken soul.

The big killing in Thieftaker is done with blood magic.  If you take a life with a spell, it’s stronger.

(SPOILER ALERT!)

Ethan is forced to kill a neighborhood dog.

He essentially casts a spell that makes him brother to the man he’s fighting.  He broke his own cardinal rule.  It still affects him three books later.

John Hartness: 

This is done really well because it is not done as a throwaway character.

A.J. Hartley: 

In the Will Hawthorne series, he is an 18-year-old actor. To protect himself and his people, he kills someone in a fight.

It must be an immense event for the character.

He’s not a sociopath…yet.

John Hartness: 

Characters do stuff they don’t want to do.

Example: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Some people just needed killing.

Also, sometimes the killing action is a non-action.  Don’t throw the life-preserver.  Character is passively killed off.

Question 4

Can you kill a main character?

John Hartness: 

Screw you, Jim Butcher.

David Weber: 

If there’s a character you’ve groomed to step into place, maybe.

It’s very risky.

David B. Coe:

If you’re working with a multi-POV book, each character should have his/her own arc.

The arc may end but not be finished.

Example: Macbeth.  Lady Macbeth’s death happens off stage.  The payoff isn’t the death but the character’s reaction.

Serve the story!

Question 5

When does death cheat the audience?

John Hartness: 

When the buildup or consequences are not done well.

David Weber: 

All readers read uniquely.  They may not see it as we wrote it.   We need to write it well so that different readers’ needs are met.

 

 

 

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