Elizabeth: You’re Killing Me Here

deaths_of_fictional_charactersI don’t watch much television these days other than binge watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (don’t judge), but last week, out of curiosity, I decided to tune in to a show that I used to watch just to see how things were going.

Bad-timing on my part as they were just about to kill off a major character. Fortunately, I had only watched 10 minutes of the episode before the internet erupted with spoilers – usually annoying, but in this case, much appreciated – allowing me to cut my losses and get some writing done instead.

As is often the case, the actor apparently wanted to leave the show, which meant something terrible had to happen. Now, to be fair, this particular show hasn’t killed off every actor who has chosen to leave, but there is quite a trail of dead bodies. I can think of at least three characters who survived their own departure, but the rest were about as lucky as red-uniformed officers on Star Trek.*

“It seems vindictive, when the writers could as easily have the person take a job in Tahiti. It is a way of saying “screw you” to the actor, and inadvertently screwing the fans.” ~ Random Guy on Facebook

Comments on the internet about this particular show were a mixed bag but heavily weighted on the “I can’t believe that happened” end of the spectrum. There were a number of stalwart supporters, but they were far out-weighed by the “I’ll never watch this show again” crowd. If nothing else, the episode created a lot of noise about the show, though who knows if that will have any permanent impact on viewership.

 “. . . I’ll bet all these people who are saying they won’t watch again will tune in next week to see what happens. . .” ~ Susan Elizabeth Phillp’s FB post

In the day-time shows that populated network television when I was a kid back in the dark-ages, episodes would occasionally start with a voice-over stating that “the role of Bob will now be played by John Smith” before continuing on their merry way. That’s not to say characters didn’t die, have accidents, disappear, get divorced, have amnesia, find long-lost children, and experience any number of other events, but the shows seemed to be more about the characters than the actors who played them.

Killing off a character in a book is slightly different from killing a character in a show. While the decision can upset readers, especially if it relates to a well-liked character, it is driven by the writer and the story, not by external factors like a departing actor or the dreaded “season-ending cliff-hanger.”

Typically the only characters that wind up dead in the books I read are bad guys or, in the case of cozy mysteries, the requisite story-starting-murder-victim(s). Off the top of my head, the only main character I can remember being killed off recently is one of the leads in Patricia Gaffney’s Saving Graces, who dies from a terminal illness (I’m ignoring Heyer’s An Infamous Army – dead characters are expected in a war story).

whedonmartinmoffat1Happily-ever-after romances are not particularly known for a high body count. It’s a different story in other genres however, and there are writers with a reputation for killing off characters who are able to retain a strong and loyal readership / viewership. In the end, it’s all about why a character is being killed off. If it’s in service to the story and doesn’t come across as a plot-device or worse yet a case of “I couldn’t decide what to do with this character so I killed him off,” then the death of a character, even a well-liked one is likely to be accepted. But kill off a character without a good reason or, heaven forbid, kill off a pet, and it may just sound a death-knell for your readers.

So, what’s your take on the subject? Have you read a story where a lead or favourite character was killed off? Did it lose you as a reader or did you stick with it?

Random trivia:  73% of the crew members killed on the original Star Trek episodes were wearing red uniforms.

21 thoughts on “Elizabeth: You’re Killing Me Here

    • Kay – I just re-watched that recently. Even though I knew what was coming it still had an impact. I’ve mentally re-written that ending 🙂

  1. There’s a breath-taking climax to Dorothy Dunnett’s book Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth book of the Lymond Chronicles, set in the Ottoman Empire. At the Sultana’s whim, the hero plays the bad guy at chess – only snag is that the pieces are human and only the winners get to live. The hero can win, but only by exchanging pieces, which means one of the characters under his care will die. He has to choose who to sacrifice. If he doesn’t do it, he’ll lose and they all die. No spoilers except to say that there is no last-minute reprieve.

    Jenny C taught us that character is choice under pressure, and that you need bodies in motion, not talk. This scene ticks all those boxes and the choices made by the hero have a profound and lasting effect on him. I not only stayed with the series, I read the remaining two books as fast as I could 🙂

    • Jilly – that sounds like quite a decision for the hero. I’m going to have to add that to my reading list, just to see how Dunnett handled that.

  2. The Fault in Our Stars killed off one of he main characters, but when you choose to read a book about teenagers with terminal cancers, you kind of sign up for that.

    The last one the truly pissed me off was the final book in the Divergent series. Still annoyed about that one.

    • Jeanne – you’re right, books with terminal cancer or war both come with the expectation of character loss. Haven’t read the Divergent series myself – maybe I’ll pass on that one.

  3. I had to stop reading Lisa Jackson because she kept killing off characters I liked. They were usually badish characters but they had some redeeming qualities. I’m not a fan of dead bodies in the fiction I read – that’s what the newspaper is for.

    • Hi Michille – I’m not a fan of dead bodies in fiction either, even bad guys. I tend to gravitate more towards comedies and romance, rather than suspense or high-action thrillers for that very reason.

  4. I still remember tripping over the line, “Your friend Phineas is dead” in John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” Mind you, I read this book in 9th grade. I remember almost nothing from the story itself except that line. Not only did I trip over the line, but I had to go back and re-read the last two pages to figure out how I missed that coming.

    I remember when I read that line, my heart jumped, my adrenaline raced, and I thought, “What the…?”

    Talk about something that sticks with you…

    • I had forgotten all about that story Justine, but I can see how that would stick with you. The death of a character is one thing, but when there is the element of surprise added in, it really leaves an imprint.

  5. Last week, I finally read Redshirts, by John Scalzi. Most of the book is full of action and humor, and is a rip-roaring tale underlaid by the whole philosophy of killing off characters. The last bits are experimental, and also very good. It really presents some interesting ideas for writers — especially about the morality, and the craftsmanship involved, of killing off characters. MINI-SPOILER: basically, it’s a cheap trick to emotionally manipulate the readers. Scalzi offers some alternatives. (Redshirts, for our friends who may not know, are the crew members of Star Trek who wore red uniforms, and often got killed on the missions. You don’t need to know Star Trek to enjoy this book — I don’t know it beyond a shallow cultural appreciation.)

    Of course, in my favorite series, Bujold killed Miles Vorkosigan. It’s OK, she immediately brought him back to life (oh! the modern miracles of medicine of the future!), and then he had to deal with all the crap. Really, it’s the hardest book of the series. Quite rewarding in many ways, but even more than his physical death, the death of his entire identity was really wrenching to work through. But useful. After all, a career change is often the result of a “little death” — we become new people. Anyway, the ending was really hopeful, and the next book was different, but wonderful.

    My take: if you are going to kill ’em off, make it meaningful, make it early in the episode, and end on hope and good things.

    • Michaeline – I like the “end on hope and good things” idea. You can excuse a lot during the course of a show/story if there is a good ending. I might have to add Redshirts to the reading list. I’ve heard good things about it from others too.

      • I want to say that Redshirts is kind of a fluffy read. But when you think about it, it really isn’t. (-: Kind of messes with my writing, to tell the truth, because of the morality aspects. This is a book I’d like to read as a Ladies Book Read, because there are so many aspects to it that are quite interesting, from structure to character building.

        Oh, the character building is sufficient, but kind of . . . I dunno how to put it. (-: That’s why I’d like to put it to a larger group (-:.

        • Michaeline – definitely sounds like like Redshirts would be great to read with someone else. The Amazon reviews are all over for it – should mean there could be some really interesting discussions about it.

      • I don’t usually cry when I read books, but that had me sobbing — gut punch is a good way to describe it. I knew it was coming — I’d heard the rumors. So, I was somewhat prepared. Also, the elegant way it was handled, and the multiple POVs, and the almost-poetry-like format helped me process it. She made some really brave choices.

        Sigh. Wish I could write like that.

        Of course, I think it meant the end of Miles, Adventurer. I could be wrong, but the next book was Ivan’s book and the upcoming book (yay!) is going to concern Cordelia, I’m given to understand. That’s sad. But considering that ACC was supposed to be the “natural end” of the series, I feel like we’ve had a very good run. (And who knows? (-: It seems Miles does have ideas of his own. He may be back.)

        • We’d had to transition from Miles the Teenage Disaster to Miles the Loose Cannon, and then to Miles the Imperial Auditor. I hope we get at least one featuring him as Lord Count, with plenty of intrigue inside the council.

          I’ve always thought that the two Cordelia novels were the best of the entire Vorkosigan series, so I’m quite damned excited to hear that we’re going to get more from her point of view. Another IvanYouIdiot novel would go down quite nicely, as well.

  6. When I started the “Song of Ice & Fire” series (about a decade ago), I loved that the first volume killed off an important character, particularly because he was likable and one whose head we’d been inside for much of the book. That move told me (I thought) that the author was willing to make bold choices required for a gripping, suspenseful story.

    Of course, by the time the author had killed off the umpteenth major character, I had come to the conclusion that he was a bloody-minded curmudgeon incapable of conceptualizing any kind of happiness. But that’s not important right now.

      • I’ve slogged through all the books (so far) in the series, but as I finished the most recent one (which ended in more seemingly-random deaths of interesting characters), I realized that I’m no longer enjoying the books and may well just skip the rest.

        If I wanted to read about good guys always losing and religious zealotry on the rise, I’d just watch the news.

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