Hey, everyone! Hope you like the new layout! It’s Twin Thursday, so be sure to head over to Chicken-Scratch Plot and read Rachel’s take on today’s topic–there’s a link in the brand-new menu at the top right.
This has been a difficult day for me; my mom passed away a year ago today. I decided the best way for me to deal with that is the same way I deal with everything: channel it into my work. So, with that in mind, I’m going to be looking at my top five suggestions for getting the absolute most you can out of a character’s death.
- Make it count. One of the many reasons that Game of Thrones doesn’t work for me is that there’s just so. Much. Death. Not that any given one or two or dozen aren’t done well or can’t evoke a particular emotion. It’s just that I expect it to happen. The no-holds-barred, anyone-can-die-anytime-for-any-reason approach just doesn’t do it for me because I’m always waiting for the next one.
What I prefer to see is fewer deaths, but each of them well-done. This gives each one its own moment in my reading experience to really feel whatever the writer wants me to take away. For example, Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. There are quite a few deaths in quick succession, but each one is afforded its own moment for the character–and, by extension, me–to react to. More on that later.
- Don’t go for the gore. Obviously unless the genre constraints of whatever you’re writing are otherwise. In general, though, I prefer to minimize the body horror so that I can zero in on the emotional keynotes of what’s going on. Hamming up the blood-and-guts details often leaves me bored because it makes the scene feel cartoony. Done poorly, it can even be borderline-comedic. If you don’t need it, leave it out.
- Understatement reigns supreme. Much like the gore above, even when you’re focusing on the emotional note you want to hit, if you hit it too hard it can just go flat. Concentrate instead on one or two tangible, physical responses that your protagonist might be feeling. Overwrought poetic language, unless it fits with the character, can kill the effect.
- Use your POV as a mirror. Whatever reaction you would, ideally, like your reader to take away from the character’s death, reflect it with your narrator/protagonist. If they’ve just lost a loved one and you want your reader to be sad, let the narrator be sad, too. Let them be blindsided and numb from a sudden demise. Let them be tired or overwhelmed or triumphant after finally defeating the villain, and make that emotion tangible. The reader will follow suit.
- Dump the Fridge. Fridging or stuffing a character into the fridge is when they’re gruesomely killed just to advance someone else’s story arc. It often happens offscreen and is usually for no reason other than angst for the protagonist. It’s especially pernicious when the character you’re killing is female or a minority.
Don’t do this. If it’s not the end of the character’s own arc, don’t kill them. Let their end be because of something in their own story whether, for example, the comeuppance well-deserved because of their actions–as in the case of a villain–or because they willingly and heroically chose to do some dangerous thing at great personal risk and paid the price.