How do you separate a good writer from a great writer? Is it their writing style? Their voice? The seamless nature of their storytelling? These are all important aspects of great writing to be sure. But, in my opinion, one thing that truly sets writers apart is their ability to kill off characters.
It’s infuriating and it hurts and it really really sucks. But, when a writer is able to make the choice to kill off a beloved character in a narrative, it shows they know what they are doing and that they’ve leveled up their game. Now, you can’t just kill off any character and call it a day. It has to be artfully done. It can be unexpected. But, it has to be heart-wrenching. It’s not pretty. But, then again, neither is real life. It’s messy and when you take chances, sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t.
I’m in the middle of the third book of the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden. I’ve written about this series before and the third book is just as beautifully written as the first two. Now, I won’t give any spoilers. But, Arden kills off an important character in this book and, for me, it was completely unexpected. I was so devastated by this turn of events that I almost stopped reading. What is the story without this character? In the end, I’m still reading. And, I’m still aching from the loss of that character. This is another sign of good writing. I cared about that character. I was rooting for that character. It cut me deeply when this character went away.
Why do some authors have trouble killing off characters? Honestly, I think we fall as much or more in love with our own characters as our readers do. It sucks killing off a character. You’ve developed them and raised them like your own imaginary child into multi-faceted individuals. You’ve spent so much time with them that they’ve become your own companions and friends. Killing them off means all that effort is wasted. Right? Well, not exactly wasted. You’ve put in the work to develop your story and that’s never a bad thing, even when a character has to leave the stage.
The reality is, killing off characters is important. Now, I’m not saying someone has to die in every book in existence. But, if you’re writing an epic fantasy adventure story or a war story and no one significant dies, you may want to rethink your plot a bit. It’s just not realistic. And yes, realistic is a charged word when it comes to fantasy. But, art still imitates life, even when it is encased in the shiny shell of mages and witches and monsters.
For me, that means really thinking about how my own stories progress and evaluating when a character’s role in the story has been played out. AND, when that happens, being strong enough to write that killing blow.
How do you face the prospect of killing off characters? Is it something you are okay with or do you struggle with it? How do you overcome the hesitancy? Please share your experiences in the comments! 🙂