Think Before You Kill

(Originally posted at Stupefying Stories.

Some authors really enjoy killing characters, and some kinds of story practically require it. But any time you start offing people in a tale, you run the risk of yanking away one of the main supporting beams of the audience’s interest. Many of us engage with the mystery or threat through the conduit of one or more characters, and once those characters are dead, we find ourselves with little reason to care anymore.

So how do you get away with a high body count—and more, how do you make that effective? It’s easy enough to bump off nameless mooks, but also pretty meaningless. We can tell who’s cannon fodder, and we don’t bother getting attached to them. But when you’ve got an ensemble cast of developed characters, and you then start picking them off, it can be powerful storytelling…assuming you don’t lose your audience along the way.

Three principles may help.

The first is to make it clear to the audience what kind of story you’re telling. Sometimes genre alone will do this for you: if your novel or film is advertised as a war story or slasher horror, then we can guess going in that not everyone will survive to the end. There’s still a risk that our favorite characters will die too early, but at least we won’t be blindsided when it happens. When it comes out of nowhere, too often it feels like the author was going for pure shock value, which is rarely as effective as those authors seem to think.
When genre alone isn’t enough to wave the flag, it’s worth looking for other devices to signal what’s coming: a frame story, a reference to a prior massacre under similar conditions, an ominous prediction by one of the characters, or anything else that cues the audience’s expectations.

Second, think carefully about who you’re killing. There are some unpleasant patterns around who tends to die early, predictable enough that they’ve been mocked by countless parodies: the Black friend, the gay guy, the girl who’s had sex, and so forth. If you repeat those patterns, there’s a portion of your audience who will quit. They’ve seen it before, and they’re beyond tired of it.

But this principle isn’t just about the unfortunate habit writers have of tossing in a few diversity tokens and then whacking them. Lots of stories still have Generic McStoicson as their main lead, on the theory that he, as an “everyman,” is relatable to everybody. In practice, though, that guy is often thunderously boring. What life and flavor the story has comes from the characters around him. Once the curtain has dropped on the rest of them, the audience is left with nothing but the protagonist-shaped piece of cardboard, and they start wondering why this guy gets to survive while all the more interesting people die.

And finally, give careful thought to how the characters die. If you’re felling them in mass quantities, then obviously the story won’t have room for the kind of impact—the shock and grief and mourning—that can follow on a single death. The members of your ensemble may go out quite quickly, and sometimes they’ll go out senselessly, because not everyone gets an ending full of meaning and moral.

Still, you can and should bear in mind what the audience wants for those characters, and not thwart that desire without good reason. Both the page and the screen have far too many examples of intelligent, capable, ferocious women who turn helpless and pathetic the moment their demise is required to further the hero’s story. Don’t ignore someone’s strengths because it’s more convenient that way. And distribute the senseless deaths with a sparing hand; if we’re invested in a character, losing them for no better reason than “it ups the stakes” or “it shows that death can strike at any time” will be deeply unsatisfying. It calls to mind the reaction of the grandson in The Princess Bride: “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!”

In some ways, the most satisfying deaths can be the ones that go in the other direction. The character who’s been helpless and pathetic all along, but who finds a moment of unexpected strength right before the end? That speaks to us. So does the moment of bonding or support between two characters who have loathed each other all along. Those deaths are memorable because they add something to the narrative, instead of merely taking something away. They leave us feeling like we’ve gotten a return on our emotional investment.

Even with these principles in mind, though, a story that reaps its cast like grain at the harvest still won’t work for everybody. Not all readers or viewers are on board with a story that will slowly whittle the ensemble down to a lucky (or unlucky) few survivors. Some are on board…right up to the moment when their favorite exits stage left, and even if the exit is a good one, that wound proves too much for them. No matter how hard you try to make your whole cast well-developed and interesting—including your central character—you’ll never catch all readers in your net.

That’s all right. Not every story is for every reader. And there are no doubt good stories that violate all the principles above and still manage to work, at least for some portion of those along for the ride. But keeping an eye on these guidelines will increase the chance of keeping your audience to the end.