Killing your characters: should you do it?4 min read
One year the group I write with had a competition during Nanowrimo: how quickly can you kill off your main character? Not in a ghost story, scene-setting sort of way. In the way where you have a plan for a whole plot with the main character involved in every part, but then you kill them off before the action gets started and see where the story now takes you.
I was staggered. Not with the loss of plotting – I’ve done enough fly by the seat of my pants storytelling to not let that phase me – but with the idea of killing off the main character. I have never done it. Sure, I’ve killed off sidekicks. I’ve killed off innocent bystanders. And I’ve definitely killed off my fair share of baddies. But the closest I’ve come to killing off the main character is to kill off my second favourite character. That was bad enough.
Actual multitudes of tears and a bucket of ice-cream level stuff, not just a set of watery eyes and a stoic sniff.
I hadn’t been expecting that. I’d read about authors who cried over the death of their characters and I had laughed. But having done it, it’s really quite a weird experience and one that a lot of people won’t understand.
Killing off my character was a very confusing time. Partly it’s confusing because you really are in mourning, albeit in a rather awkward way.
You’re sad because someone you spent a lot of time with is no longer about. That’s a normal mourning situation.
But they were fictional. Bordering on the less normal, but lots of people experience sadness when a favourite character dies.
Add to that the fact that you were the one who killed them, or the plot held you ransom to it. Either way you could have stopped it, but you didn’t. Much weirder grief situation.
And, no matter how many times you see the phrase “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…” you know it’s a whole load of tosh. Yes, my character wasn’t based directly on a person I knew. But his integrity came from a colleague, his looks came from an old crush, his terrible inability to tell jokes, well, that was probably me. In that sense there are very few truly fictional characters. Characters are cobbled together from other stories and experiences and people you sit next to on the bus.
It is justifiable to mourn the death of your fictional character. You aren’t weird and you aren’t alone. Go get yourself a tub of ice cream and wear your brightest outfits, you should be looking after yourself.
Just remember, once you’ve worked through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, McDonalds, kickboxing, cupcakes), you will have other characters in that story who will be going through what you’ve just experienced. It’s going to be a rollercoaster of a challenge for you as a writer.
So kill off your characters and meet that challenge head on.
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