So something weird happened to me this week while I was writing. I killed a character, and I actually couldn't continue to write the scene. It gave me the same visceral reaction the end of Harry Potter gave me when Sirius Black died (and the plethora of other characters who followed).
I actually packed up and went home and refused to finish the scene.
"This will be the last scene I write," I told Alex. "I can't. If I write this scene, and it's done and this is the way it has to go, then I cannot in good conscience write these characters just to end them in this much hurt."
"Well," Alex shrugged. "That's a good thing, right?"
This might sound like the dumbest conversation ever, to people who don't write. To those of us who have had to kill a character, it is a struggle we've faced since we started being "Gods of our Universes," as an old professor said. There is a lot of philosophy and theory that goes into writing a world, because honestly, in order to have a realistic world, it must be real. If someone doesn't believe writers think like this, please direct them towards Zack Helm's Stranger Than Fiction.
So if the world is real, does that mean then, that in some way, we are killing an entity? When Sherlock dove off the cliff, when Sirius fell behind the veil, or when Mufasa slammed into the bottom of the canyon, were those not deaths that made a difference? Was that not the absence of an entity in our world?
For anyone who has ever read vigorously or written passionately, the answer would be yes.
During Nanowrimo, one of the prompts read: "Write a letter as your protagonist to yourself, the author." This is all my letter said:
"Dear Ms. Dawson,
Please don't kill them.
I showed it to Alex, and he started crying.
That's how ridiculous and invested we may be.
But is it a good thing? If I feel physically ill and mentally spent after killing a character? Does that automatically mean a good ending?
Honestly, it doesn't.
For how many good reasons to kill a character, there are a hundred bad reasons. I've seen characters die of God complexes, shitty twists, tear-jerkers, and stupid-shitty-writer-itis. What is stupid-shitty-writer-itis? When you do something stupid and shitty just because you're a writer.
"It will mean something if I kill him." "It will cause stress to my readers if I kill her." "Ah, but I will surprise and shock them because it hasn't been done before!" Or the worst, the stupidest, and the shittiest: "If these people die, then you just don't know who's going to go next!"
That last award goes to George R.R. Martin. To clarify, Martin is not a shitty writer. But as much as I absolutely love Martin's prose and language and character building, I can't bring myself to read the next book and I am forced to watch the TV show. While I agree with and love the the idea of "Drew Barrymoring" a character in order to create the feeling that no character is sacred (see: Scream), I do think that Barrymoring every character in every other chapter is just too overwhelming and gives no reason to keep reading. We connect through our characters.
But I will also argue that I am much younger and not as brilliant as George R.R. Martin, so I may completely agree with him in twenty years.
When you kill too much or you kill for the wrong reasons, then the book becomes meaningless and contrived.
So when is it okay to kill characters? Some people make the mistake of never killing a character. Everyone either Disney Deaths back to life (getting in the sobs of a death scene only to cough a little and open their eyes to a "Baloo! You're alive!"), or they protect all of their main characters out of a fear of doing them wrong or having to say goodbye to them too soon.
So here it is, the reason why you should kill a character. It must push the story developmentally through one of the elements of fiction (minus "language," because no you don't get to kill someone off just to write a beautiful paragraph about butterflies and gravestones):
1. It moves a character forward. (Harry must move alone without his parentals in order to grow)
2. It moves the plot along. (Because of Voldemort's death, we lead into the denouement)
3. It sets the tone for your time and place. (Cedric Diggory is dead, and things are getting real)
4. It fits into your overall theme. (Sirius Black dies without any reason, which is how death works, and it teaches Harry to heal and keep moving on)
Those are the only four reasons why you should kill a character.
One other thing you need to look at: What does death mean in your book's world? In some of my own books, I have no afterlife. In the one I am writing right now, there is an afterlife. Continuing with the Harry Potter examples, Rowling most definitely has a clear afterlife involved in her mythos. Because of this, death does not take on the same weight as death takes on in Westeros, where you are dead and cold as soon as the blood drains from the heart from whence the Hound stabbed the ever-living crap out of you.
So if you have created an atheist world, that means your character is gone forever. If you have created a Christian world, that means your character is being judged. If you have created a world with resurrection, or reincarnation, or hauntings, or other dimensions or other levels ... what does that mean for the growth of your surviving characters?
So looking at my story, I agreed to kill this character off. I will not write it now, because it hurts too much. There needs to be a sense of choice in the story, a sense of the character maybe getting off easier. But I won't erase what I've written. I can't save them. No matter what I do, I can't. It fits, and it is going to be sad, but it makes sense.
So I'm sorry, Character, I can't save them. I would if I could, but I can't.