Killing your darling characters

“Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me […]” — Emily Dickinson
There are many darlings writers kill: words, scenes, characters or even complete story lines and books. Rather than look at the whole, I am going to focus on characters — they are often the hardest to visit death upon, whether by killing them in a novel or completely removing them from a manuscript. Let’s face it, characters have a tendency to worm their way under our skin — we watch them grow, we know them.

I had always planned to write a general on this subject that focused not only on characters, but I decided to narrow it down after watching the major backlash against season three of Downton Abbey (no, spoilers beyond the fact it involved character death). Comments grew quite heated on online discussion boards, viewers shaken to their core: They were furious with the writer, though he really had little choice given the time period the show occurs in and uncooperative actor(s). I was not so shocked or disappointed, life happens and often it is not pleasant — we have our highs and we have our crushing lows.

However, one commenter on the LA Times discussion board got me thinking, after commenting: “To raise viewers up so high and then suckerpunch them right before the credits roll was incredibly manipulative. It pulled me right out of the fantasy and I’m not going to bother with season four.”

‘It pulled me right out of the fantasy,’ this part in particular lingers with me. It is true there are readers/viewers out there who only read/watch for escapism, though personally I read to be challenged or to be touched: I love it when a book is capable of making me cry. But, it does make one question before eliminating key or beloved characters, especially when you think of potential backlash and causing readers to rage quit; this in return leads to doubt, which leads to the dark side — umm, no, I mean — the loss of productivity. Writers cannot afford to constantly second guess themselves as nothing will get done. While you have to consider your audience, you must also consider your story and its needs.

Don’t fear having bad things happen to your characters, because more often than not, I feel writers have more of a tendency to coddle their characters, allowing no harm to come to them — at least, their favorites. Stephenie Meyer is particularly guilty of this with the worst thing ever happening to Bella being the birthing scene: But don’t worry, that is all wiped away in a matter of moments and then she is even more perfect than before.

Characters are writers’ babies, it is true: We create them, develop them from 2-D to 3-D. But, if we are to be good “parents,” we have to let them go into the world. Bad things will happen, but through them the character will grow. Our hardships shape us and make us who we are. Sometimes, this happens through death, sometimes our own or sometimes through the deaths of others around us.

I was fine, then I was pushing up daisies!

Character death can be powerful: A character throwing themselves on a grenade to save others, a terminally ill character using their last days to make a difference, or a character using their last moments to get an important message out. However, in reality, death can be very random, often without the purpose or grandness that fiction often paints. Death can be long and painful or occur in an instance. Often times, people are left without closure with their loved one’s death.

Some readers appreciate this realism in fiction, others don’t as it breaks the ‘fantasy.’ The Downton Abbey reaction really got me thinking about my own writings, especially since in one project, I have several main characters die in the span of one book. Will I hit my readers’ breaking point? After all, I have raged quit books for seeming to purposely push by that line for the shock value. I think that is a fine line writers tread with their readers, and I think it is largely settled by writers not considering character death as shock value: Character deaths need to feel well thought out and progress the plot naturally — they should never feel like the writer is trying to manipulate their audience, that is trying too hard.

Character deaths also need to be acknowledged and given respect. Through other characters’ grief, readers are also allowed to process everything that has happened, especially if it was a favorite character. Nothing makes a reader balk like a character death only receiving a sentence of reaction, if that, and then nothing more. The aftermath does not need to be drawn out or melodramatic, but it needs to be real. Deceased characters should be remembered by the living characters, especially if they were important to them.

In light of the season three finale, I have found this interview with Downton Executive Gareth Neame (DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU WANT SPOILED) to be enlightening, especially when he talks about the story’s mythology. Every story has a mythology of things that have occurred in the writer’s head and are cemented there, because to the writer, they have already happened. This has read especially true for me since I started in a book later in the chronologically and then decided instead to write the prequels first, making them the foothold series. So I already knew the deaths, they are cemented, already a part of the mythology — the history — of the world, though the reader does not know it.

Know your mythology, don’t shy away from it out of fear of reader reactions; however, do not wield your scythe of character death like a raving lunatic. Cut threads with discretion, and don’t use character deaths for shock value — I’m looking at you “X-Men: Last Stand.” Writers also need to realize they can’t coddle their characters: They will never grow that way.


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

4 thoughts on “Killing your darling characters

  1. Death happens. I sometimes think writers use it for shock value. However, especially with serials which require a slow and meaningful build of character, you can lose audience by doing this. I remember one show – Torchwood – killed off three out of five of its main characters in five episodes. Fans felt betrayed and rightly so – after that, the show was too far removed from the original, and no new characters could make up for this.

    1. Yeah, I can appreciate that with series, though I never did catch Torchwood — we didn’t have the right channel. Downton Abbey I gave a pass since the character deaths were due to actors departing the show, so it wasn’t as if the writer had much of a choice, though it was sad to see the characters go, especially in such manners. Yet then there are cases like G.R.R. Martin, who wields a mighty character killing scythe, but does not receive as much flack, but that might because the readers now just expect it. But I do agree it is a fine line.

  2. Great post again! I actually saw the death of the character in Downton Abbey coming, but I still didn’t want it to happen. I know they weren’t left with a choice, however. If they had been, I don’t think it would have been the right time to kill him off, though I do see how his death could have been imminent.

    I think the point you mentioned about having the characters grieve, giving the reader time to grieve along with them, is spot on. A big mistake writers can make is killing off someone important, then just marching forward as though nothing had happened. That leads to to more of a betrayed feeling by the reader than anything else in my opinion.

    1. Yeah, I had figured as much, too, especially with the actors leaving.

      I have been angry multiple times about characters and their deaths just being forgotten. Tonks and Lupin stand out perhaps the most — just a sentence and then nothing more, ugh.

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