Killing characters: any regrets?

A few days ago I wrote about questions you should ask writers. These include, “Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?”

So people are asking me: Well, have you?

The answer depends on what you mean by regret.

If it means wishing that I’d kept a character alive because I enjoyed writing about him, or because he was loved by readers and by other characters in the book, the answer is yes. Characters come to be real people to me. And lively, lovable characters are fun to write about and to spend time with. When they die, it hurts. When I kill off a great character, I turn on the most anguishing country music I can find, so that I’m in the mood to really rip readers’ guts out. Yes, I’m cruel that way.

But if regret means coming to think that I made a mistake by killing off a character, the answer is no. Because there’s only one reason I would consider killing a character a mistake: if that death weakened the story.

I think hard before having a character die. I try never to kill somebody for shock value, or to up a body count, or to grab attention. Rule No. 1: no gratuitous deaths. But I realized long ago that for a story to reach its full potential, every character must face real risk. And because of that, some will reap the consequences. Rule No. 2: anybody can die. When a character dies in one of my books, sometimes the death is unjust. Sometimes it’s sacrificial, or redemptory. But if I’ve done my job right, that death is always meaningful. It should strengthen the book. And that means I don’t regret it.

But I will say to my daughter, who is still livid over the death of a particular character: If it helps you to believe that Navy SEALs were waiting nearby and performed a secret rescue, dream away.

9 responses to “Killing characters: any regrets?

  1. Great post! I understand you COMPLETELY! I am definitely not a fan or “shock value” deaths in my books, but death does come when it is meant to be, which can sometimes BE shocking. ESPECIALLY when you don’t know the character is going to die. However, I made the mistake once of trying to keep a character alive and for the remainder of the story, every scene she was in felt odd. Her comments didn’t fit with others, she was always just hanging around in the background–pretty much a third wheel. That’s when I realized it doesn’t matter how hard you try, if they are meant to be dead, then they should be dead.

    Still… sometimes it sucks… 🙂

  2. I will never give up hope!

    Also, what songs are on your “anguished country” playlist?

    • Bless your heart.

      To start the ACP*:
      “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Patty Loveless
      “Sorrowful Angels,” Patty Loveless
      “God’ll Cut You Down,” Johnny Cash
      And of course… THE SADDEST SONG EVER WRITTEN: “Whiskey Lullaby,” Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley

      *Anguished Country Playlist

  3. I had slated a character to die because I thought it would be important in moving the story forward. As I got closer to the scene, I started having doubts. I thought he could move the story better if he stayed alive…but I wasn’t sure how. I’m still on the fence but I’m leaning towards keeping him alive. I don’t know if that really answers the “regret killing a character” question or not but there it is. LOL

  4. Great post and I really agree, sometimes they just have to die, as sad as that is.
    But now I’m kind of curious who’s death your daughter was so angered by… I do get that you can’t say because there are likely people reading this who haven’t read all your books (but a girl can still wonder). And I will definitely have to check out the ACP next time I’m devastated by a character’s death!

  5. Yes, Meg…only once…and caught a bit of grief from a fellow author and one faithful reader. It was in my…no, can’t say cause it might give away the ending…anyway…I knew there would be no sequel, and, the MC was determined to solve the crime…and…he did.
    Great question…and after ten novels, I’ve not done it again….and don’t plan to…
    Keep writin’ and smilin’…

  6. Great post, as usual. I’m glad you took the time to answer this question as it was really nagging at me last week. I tend to kill of characters without a lot of thought put into it (though, I should clarify, not that many die per book). It just sort of happens. I think I’d rather be a character in your book, Meg.

  7. Pingback: The Anguished Country Music Playlist | lying for a living

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