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.