Monday, January 9, 2012

They're All Gonna Die

I recently read a certain book series that shall remain nameless, because spoilers are evil, but suffice it to say it was one of those series where people die all the freaking time, and not just Red Shirts either. And, honestly, I didn't feel too bad for most of the characters who died. It was just the nature of the beast. It was just one of those things where the author says, "Here's a passel of folks. They're all gonna die. Let's go."

In the end, the characters basically shook out into a certain break-down.
  • 33% = The Ultimate Red-Shirts.
    No one cares about about these people at all, so when the writer bumps them off, people shrug and move on.Link
  • 33% = Bad Guys
    These are the folks you aren't supposed to like. So, really, when someone -- the narrator, a character, whoever -- bumps them off, you kind of applaud. And, let's face it, you don't feel sad at all.
  • 33% = Good guys
    When these people die, we all feel sad. Even if you know it's coming, that you the writer intends to kill him/her eventually, you're kind of hoping that isn't going to happen, that they'll find some way around his/her own rules and will keep that one.

The other 1% is the MC(s), who assumably, because you're reading a series, the writer has to keep around for the later books. It's functionally Contractual Immortality with a splash of Plot Armor.

Eventually, though, I'm just gonna say it, all that dying gets old. It's not that I have an inherent aversion to the death that some books just plain have to have. It's just that eventually that the time came that I felt like the writer was bumping off characters just to bump of characters. There came a point when I thought the writer was killing characters, and I'm included characters people liked who did not for any real reason have to die, just to prove that he or she could.

To me, it just looks like the writer was trying to shore up his or her Anyone Can Die cred. I get it, Anyone Can Die is a nice thought, because it establishes real world values in the text, exempting characters from MC Superpowers that annoy people, it maintains tension in the story but keeping stakes high, and it increases the motivations of any character who survives the death of someone they knew. But there's a line between Keeping It Real and Being Downright Arbitrary, and an overuse of the Anyone Can Die rule seems to be arbitrary and almost trying too hard.

I'm not going to lie, sometimes I worry I give my characters a little too much Plot Armor. I've bumped off characters before, but only because I thought it benefited the story and the plot. Once upon a time a character appeared in my head and one of the first things I knew about him -- lovely guy, great character -- was that he died in the middle. But I only knew he had to die, because the story would not have worked if he'd lived. Sometimes characters just have to die.

Sometimes they have to die. But they don't all have to die.

How do you feel about character's dying? How do you feel about killing characters? Do you do that a lot? How do you feel about writers who kill off a lot of characters?


  1. If characters dying adds to the plot, I'm all for it. But if it is just gratuitous for shock value or something, I don't like it.

  2. I feel the same way about a series, the fifth book I just finished and two more are due out. Lots of people dying from the get-go. In fact, you could say it was the death of one of the first main pov characters that started off the whole conflict. And even though the deaths seem to make sense in context (and sometimes people aren't as dead as the author would like you to think), it still wears me down after a while.

    Now, don't get me wrong, I tend to kill at least one character per novel I write, but this series just exhausted me with all the deaths of characters that I cared for, so I totally commiserate! (we were probably reading the same series, I bet!)

  3. Susan -- I definitely share your feelings.

    Tere -- I know what series you're talking about. You're definitely right, eventually it all just gets emotionally exhausting.