Character killing

As those of you who watch The Game of Thrones, this week showcased The Red Wedding scene. If you haven’t scene the episode or read the books, you probably don’t want to keep reading. Not that I’ve watched it, but I intend to talk spoilers all the same. Anyhow, GRRM did an interview, which you can read here, discussing that scene and killing characters. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. I’ve been thinking about killing characters and what a writer owes to readers and what a writer owes to the story. Does the writer owe anything to a reader except a good story? Or does she owe live characters? I know that a lot of readers, me included, hate it when beloved characters get killed off. Nancy Kress said once that she gets tired of characters and kills them so she can begin fresh. You’ll see in that interview that GRRM says:

I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.

I find that a really interesting statement because he knew early on he wanted to kill the characters off, not because the story dictated it, but because he wants unpredictability. I get that. When stories are predictable, readers can lose interest or get bored. He also says in this piece he wanted to really highlight the darkness in the world and the evil, along with the joy. On the other hand, knowing you’re going to kill characters early on can change the story you want to tell in such a way that you don’t tell that story, but a different one. Also not a bad thing, if you’re okay with that. It also means that you will build up their deaths to really be emotional crescendos, as is The Red Wedding.

This isn’t the way I write. I wonder if it could or should be? But that brings me back to my particular audience. Will my audience forgive me killing off my main characters? Will they still with me? Or would I build my audience if I killed off more people? I have killed off characters I love. I’ve also changed them in devastating ways. But I know that I wouldn’t kill Max or Alexander. Well, maybe I would Alexander. Is it bad that a reader knows that going in? Or suspects it? Of course, that might not apply to all books. It depends. I think part of what it depends on is how many characters there are to carry the story. If a reader is completely invested in only one or two characters and one of those dies, then that’s a difficult thing to swallow. But if there is a cast of many and a reader is invested in a number of characters, losing a few beloveds might not hurt as much.

I’m trying to think of other authors who kill of important characters. Well, JK Rowling is obvious. I should mention I haven’t read this far in the GRRM books. Mine got packed when I was decluttering a couple of years ago for moving (yes, the house has been on the market that long), and I was already behind on my reading. Plus I wanted to wait for more of the books to come out. Anyhow, I’m wondering if I will like the books. I have to say, though, that what I know of The Red Wedding scene means that it will be a gut punch to the reader. Even without investment into the characters, it’s a deeply affecting moment. It can’t help but be (and it’s awful and yet wonderful that it draws on real events. Humans are so terrible).

What do you think? As readers and/or writers? What do you think of killing characters? Of how to approach it? I’m really curious about your thoughts.





  • L.S. Taylor

    I don’t like killing characters unless it has to happen. I’m not into just going for the “let’s be unpredictable” vibe in order to shock readers. Is that bad?

    The Red Wedding episode was a shock, speaking as viewers and not readers. Not that we’ll stop watching. Just that I’m not that kind of writer.

    • Di Francis

      I haven’t been watching, for no better reason than I hate waiting for new episodes. I’m better off watching the entire season. I watched season one, and so am way behind.

  • Douglas Meeks

    Well first thing, if I wanted to “highlight darkness and evil” I can watch the news, there is more than enough of that in the world and it is brought to our doorsteps everyday. Why the hell would I want it in my entertainment?

    Second as a reviewer I always felt that such stunts were symptoms of

    a: A writer’s inflated ego or
    b: Sub Par writing skills by which I mean that the author does some horrible thing to a beloved character as a shortcut to getting an emotional reaction from the reader that the author could not achieve with better writing skills IMHO. (

    Third is that small percentage of stories that actually do benefit from such a horrible thing but usually it is with (as you mentioned) a way to change a character in a major way but those type situations are very rare.

    Mr. Martin might get away with killing off beloved characters while worshiping at the altar of unpredictability but 95+% of writers will not and will suffer in readership/viewers (something that still might happen to GRRM). I have read many really entertaining stories that were somewhat predictable and THAT IS WHY WE BUY THEM (needed emphasis there). I expect some sort of HEA in many of these books and that is what I want, I want to be happy when I finish. I read Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros series and while I consider the writing to be exceptional, I have to be on a mental high point to read them because they tend to be so dark and depressing (and addicting 🙂

    Bottom line for me, using what amounts to a “shock jock” mentality to jar your readers is usually bad for business and tends in the long run to only attract people with warped personalities. The best recent example would be Shades of Gray by Maya Banks, if you look at the actual number of people that agreed with the top 2 ratings it was overwhelmingly negative because she used rape as a cheap emotional hook and people did not like it (add to the fact she had to lower some peoples IQ to make it happen)

    OK, enough rambling, guess I know why I don’t write books 🙂

    • Di Francis

      Of course, his books are popular and sell well, which means they tap into something that people love. Which is the thing that makes me really curious about readers and what it is they are tapping into here. What is GRRM capturing that is so appealing?

      I killed Niko off because it had to be done. I had to kill someone *I* cared about to show just how devastating and dangerous the change in the world was. Anybody is at risk. I hated it. Cried. But if the only people that can get killed are the red shirts, I am not sure that the reader feels as invested.

      On the other hand, i get what you’re saying about the news. I don’t necessarily want to read something where things don’t turn out positively. But I love Criminal Minds, even when it turns out really horribly. I suppose there’s a happy ending in that the unsub gets caught.

      You’ve given me things to think about . . .

      • Douglas Meeks

        “Of course, his books are popular and sell well, which means they tap into something that people love. Which is the thing that makes me really curious about readers and what it is they are tapping into here. What is GRRM capturing that is so appealing?”

        That is the real question and since I could not get through book 1 (after buying the first 4 at the same time) I can only echo things other folks on my forums say and I get they are all addicted by the story but even most of them are a bit uneasy about the Red Wedding but here is the oddity, the mix of people who are upset about the person killed (very graphically) which was a real social taboo was equal by the people that were upset because of the animal. You be sure and let me know why that one is LOL. I am an animal lover and just reading about it made me a bit mad but the other graphic killing was nothing more than “shock jock” by the people producing/directing the show and I have a few pet peeves that can make me stop reading an author or watching a TV show. Never try to manipulate me or try to insert your politics into my entertainment (or you better be really good at it so I never realize you did it, some authors do it well). I refuse to read a series where the vampires drive Prius and recycle obsessively (yes there is one). I try to be open but I only have 1 author on my “never read ANYTHING she writes again” list and that is Dianne Sylvan for the above and several more reasons I won’t bother you with here . I refuse to read the Black Jewels books because they are too dark and depressing (remember I want to be entertained) but her new book Written in Red may be the best thing I have read in years so I and most readers do not hold a grudge unless you really cross some serious lines of common human decency. (I think I should be reading Heart of Obsidian and not writing so much LOL)

        • Di Francis

          I LOVE the Black Jewels books, though the first one is very very very hard, and the others are also. But in the end, I think what makes it work for me is the relationships and the vibrancy of the world. The relationships between the characters, though, truly carry it forward for me. I usually don’t care for anything that dark, but I was so wowed by those books. I haven’t read Red yet. It just got packed, so it may be a few months. But I can’t wait.

          A recycling vampire? Hmmmmm. I suppose it could happen.

  • Donald

    Interesting post. I think it depends on the story as well as the storyteller. Killing a character can be a good thing.
    How well it is received is an issue none can say until the readers react.
    I do think that if the reader reacts, either good or bad, it is a boon for the work. Because it means the reader has connected to the character in some way.

  • Suzette Chan

    Good question. I’d say that the ASOIAF books purposely invert sword and sorcery fantasy tropes, so killing characters that would normally be cast as heroes is part of the story, not just a shock tactic. (As much as I’ve enjoyed the books, some passages meander so much, they could use some shocks!)

    I knew about Ned’s death before reading the books, so I read every line about him as foreshadowing. However, I didn’t know about Robb’s fate. In the books, Robb was fairly peripheral to the action. He even dies off-stage, so to speak. One of the reasons I stopped watching the TV series is that it credited Robb with his mother’s cleverness in order to build him up as a traditional hero — leaving Caitlyn to stand in for a traditional worried mother.

    In conclusion, death of those expected to be heroes is part of GRRM’s narrative vocabulary in ASOIAF. It can be shocking, but it also questions assumptions of the genre and allows for even richer narratives of those who aren’t expected to be heroes, yet end up doing heroic things.

    • Di Francis

      So you’re saying that because there’s a possibility that they could be heroes, there’s more impact when they are killed? That seems very true to me. And if readers are invested in that possibility, then that makes it more powerful.

      GRRM in that interview says that in fact they are fairly peripheral figures, though Ned isn’t. But I think that Ned’s death makes a lot of sense to the narrative and is pretty critical to the overall plot.

      Thanks for posting!

      • Suzette Chan

        You’re welcome!

        We are conditioned as genre readers and watchers to accept certain tropes, and GRRM challenges those. The TV producers are certainly aware of the tropes, hence building up Robb and eliciting the reaction we saw.

        Yes, Ned’s death is the catalyst for a lot of things, so that’s a bit different than the treatment of a secondary character like Robb. It’s more like the time Gandalf “died” battling the Balrog in LOTR, but less, you know, cheery 🙂

  • Erik Wehler

    Characters are merely tools to tell a story. When they have fulfilled their purpose as a writer I would say that they are fair game. There are only so many adventures that an unchanging group can go through before there is nothing left to do. I think that this is why most book series are trilogies. In the first book the hero’s do something like save a town, in the second, save a nation, and in the third save the world. Once the hero’s save the world… well about all they can do to match it is save the world again, which gets old fast. After Joebob the superhero saves the world from Strangename the badguy, its time to retire Joebob and move on to a new story.

    One of my pet peeves is characters that die but then come back a few chapters or books later. That’s just lazy, dead is dead, leave them that way (I’m lookin’ at you Marvel Comics, yea, that’s right YOU!). There is no dramatic tension when a writer becomes known for resurrecting their characters. “Oh, golly looks like Joebob took a 40 ton steel I-beam through the head! Oh well, he’ll be back tomorrow.”

    • Douglas Meeks

      Erik, your logic would only apply if the reader was never emotionally involved in the story and it’s characters which IMHO would mean the author had already failed to capture the imagination of the reader. Something I did not really expand on is the importance of the “killed” character to the reader emotionally, in the books I read there are people that get killed and you know them but the author never gave you enough info to get emotionally attached (purposely) and so they fit into your logic but to kill somebody like Diana’s example of Alexander would get some serious backlash from readers unless it made some major change in Max and even then it would be a real gamble.

      I won’t start about bringing characters back from the dead because I have read books where it was done excellently and was needed to make the book have a better ending but I have also read books where it was done like a “oops” and reflected bad writing skills or too lazy to back up and correct the story that led the author to the point.

      • Di Francis

        Bringing characters back from the dead . . . That’s a tough one. I did that once, but made the character so very changed that it was supposed to be a sort of sense of embarking on a new life/new adventure. Not sure that it worked. But I hadn’t even thought about bringing back dead characters.

        • Douglas Meeks

          resurrection of dead characters calls on the skill of the writer to make it work well, there really is no hard fast rule for it IMHO since I have seen it done many times and done very well and very badly.

          • Di Francis

            I am trying to think of books I’ve read with resurrected characters. I’m thinking vampire/werewolf books, which don’t really count for me, insomuch is that the resurrection is fairly predictable. Are there others I’m not thinking of?

            • Douglas Meeks

              I have read several “resurrection” scenarios recently most involved an “angel” type setting but Heather Killough-Walden used it in her new book but it was done well and a logical (magical) series of events made it work.

      • Erik Wehler

        I can think of one instance where resurrection was done well. Conan was resurrected, but in payment the gods took his closest friend Valeria in exchange. So Conan spends the rest of his life quietly pining away for her. He occasionally sees her in visions but past that she stays good and dead. (Note: I have not read all of the Conan books so if she does come back, don’t tell me).

        Douglas, as for loosing characters for whom people have emotional attachment. It’s not just fine, its great! Look at what Kirkman did with the Walking Dead graphic novels. There are characters that everyone loved that were killed suddenly, and not so suddenly. The ones that pop off of the top of my head are (spoiler alert) Ricks wife Lori getting killed with their baby daughter during the assault on the prison (the bullet went through the baby into Lori). I mean my jaw dropped in shock and I had to reread the page. Then Glen, straight up, one of the most loved and longest lived members of Ricks group got beat to death by a bunch of cannibals. Each death actually shocked me made me sad or both, which of course is exactly what they are meant to do. And the Walking Dead comics are some of the most loved out there.

        People dying and becoming vampires and werewolves is more of a transformation than an actual death. So I agree with you there Di, no harm brining people back as vampires and such. Personally I feel that vampires have been badly overused as of late, and so seem less monstrous and more like super powerful really attractive people. But that’s beyond the scope of our conversation.

    • Di Francis

      I think characters are more than tools–they are the fundamental building blocks. A lot of people like to think they live on happily or at least alive, after the book ends. So killing them can be a real shock. But in terms of story, you’re right–if the storyline you needed them for is over, they can be fair game. I wonder what would have happened in LOTR if more of the characters had died. In fact, when Frodo and the others leave for the Gray Havens, it’s something like a death and I think that’s hard on a lot of readers.

  • Kim

    My opinion is this, shows and books and other social media kill of their characters for a few reason but I think the main one that WORKS is when it give the main character room to grow. Its hard to explain this so ill give you an example. Take Harry Potter, for the most part he grew up with Sirius as a guardian, some one he looked at as a substitute parent. Then Sirius was killed and Harry was able to ascend to a different level of maturity. The only person he had left was Dumbledore. Dumbledore was always the security blanket, the one he looked up to above all others. He could always count on him to fight the bad guys for him. Dumbledores death was a big shock BUT it was necessary for Harry to become the only person to be able to kill the bad guys. I could use other examples as well but that is the main one. However the growth of the character could go either way, good or bad. Honestly, I could see Alexander dying being a good thing for Max. Alexander is much weaker than Max and that’s not what I think she needs. I think she needs someone a little bit stronger to hold onto her. Maybe his death could be used as an eye opener to stop pushing people away and that the next time she lets someone intimately into her heart (maybe one of the angels 😉 hint hint I want them to find love) that she will be able to make the most of it. But still these are all just my opinions.

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