Don’t Kill Your Characters (reprise)

(While I’m away, here’s something to think about before you knock off another protagonist.) 

I mentioned some time ago that in my short story class I have very few rules. One of them is this: “No writing about serial killers.” This is because I believe every new writer should look into her own heart and decide what it is that makes her want to write, and then work on stories that, by this standard, feel genuine. I don’t believe new writers—at least not the ones I’ve met—search their hearts for the source of their creative inclinations and hear a voice that says, “Serial killers.”

Here’s a second rule: “Nobody dies.” How’s that? Being a writer is a heady circumstance in which you can actually do anything you like. That’s a rare thing in this life. When you’re writing, you can pick up a handful of dust and make a character out of it. You can run him through all kinds of adventures. If you find the laws of nature confining, you can suspend them. You’re in charge. Your characters, poor plebes that they are, are helpless before your godlike powers. You can kill ’em on a whim.

But don’t. Lots of great fictional characters have gotten killed for legitimate reasons and to great effect. Shakespeare knocked off Romeo and Juliet. And having the white whale drag Ahab, tangled in the harpoon lines, down to the depths of hell made great sense, considering that Ahab always had been hell-bent to get there.

But you’re not Melville and your story isn’t Moby Dick. I’m insisting that you don’t kill your protagonists for the simple reason that dead people don’t do stuff, and I want your protagonists to do stuff. Turn off the switch on your characters and you’re turning off their possibilities.  Come on, wring some more tears out of them, some more laughs.  A lot of interesting things can happen to a person when he or she’s alive; fewer things when they’re dead.

A student of mine conjured up a fond old guy who escaped from a nursing home one rainy night because he felt he wasn’t ready to pack it in. He wanders into a truckstop. At the coffee counter he tells his story to a young truck driver who gradually warms to him and says something like, “Hey, old timer, why don’t you ride along with me down to Roanoke? We’ll find you an adventure or two to get into.” Me, I’m reading along and thinking: Can’t wait to see what happens. So the old guy climbs up into the cab of the 18-wheeler and they pull out of the parking lot and onto Route 81, whereupon another rig plows into them and POW! The fireball is so big they can see it back at the nursing home.

That was a surprise. I tend to like surprises. But this was a disappointing surprise. All those possibilities, and all of them gone. That was the end of the story. It let my student off the hook; she didn’t have to deal with all those messy human things that would have happened in Roanoke. But all those messy human things are why we read stories.

Image of Rick Blaine and Captain Reynault

"Louie, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship..."

I tell my students this: Death’s a serious business. Drop a piano on your protagonist’s head and you’re stuck without a protagonist. Worse than the fact that there’s nothing more you can do with him in the real world is the fact that there’s nothing more your readers can do with him in their imaginations. At the end of Casablanca, Rick Blaine could have been killed in the exchange of bullets with Major Strasser. Rick would have died heroically, but it wouldn’t have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Capt. Renault.

More likely than not, new writers kill their characters because it feels like a weighty thing to do, or because there’s an intractable plot problem and death’s the nearest exit, or because—and a student of mine actually told me this once—a short story’s supposed to be short and he’d already written 20 pages.  But I’m begging you now, let ‘em live.  At this stage of your writing, when you’re first learning how to envision lives lived on the page, let’s not breath life into these guys only to see them get creamed on their way out of the parking lot.

7 Responses to Don’t Kill Your Characters (reprise)

  1. Agreed that fewer interesting things happen when you're dead (we presume). And killing off main characters may indeed be a cop-out. But Shakespeare also brought back the dead to do interesting things occasionally, like inform a son that "the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown." I guess the rest of us probably shouldn't venture to pull that off, though.

  2. I never forgave Larry Gelbart for killing Col. Henry Blake on the TV series M*A*S*H. I know he was flying home and off the show by that time. But I had spent numerous episodes loving him, and then splat, they killed him. Unforgivable.

  3. Not a short story but – To The Lighthouse? Every single character in it dies half way through. Admittedly, modernist classics aren't perhaps the best starting poing for new writers.
    You are on the nose about serial killers. I've had six books published now (four novels) and I know something's going wrong the minute a serial killer appears in my work. That's when it hits the bin.
    The other characters that I see in creative writing classes are 'the young man who is too jaded to feel' and 'the young woman who feels too much, she for whom the world is a rush of sensation'. I'd ban both.
    On the subject of death, I've always argued that The Lord of The Rings annoyed me because no one you care about dies. I'd have left Frodo – or at least Sam – dead on the mountain.
    From Mark Barrowcliffe (MD Lachlan)

  4. Anyone who's published four novels gets my dispensation when it comes to killing off his characters. Serial killers, however,remain off-limits. I'm glad we share the same idea about that, Mark. As for mistakes that students make, I think one of the biggest is creating characters who simply don't do anything, and to whom nothing ever actually happens. Give me some plot! Thanks to all of you–Caroline and ficwriter included–for reading and commenting so thoughtfully.

  5. FOUR novels?
    Oy vey, I'm in trouble here. Please, dear Kaze, do not read my short story that goes by the title 'The Last Plane' … it's about AIDS and euthanasia and … good heavens, I am in trouble, real trouble.

  6. You also get a dispensation, Deborah, novels or no novels…just for being so charming a participant in 317am. And also because I've read your poetry.

  7. Just thought I should clear up that I'm new to the writting bit and I'm still in High School too so forgive me if I make any statmenets that are wrong…

    But the first paragraph how you say you've never had a writer search their heart for inspiration and get serial killer… that's my favourite thing to write about… admittidly it wasn't the first thing that came to mind, but it is what I'm comfortable with. Secondly, the 'don't kill your protagonist' is also something I'd like to question, if it's the last instalment, why not kill them? To me and many others I've discussed this with, one thing that we hate, is when the main characters are in a life or death situation and they pull of amazing odds and live happily ever after. If you only have the one main character, then I agree don't kill them, but if there are two, you may not be able to do anything with the one you kill, but the second still has the ability to react to their partners/lovers/friends/siblings/mentors/students what ever the other character is, they still have the ability to react to the death, they aren't just going to go on their merry way. If they were the one to kill them, then they'd feel guilty, and if they didn't, there still has to be a few legal issues with it and they'd have to evade those that enforce the law… If you're half way through a story, and you do kill your main character, you could establish a bond between them and someone else, that someone else would feel rather… aggravated (to put nicely)and they would then become your protagonist out for vegence against your antagonist.
    The old man escaping from the nursing home, yeah, it had a lot of possibilites, that's one case where you shouldn't kill the protagonist, but as stated above, killing the main character has worked, but it still had an effect on the other characters which may have been Shakespears whole point, we don't know his motivations for writing such stories (and epic stories at that). For all we know it may have been his way of showing that those in the future should stop and think how what they're doing is affecting others ie. Romeo and Juliet loved each other, but there was no way their parents would allow them to be together, they were kept away from their happy ending because of how their parents were at war with each other, yes it makes for an epic story, but the underlying moral is look at how your battles affect those around you. Their deaths were showing the extreme possibilities of what may happen if you pull innocents into your own fights.

    If there is one main protagonist, I agree don't kill them. If there are two, and you are nearing the end of your story, loose ends are tied up and such, there's still possibilities that can be explored with the second protagonist. I think that if you don't want to kill your protagonist, then don't give them inescapable odds and then have tinkerbell fly over them with pixie dust and give them the ability to fly and drop a rock on the antagonist, if you don't want them dead, give them realistic (even in fantasy there has to be grounds of reality in some form) escapes and triumphs, it may be magic but it still has to be believable. In other cases that aren't fantasy, once again either kill them or give them realistic escapes.

    Once again sorry if I got something wrong, and I do value your opinion.

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