I get bored easily, so I like to have a lot going on in any novel I write. I try not to spend pages providing backstory or a character’s inner thoughts. Instead, I think, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and then make it happen to see how the story would progress.
But it was only after watching my favorite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I heard the show’s creator, and my all-time favorite writer, Joss Whedon, explain to the viewers in a clip that he “gives the viewers what they need, not what they want.” I give that quote a lot of thought with each new project. It means so much and can be contemplated in so many different ways.
So why do I like to kill characters? Because when you do that, it puts the reader on edge, making him or her think, “if this really important or likable character just got murdered, who knows who might be next?” Don’t you hate it when you read a book and you know a certain character won’t die? It takes some of the tension and a lot of the excitement out of the novel you’re reading.
Granted, if you’re reading series’ fiction (one of many novels within a series) you would expect that the main character wouldn’t die. This holds true in most series’. But what about their friends or lovers? What about their family members? In my books, anyone can get murdered at any time. I love doing that. It puts everyone on high alert, raises the stakes, and packs an emotional wallop for those who care about the one who lost his/her life.
Besides, let’s say you’re reading a thriller and you’ve read three-quarters of a book and nobody has died…it leads me to believe the villain or evil organization that is trying to derail the protagonist isn’t that nasty of a character or corporation.
While reading thrillers, we anticipate and hope for death and/or destruction. It sends the hero into action to stop the evil-doers. Without that calling, which often starts after death occurs, the protagonist won’t find it necessary to stop the bad guys. And in some instances, we place ourselves into the place of the hero, so we can live vicariously through them and get back at the antagonists.
Tons of gore is not necessary for murder scenes. Why should it? The victim is dead. Does it really matter how much blood surrounds the body? Perhaps if the murderer likes to torture his victims. But think about all the evil villains out there in pop culture: Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Lord Voldermort, etc. These antagonists kill others, and while they like causing pain, they didn’t spend an entire day slaughtering someone. They have better things to do…in Lecter’s case, he doesn’t waste time contemplating if he should sizzle a person’s brains on a skillet or order out for Chinese. He just does the dirty work and that’s the end.
Besides, if the villain is willing to kill someone close to the protagonist, it tells the reader that they may eventually try to kill the hero of the story. So why did I mention my admiration for Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Number one, in my opinion, he’s the best writer on the planet. Number two, sometimes the writer has to kill off characters that readers like and want to see again in future novels, in order to shake up the protagonist’s life. The hero could respond with anger, with sadness, with regret, with guilt, etc. Such a life-changing event must mean something to the hero, otherwise the death is meaningless.
The cool thing about this when writing about the paranormal is that they can come back again. Take one of my favorite shows, Supernatural. Sam and Dean have died how many times now? They’ve gone to heaven and hell and purgatory. And Bobby died a few seasons ago, but he keeps showing up at least once a season, which I think most of the shows viewers appreciate.
Killing characters that both readers and the hero like is important…if handled correctly! It makes you realize nothing and no one is safe, that anything can happen, which ratchets up the suspense. And that’s why we read, right?
What do you think? Would you prefer writers to only kill secondary characters of no import? Or would you like to sometimes see novelists shake things up by killing well-liked characters?