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Alas, Poor Character

by on January 10, 2011

When you’re writing a fictional story, one of the more difficult decisions you’ll have to make is about writing the deaths of characters, especially if it’s a main character. Sometimes this decision is easy. If you’re writing an illustrated book for very small children, such as Winnie the Pooh, you probably don’t want to include a tragic death scene. (“Oh…bother….” *dies*). But what if you’re writing for slightly more mature audiences?

Well, firstly, you have to decide whether you want to have a main character shuffle off the mortal coil at all. You could go the Star Trek route and have no one killed except redshirts. On the other hand, as the Joker once put it in Batman Beyond, “I think it helps add resonance to a hero’s mission to have some defining element of tragedy in his background, don’t you?” A hero fighting a standard battle against, say, an alien menace is one thing, but if the alien menace killed his One True Love, that’s something else altogether.

So, that leads to the all-important question: how do you decide which character should be dispatched? Some people plan their stories right down to paragraph level, and as such they know exactly who’s going to die, the person who killed them, their motive, the exact time of death, and the epitaph on their tombstone. My process is a bit looser. I read a quote once by Jerry B. Jenkins, “I never kill characters; I just find them dead.” That’s more or less how I do it. In Hailfire, for example, I know that one major character was going to die when I started the story, just because of the general plot I intended to follow. (Although, that may have changed in the sequel…or did it?) But other characters surprised me; I was editing the final chapter and I realized that not all of the heroes would realistically survive, and then all at once I knew that one particular character would have to go. It was a tragic moment. Seriously; if you’re really into your characters, so much that they’re almost like real people to you, it can be very painful when you come to write their death scene. So painful, in fact, that you may want to bring them back later. Should you?

Good question. Resurrecting a character that you’ve just killed off is a tricky scenario, to say the least. To do it right, you have to keep the death scene going just long enough so the audience starts to wonder, even just for a second, if the character’s really all-the-way-dead. Then, you have to come up with a fairly plausible explanation. (Tip: “He got better” probably won’t work.)  For example …

SPOILER! FLEE!

 

 

…in Toy Story 3, when Woody, Buzz, and Co. were about to be incinerated, I guarantee you everyone in the audience knew that the writers really wouldn’t let the toys meet a fiery doom…or, would they? It was that moment, that drama-packed instant when you felt real fear that maybe the toys really were going to die, that right there which made Toy Story 3 such an excellent movie. And then, just as all hope was lost…THE CLAW! Perfectly plausible. In character with the little green aliens’ development as characters. Both hilarious, and awesome at the same time. That, my friends, is how you have that defining element of almost-tragedy and yet still achieve a happy ending. (And don’t even get me started on Andy’s farewell to Woody. Sniff.)

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