One thing that bugs me as a reader (and I do realize this is a pet peeve that probably doesn’t bother lots of people) is when an author kills off a character and I get the feeling they did it solely to make things seem EXTRA DRAMATIC. As if they might get some kind of MY BOOK IS SERIOUS NOW badge because a named character died.
(Side note: It’s particularly annoying if the character clearly serves no purpose except to die tragically and make the main character sad. You know… when it’s like HERE IS MY BEST FRIEND/LITTLE BROTHER/INNOCENT RANDO I AM TRYING TO SAVE, WHO IS VERY SWEET AND NICE AND HAS NO PERSONALITY AT ALL BUT WOULDN’T IT BE TRAGIC IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THEM.)
I was thinking about this while doing laundry, and wondering how exactly I would define the difference between deaths for angst value vs. earned, necessary deaths. And lo, into my head popped a perfect test to tell whether a death is story-driven, rather than “I want some more drama here”-driven. It’s simple (“well, duh,” even):
Does the death change the story?
And I don’t mean just “now our hero is sad” change. I mean plot change, with effects in suitable proportion to the importance of the character who died.
Look at the deaths (and whoa, large data sample) in A Song of Ice and Fire. When George R. R. Martin kills a major character, you nearly always go “Holy shit, that changes EVERYTHING!”
If you take the death out, or swap in a different character to die instead, the story is completely different. You can’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense.
That is how you murder characters.
I’m totally using this as a test now myself anytime I’m thinking of killing off a character.