Justifiable Murder

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.

About Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Orbit, 2020). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, and assorted pets. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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