veryone who’s a geek can remember that dramatic moment in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, where Spock dies. I can remember a trekkie next to me quietly sobbing in the dark. Truthfully, it was as good a death scene as could be written, full of sacrifice and victory and sadness. Of course, they ruined it in the third movie – his body wasn’t even cold yet and suddenly he popped back in, none the worse for wear.
Character death is a primary tool (like a chainsaw, a valuable yet dangerous tool) of the writer. Killing an important character tells the reader that this isn’t just a story. It makes it real. It makes it changing. It takes all that exists before and stands it on its ear. From the moment of the death rattle, we’re journeying into a new world.
I’ve used it on occasion. InFire and Bronze, I butchered the hero’s second in command. In my still-seeking-an-agent Indigo, my final crow dogfight (inside a hurricane, at night) reduces a sizable avarian cast to a pile of feathers (I think I must have killed a dozen named birds). George R.R. Martin is famous for it, butchering characters so important they should be immune to such butchery. Even the foundation story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, sees his right-hand-man sidekick Enkidu (who I particularly liked) wasting away from an illness and dying. So there are thousands of years of this.
As books become platforms for series, it’s likely we’ll see less of this. Writers are too careful to “ruin” their brand. They don’t want characters important to buck-tossing readers to get iced. As stories are less stand-alone, they’ll become more like television series, the same cast season after season, facing death but no, not really.
However, curiously, just as books become more protective, television is reversing that trend. On shows like The Walking Dead, characters fall like snowflakes. In Downton Abbey, anyone who leaves the show tends to do it on a stretcher (Mathew’s death actually resulted in threats against the producers). Characters die and die and die. In a piece I read about this, it is felt that this trend has gone about as far as it can go, that the trick is losing its value.
So that’s it, really. Like any other technique of writing, the societal time when you write it, as well as the usage by other writers, will determine if your supreme act of literary sacrifice will stain your pages with the tears of your readers, or will they roll their dry eyes at your hammy writing and maybe not part with money so readily next time around. Make sure that you are not overusing it. Decide if a death really fits your story, if it makes it more powerful, or if it’s just an obvious gasper-moment. Keep track of what audiences (reading and otherwise) are talking about right now and gauge your impacts to what works now.
This art will be the death of us yet. Well, at least of our characters.