Flutter, flutter, went the flag, first to the right, then to the left.
This was a childhood awakening moment for me, the point in true literature (not kiddy literature, aka whatever passed for Harry Potter back then) when I leaned that people could die in books. Quick. Fast. Unexpectedly.
The line comes from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The flag is a white flag of truce. The people holding it aloft are scientists and peace-seekers. And the beings on the other end of the leveled heat ray? Martians, with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. A moment later, they turn the flag-wavers to cinders and then sweep the commons, frying dozens of onlookers.
That was the first time I’d seen death dealt so casually. And that characters I knew (i.e. Oglivy the Astronomer) died. Until then, the most dangerous things I’d read were when the criminals tied the Hardy boys up in the back of the shack.
Death, and not just mook-death but character-death, is an important tool. Without it you end up with nothing more than Star Trek, where the same tired group faces empty dangers week-after-week, until it ceases to register (and don’t get me started on that do-ever where Spock dies and comes back). With death, the story is harder, more realistic. There is also a change as characters fill in around those absent, their relationships altering. In its most basic sense, death of a character is the most honest thing a writer can do.
I mentioned in my review of Game of Throneshow taken I was by the author’s ability to kill of major characters with blunt practicality. No heroic measures, no martyrdom, just a guy tossed across a block and getting his noggin whacked off. Shit happens, and death is the ultimate shit.
In my upcoming book Indigo, I took this strongly to heart. In the final dogfight between massive formations of crows (at night, in a hurricane) I killed off pretty much every main character I had. I wanted epic, EPIC, not “well, that was exciting.” And when characters face death and fall before it, your perils are all the more real. After this, your readers will be off-balance, exactly where you want them to be. They won’t know what to expect from you and will keep reading.
Think about killing off characters. All the great literary figures did it. Few of the popular ones do.
Your book will be the better for it (but not your cast).