379 – Killing a Major Character

Sometimes, an important character needs to die. But also sometimes, an important character doesn’t need to die, and probably shouldn’t. How can authors tell the difference? By listening to this episode, of course! We discuss when it feels cheap not to kill a character, when killing a character feels pointlessly edgy, and how to make sure character death actually matters. Plus, why Thanos is a rude dude!

Transcript

Generously transcribed by Claire. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Intro Music]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren with me today is…

Chris: Chris…

Oren: and…

Wes: Wes.

Oren: I have something very important to say, and it’s very dark and serious. One of us on this podcast is going to die.

Chris: Not it!

Wes: It.

[laughter]

Oren: I mean, honestly, the other two will also die eventually, given the linear nature of time.

Chris: Wes, your sacrifice will be remembered.

Wes: Thank you.

Oren: Hopefully, you’ll have agency and it will be heroic and also sad.

Wes: I expect, like, three podcasts on my backstory.

Oren: Well, yeah, we have to give you a huge backstory dump right before you die. That’s good writing, right?

Wes: Thank you. Yes. [laughs]

Oren: Or we could do a little fake out where we think you’re dead and we do a fake funeral and we all talk about how great you were.

[Wes laughs]

Chris: Next time you’re not on a podcast, Wes, we’ll just be like, “We’re sorry to break the news,” and then spend the entire podcast talking about how great you are. [laughs]

Wes: Oh man, I need to be extra careful when I go outside the house now. I feel like I’m cursed.

Oren: Yeah, we foreshadowed this. [laughter] So, today I wanted to talk about when to kill a major character, and this would possibly be the protagonist, but more likely a secondary character. Killing the main character is a little different, but related. I’ve just been reading a number of books recently where the author has either killed too many characters or too few characters. And it’s fascinating to me that those can both be problems.

Wes: Well, I mean, I think the answer is you just kill them whenever, ‘cause you’re following your beautiful genius, and no one can tell you how to do this.

[Chris laughs]

Oren: Just do it at any time you feel like that character’s dead now, whatever. Basically write your book like you are running a hardcore, rules-as-written D&D game.

Wes: That’s right. If you’re not rerolling characters constantly, you’re not playing it right.

Oren: It’s like, “Sorry you had this really cool plot going, but the goblin rolled a critical hit, so that character’s dead.”

Wes: That’s the only way you can make sure it’s real.

Chris: [sarcastic] In my novel deaths symbolizes change, so whenever I change something, I also kill off a character. ‘Cause it’s very symbolic.

Oren: [continues sarcasm] Oh, that’s good, that’s good! Or you could say that lots of characters die in this story, but then have the little note, like a little asterix and tiny text to be like, “We all die constantly as we change. And so really they’re all dying at all times.”

Chris: I’ll have a battle scene and my characters will all die symbolically during it, instead of actually dying.

Oren: My character goes in for surgery and by certain definitions, a sufficiently intense cessation of consciousness is death. So I was actually dead during the surgery and then alive again.

Wes: Okay. I mean, that makes about as much sense as saying, you know, with a snap of my fingers, I could wipe out half of the universe, [Wes and Chris laugh] but not really.

Chris: And then somehow nature recovers, even though half of the animals have also been killed?

Oren: Yeah, why did you kill half of the foxes, Thanos!? What did they ever do?

Chris: And how did nature bounce back from that in like five years?

Oren: I have a lot of questions. But, okay. All right. So the most obvious problem with killing characters is that writers want the benefit of killing the character, but not the cost. And so there are a whole bunch of things that you will see where a character will die and it will feel cheap. And there are reasons why that happens.

Usually it’s because this character isn’t actually important to the plot. But the author is trying to make them seem important by the “sudden backstory” thing that we talked about that happens a lot on TV, especially, but I’ve also seen it in books. That’s when, “Oh, hey, this character has kind of been in the background the whole time.” Now they’re getting flashbacks of their backstory and big exposition and everyone’s asking them how they’re feeling. And it’s like, “That character’s going to die. Isn’t it?”

Wes: I mean, besides filling space, that’s just a cheap ploy in pathos, right? That’s all it is.

Oren: Right. And the reason it doesn’t work is that that character is still not important in order for the character to be important, they have to be important to the story. You can’t just throw a bunch of extraneous screen-time at them and hope that will make them important.

Chris: Also, to be meaningful, it has to feel like you broke through a protagonist’s plot shields. If you take a red shirt or a mentor or another character that is three weeks from retirement… [laughter]

Oren: Yeah. If you kill a character that is like stereotyped to die, that’s also not going to have nearly as much impact. You also see authors often…again, when they want to kill a character, but they don’t actually want to give anything up, they will give the character extra tragic traits, usually making them a child. It’s like, “This child died!” and it’s like… okay. Yeah, that child died. And it’s sad in that the death of a child is inherently tragic, but that child wasn’t actually plot important or really a big part of the story. So if that’s what makes it feel cheap. It feels like you’re trying to force an emotional reaction from me.

Chris: Oren, how could you call out Skin of the Sea that way?

Oren: Well, I was going to let it remain nameless, but now that you’ve said it. [laughter] I mean, there are a lot of stories that do this, but Skin of the Sea is definitely the one that I’ve read most recently that did that.

Chris: Yeah, certainly it is not the only one, it just has this notable trait. Not a bad book. Has a lot of strong points. But there is a character that… It’s very strange because the whole time, ever since this child character joins the party, it’s like, “Shouldn’t you send the child home? Isn’t the child doing things that were explicitly forbidden because they’re too dangerous? So when are you going to send the child home?” And the child just keeps hanging out with the party. And so then when the child actually does die, it’s very unsatisfying because you just want to shake your fist at the characters and be like, “Why didn’t you send the child home for real?”

There are some attempts to get around that in the book. They’re just… they’re not enough.

Oren: It also just kind of feels like yep, people made a bunch of very silly choices that they obviously should not have made. And, I guess, as a result a child died, which makes anything that happens afterwards, just feel dingy.

You can especially tell when an author is doing this when they’re sad for a scene, and then afterwards they’re like, “Okay, well now we’re back to the other problems of the story, because if we were actually sad and grieved for this character who died, that would upset the story because that character wasn’t actually part of the story.”

Chris: Right. Yeah. I mean, if you don’t have time in your story to make the characters appropriately grieve when somebody dies, a lot of times you want to look for another way, besides killing someone. We, of course, will want to talk about when should you actually kill a character? I would argue that’s a book where a character did not need to die.

Oren: So, yeah, that’s a good segue. When does a character have to die? I would say that the most common sign–and this is where you get characters from stories that feel like they don’t kill enough main characters or often kill none–is when there is constant danger that is killing side characters, especially if they’re killing background characters and what have you. And you’re constantly using that to generate tension about how dangerous a situation the protagonist is in. And then if no main characters ever die at that point, it feels cheap.

Chris: I would say that if your “team good,” your group of protagonists, think they’re all going to die just once and yet they live through that, that’s not a big deal. If they think they’re all going to die five different times in the story and they all live each time, that’s breaking believability or making the audience feel misled like the storyteller lied about the situation as being dangerous. And it’s unsatisfying because it cheapens the challenge that the protagonists just overcame.

Oren: And as a fun little comparison, I would present two books. One is The Calculating Stars and the other is called The Guns Above, which is an airship book that I read that has problems, but I loved it because of airships. So inThe Calculating Stars, we have one major moment of danger and that’s right after the asteroid impact and the protagonist and her husband are running away and trying to not die. And then they escape and they don’t die. And that feels fine. There’s tragedy elsewhere in the world. A lot of people died from the asteroid impact, but it’s only a danger to the characters once. For the rest of the story, they’re doing political and scientific problems.

WhereasThe Guns Above is a war story and they are constantly getting into battles where side characters die, crew members die, whose names we technically know, but who are not important. And they’re constantly going on about how deadly warfare is and how likely they are to die. But none of the important characters ever die. Occasionally, they will get injured, but none of the injuries are the kind of thing that would make it harder to be a protagonist. They’re the kind of injuries that give you cool scars for the most part.

So that is the point where it really feels like a main character should have died in this story, because you keep saying that they’re in constant danger of dying and everyone around them dies, but they’re always okay.

Chris: I will say, if you have tons of insignificant characters dying, or just people in the background, for instance… Like a plague is constantly going through the setting, killing everybody. Towns are burning down, villages are being raided. Everybody’s dying and it never touches anyone that the audience could possibly care about. That definitely creates a total disconnect where it feels like the storyteller is advertising the tone of the story as something different than it actually is and using deaths as window dressing.

The answer is not always to add death. Sometimes, you can also just lighten the other aspects of the story. Maybe you don’t play up situations as being quite so dangerous. Or maybe you don’t kill so many red shirts on the side. You know, it depends on whether you have enough tension, but often in most stories you have enough tension without getting to the point where it feels cheap if you don’t kill somebody.

Oren: And, of course, this can go in the other direction, which is when the author is like, “Hey, I can kill whoever I want. So I’m going to constantly kill characters to show how dangerous the situation is.” I’m not just talking about Game of Thrones, but I’m definitely talking about Game of Thrones because in that show… In the book, really; I haven’t seen much of the show. But in the book, the initial character deaths are really shocking and like, “Whoa, wow, characters are dying!” And it served a good purpose.

But the more that the books do it, the more you lose characters that the story clearly needed. By the end of book five, one of the problems that it has is that all of the characters who actually have the ability to move the plot forward are dead. And so you have all the remaining characters who are all stuck in their own various little side stories. And that’s not solely a character death problem, but it is definitely a character death problem. Supposedly the show gave everyone character shields by the end. I can also see how that would be frustrating.

Chris: I would also say that if you have a character that people don’t really take much time to mourn…. It feels like characters are forgetting them. That’s usually a death that didn’t need to happen. Because, again, it’s not really busting plot shields. It’s a signifier that that character isn’t really important to the storyteller anyway.

Oren: And that’s how you can tell that there is a really sharp delineation in books like The Guns Above, between the background crew members and the characters we’re actually supposed to care about. Because the ones we’re supposed to care about, we spend time with them. We learn about them. We talk to them. They do stuff. And the background characters don’t do those things.

And it’s actually funny. You can watch over a period of this first and second book: a side character gets upgraded to main character status by the end of Book Two. And so by the end, I could tell that character wasn’t going to die. ‘Cause in the first book she might’ve died, ‘cause she was just a name that was on the ship. And so she might’ve died then, but by the end of Book Two, we were talking about her backstory and not in a super forced “expo dump” way. So obviously she was going to be okay at that point.

Chris: And with Skin of the Sea, the characters do go into a dangerous situation, but they’re not in that kind of life or death situation throughout the whole book. They just head into it towards the climax. So generally, if that’s the case, even if it’s a real dangerous situation, it’s not usually expected that a character will die. I mean, if you have a big warfare set up where it feels unrealistic for only a tiny fraction of people to die, maybe… But, in this situation, both the sign that we didn’t mourn the kid that dies and only part of the story is really that dangerous… This book would have been okay without the death.

A similar one is in Star Trek: Discovery. Season four is actually quite good. The show has gotten better. It’s grown a beard, shall we say? [laughter] But we had this really funny death in… they have a training episode and this is something that’s happened in a couple… I think in both Voyager and TNG where they have like a… Or at least in Voyager where they have like a cadet episode where it’s all about, “Oh, let’s get these cadets into shape!” You know? And it’s like a feel good episode where a bunch of misfits learned to work as a team.

But in this episode, it’s like somebody’s father, the head of the franchise was like, this is not your grandmother’s training arc. [laughter] And just kills off one of them at the beginning of the episode. And it’s like, this is not an important character. It’s like, “But don’t you get it? They’re in danger. They can really die!” But the rest of them aren’t going to die, are they?

And then they don’t. And then there’s this happy ending at the end of the episode, where, after the whole incident, Tilly decides that she really likes training cadets and she wants to go off and train cadets and is all happy about that. And it’s like, okay, but somebody died. How was this a good experience? And so it even made the character arc feel really weird that there was a death in there and it just was completely unnecessary.

Oren: Yeah, I find it fascinating to compare that to… the two episodes that come to mind: There’s the Voyager episode where Janeway has to take a bunch of misfits out and get training. And then there’s a TNG episode… It’s not cadets, but it’s the one where Picard gets stuck in an elevator with a bunch of kids. If there had been another person with him in the elevator who died, it just wouldn’t have worked at the end of the episode for the kids to show up and give him… I think a little plaque is what they give him to commemorate the time they all bonded in the elevator. If there’d just been a dead body in there with them the whole time… [laughter]

Now people do die in that episode, because that’s like an episode made of B-plots. ‘Cause the ship hits some kind of space problem and we see different people around the ship dealing with it. And in some of them, characters die, but in Picard’s plot, no one dies.

Chris: So, should we talk about what to do if you need to kill a character?

Wes: Well, I think the examples you guys have brought up are really like we need to kill them to make sure that there’s proper tension. So that’s a good answer to when to kill a major character. But what if the book isn’t inherently tense? Like there’s no war. You’re not exploring the brave frontiers of space. But you still got to kill somebody because…

Chris: Well, I mean, you can kill a character to create tension, but I don’t think that trade-off is usually worth it. I think that’s a side benefit you can get, if you already determined that you should kill a character because it’s unrealistic and would cheapen the story to not kill a character. But I don’t think it’s a reason to do it in itself.

Oren: Yeah. I was going to say, if you’re doing a lighter story, then the number of characters you need to kill is zero. Not that there would never be a reason. There could be reasons for a character to die. But in general, I would say probably not. Because here’s the thing. There are kind of two scenarios that can happen when you kill a character. Either, it actually feels like someone died. In which case, it’s a pretty big downer because someone died. Or you obscure the fact that someone died and it… Yeah, technically a person died, but you don’t actually do anything to change the mood of the story.

The book that I’m reading right now does this. I’m reading one of the Vorkosigan books, where they’re having a fun, zany adventure, where they captured a mercenary ship and have to convince the other mercenaries that they’re more senior mercenaries. And that’s fun. I’m enjoying that. But like, a man died, they killed one of the mercenaries doing this in a really horrible way that I won’t get into. And so the whole story is now overcast by this event.

Or the alternative would be like in Star Trek where red shirts die and we’re not really supposed to care about them. And when that happens, it just feels wrong. Some people won’t notice. Some people will be like, “Well, the show didn’t tell me to be sad about those red shirts, so I’m not going to be.” But the more you watch a show and the more carefully you read, you’re going to notice that people died and it’s going to feel weird. You’re going to get cognitive dissonance over the fact that someone died, but you’re not supposed to be sad.

Wes: Yeah, I guess I’m just, I’m currently reading Blackfish City by Sam Miller and it’s a dystopian climate fiction story. And there’s four POV characters, which is too many. [laughter] And one of them, Phil–I guess, spoilers–he dies about two thirds of the way through. Up to this point, there had been violence where basically the Orca-mancor shows up and she slices a bunch of people, but they’re not important.

But basically I’m trying to wrap my mind around: Why did Phil die? Besides every writer wanting to have their own Ned Stark moment or whatever. Phil was not directly connected to the throughline of basically nanites and city corruption and a few other things, but his associations with some related issues brought him into contact with a major player and another major player. And then he was killed by one of the major players to basically get revenge. But his death catalyzes the villain into action.

And so I thought that was well done, because this villain security boss was just kind of running a corrupt town, but not really going after the upstart gangsters. But when his grandson gets killed by somebody getting revenge for past crimes, that’s when he really starts turning the screws on everybody. Which–happening that late in the book, about two thirds of the way through–the other POV characters have resolved some pretty major character arcs, hooked up with the Orca-mancer, and now they’re moving forward on what needs to be done and having to align themselves with this other crime boss faction. So it’s a sacrificial point-of-view character for the sake of, I guess, starting the third act. That is a thing that is in a published book I’m reading and I’d love your thoughts.

Oren: Well, I’m going to have to admit my personal opinion is that the reason that character died is because that book’s not very good. Hot take. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be a little more constructive. I remember that part you’re talking about and being a little confused about what was happening here. I feel like the reason that character died is, because the author of that book wasn’t telling a single story, he instead had a number of different characters who were sort of in proximity to each other, mostly doing their own thing until the very end. And I think one of his ideas was of this character who has this tragic situation and is eventually killed because of things that someone else did.And that’s tragic. I think is what’s going on there

Wes: I mean, the important thing is that this one who dies, the other POV characters are all blood-related and he’s not. He has no connection to them at all. He’s there to flesh out a villain and a side character through his POV. And I guess kind of get one of the main characters to meet the others. But again, he’s basically just the spoiled young kid of this wealthy crime lord. And that’s all he does. His chapters were the worst by far. So, I mean, yeah, I’m not trying to praise the book because no, if I were “reading it” reading it, I would have thrown it across the room, but I’m listening to it and that’s way easier.

[laughter]

So, my point is I know that we can say when do you kill a major character? And you can say like a sacrificial turning point. But now I’m saying, should you kill a main character as a catalyst for a story’s throughline or something like that? Beyond saying that the threat and dangers are realistic, what other purposes does killing a major character?

Chris: I would say, how important does the character have to be to fulfill this purpose?

Wes: I would say the importance of the character would matter with what does the death accomplish? If it’s the main character and they die, it better be for a heck of a good reason.

Chris: Right. Well, I mean, let’s just say that what it does in this story is it motivates the villain to do things. That’s the purpose that it serves in this story. So how big, how major, and how important does a character have to be to serve that purpose? Not very important. If we’re just looking for motivation for the villain, we didn’t need a POV character for that.

I mean, it sounds like this character was just kind of unpleasant and his POV wasn’t pleasant in the first place. In which case, maybe no one is mourning his death, but you still made the readers go through this unpleasant POV. But normally what would happen if the POV wasn’t unpleasant, then people would be attached to him. And then you’d have some people who were upset or rage quitting over the death of this character, when you could have instead killed off a minor character to accomplish this, if the villain needs to be motivated by care,

Oren; Yeah. I mean, having a character die as the way to push your villain over the edge is… a thing. People do it. I’m not convinced it’s the best solution since it depends on your villain, not being super threatening earlier in a lot of cases. But there could be situations where that is useful. And in that case, what really matters is the relationship between the villain and this character. So you probably don’t need this character to be super important beyond establishing that.

Chris: Yeah, mostly, you need to establish that the villain cares about this person enough to take the actions you want them to take after that person dies.

So that’s my commentary on that. There are reasons to have more minor characters die, because that’s not going to hurt engagement as much. That’s not going to turn off the audience as much. It does become a problem, iIf you’re killing off all the minor characters and it starts to feel gratuitous after a while, right? But generally, to kill a major character, a character that the audience cares about, the only thing that really justifies that is you really have to kill a character with a plot shield to not cheapen the story because you’ve basically continually told your audience that this is a story where somebody is going to die. And then if you don’t follow through you’re cheapening all of your challenges and making the end feel unsatisfying and creating a total mismatch or what have you.

Oren: What it definitely feels like with that character is that in any other story, that character would be a side character who is known to be important to the villain for some reason. And then that character dies and that makes the villain go full dark side or what have you. But the author decided to give that background character–or not background character, but secondary character–POV and spend a lot of chapters in his viewpoint, which I would just generally not recommend. Blackfish City is a bit of a mess.

Chris: It sounds like this was partly to depict the villain. So somebody is like, “Okay, I need to show what the villain’s doing.” But villain POV is also generally a bad idea. Because… for a number of reasons. So I’m going to pick the villain from a side character. And so now I’m going to do this character that dies. To me the base problem there is that the story’s not consolidated enough. It’s a disparate story where everybody’s off doing their own thing. And so there’s no… or at least it’s harder to show the things that you need from the villain without an additional viewpoint character. When, if the story was just better consolidated and things were more related to each other, you just probably wouldn’t need an extra viewpoint character for the villain.

Oren: It’s hard to know exactly why an author made the choices they made. For all we know, the reason why that character is there is that the author wanted to have a character struggling with a deadly disease that they have. And did that for a while. And then at the end realized they had nothing to do with this character anymore and so had them die.

Chris: I liked the character at first and then got bored with them and just decided to kill them off. [laughter]

Oren: It’s very difficult to predict author motivation.

One more thing, because we are almost out of time. This is again, more of a TV issue I have seen than a book issue, but I’ve seen it in books too occasionally. “Because you think it will upset people” is not a good reason to kill a character.

[laughter]

And I’m not just saying this about season one of Picard, but you know what you did season one of Picard! [Chris and Wes laugh] Not once, but twice! It’s like, okay, so first we have Icheb, who… I wouldn’t exactly call beloved, but some people like Icheb. So he dies horribly. And then we have Hugh who is beloved. People love Hugh, and he dies for kind of no reason. From reading interviews with the showrunner, he wanted to upset people. That was why he did it.

Chris: [sarcastically] You gotta challenge the audience, Oren. You gotta challenge their idea that stories should be good.

Oren: I guess “mission accomplished,” man. I’m upset, but I didn’t magically think that made it good.

Chris: You felt things. The important thing is whether we can make people feel emotions, not if those are good emotions

Wes: It doesn’t matter if they’re the right ones.

[laughter]

Oren: And I have occasionally met authors who think like that, and it’s not a good idea. That is not a reason to kill a character.

All right. So I think that’s going to be it for today. Fortunately, we actually made it to the end without anyone dying. So we just told you that at the beginning to raise false tension. So we were actually the contrived story the whole time!

Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week!

[Outro Music]

This has been the myth green podcast, opening closing theme, the princess who saved herself by Jonathan Cole.

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