Killing Off a Character

I killed King Arthur yesterday. Well, everybody knew it was going to happen. If you are writing about an already famous character, and in his legend he dies a tragic death, you can either:

– have him die a tragic death.

– write an alternative ending and have everybody ridicule you.

– write slapstick.

I could change the ending because I’m close enough to slapstick to get away with it. And when you write humorous fiction, it’s not so bad when people laugh at you–you can just pretend that they’re laughing at your writing.

But even if I could have gotten away with it, I went ahead and killed off King Arthur.

It was a bit of a downer, but scotch helped.

That got me to thinking about killing off characters. I don’t do it very often. Even a dastardly villain like JD, who soundly deserved it, ended up being king for a year with all the sex he wanted. Of course, the deal was, he was fated to die after that. But it doesn’t happen within the pages of the novel, so you always pretend he reformed and lived happily ever after. Or maybe he caught leprosy.

Earlier in the week I read an interview of George R.R. Martin, who’s made an art form out of killing off characters. You get about halfway through Book One of the Game of Thrones, totally identifying with Ned Stark, and then suddenly he’s dead and Martin’s got a million more readers. In the interview, he says that there’s no tension once the reader believes a character is safe because of author attraction or bonding.

My writing partner, SusanH, always tells me that I need more tension in my novels.

So I’m thinking about killing off Oswald. What do you think? Will that get me a million readers?

And would it be worth it?



6 thoughts on “Killing Off a Character

  1. Technically, you have killed off King Arthur before. In Return From Avalon, you show the vision of Arthur’s death a couple of times.

    There is a fourth option that is kind of a variation of options you’ve given. You could keep the character alive but provide a believable way for “history” to record their death. You are already breaking with tradition to cast Morgan as a “good guy” or at least someone who is not as totally evil as we have been led to believe.,

    Not that I have any intention of suggesting you not kill off Arthur.

    As for Martin… personally the more I hear about Game of Thrones the less I’m inclined to actually read it. Yes, killing off a sympathetic character is shocking (I do it in Deep Blue) but for me, to do something for the shock value alone is a cheap shot and a cynical view of society. From everything I’ve heard, Martin plays on the shocking in more ways than just killing off likable characters. He apparently uses shock as a tool to spark interest in his books rather than creating enduring literature.

    I prefer to just write good literature. I would sooner just tell a story with a meaningful moral that will in some small way change our society for the better, rather than cater to the basest of human nature just to sell books. Especially when the real end result is changing society for the worse.

    • Not sure I change society for better or for worse. I finished 4 books in the Game of Thrones series, then realized that I didn’t care about anybody that was still alive. Just kill them all and be done with it. So I quit.

      People ask me, “But don’t you want to find out what happens?” And the answer is, “Not really.”

    • Since I believe that Arthur’s legend should be consistent across my works, his death is similar to Arnie’s vision in Return from Avalon (and Points West). Except that you don’t see it on the pages.

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