As we’ve discussed in previous articles sometimes our characters don’t survive the story, or do they? There are many instances in the history of literature where characters appear to have died but have returned. The most famous possibly being Sherlock Holmes who died but was resurrected by popular demand. The problem we might have, other than how to kill a character (I sense a fun article there), is when.
As we’ve touched upon before there are issues with killing characters, the primary one is that it isn’t simply for convenience sake. I don’t mean bopping of murder victims in a murder story, this serves the plot, it’s when we get ourselves in a plot tangle that we try to unravel by killing off a character because it’s easier. The one that always comes to mind is the idea of when there are two romantic rivals and one dies to make way for the other. I hasten to add that this isn’t an unworkable plot but if this is the plot you want to write the story needs to build to it. As I said in my articles on plot, it’s like a train line and the train takes the reader to each station, the plot points. We can do this by dropping subtle clues, breadcrumbs as I called them in another article, some readers will see them and others won’t but by the time you get to killing off that character it will feel right, the only way it could’ve ended.
Now, it doesn’t matter if your clues aren’t there in the first draft, it might even surprise you in the first draft that they die. It’s then in editing that we add the breadcrumbs and tidy up the logic because a story needs its own internal logic to help carry the reader along. If this doesn’t exist then the reader will begin to see jarring holes in the narrative and think, ‘Why did they do that? Why not this? What’s happening?’
If we take Holmes’ death for instance, whichever version you prefer, as we read, or watch, the story we know that he is going to have a show down with Moriarty and with two characters like them someone won’t make it out. The story therefore builds towards a possible climax that either one or both of them will die. By the end we want Holmes to escape but when he doesn’t, or appears not to, we may be disappointed or upset that he didn’t but the ending still feels right. The protagonist and villain have faced and destroyed each other, an inevitable outcome, but now the world is safe from the villain.
Had the story not built to their collision and it had simply been any other case, perhaps Hound of The Baskervilles, then it would’ve been jarring for Moriarty to suddenly appear and battle Holmes to the death because it has nothing to do with the rest of the story and doesn’t fit. This would be a convenient death to clear Moriarty and Holmes from the board. Although Conan Doyle had tired of writing Holmes he knew the readers needed him to die in the pursuit of the ultimate case. Holmes’ death needed to serve Holmes’ story.
So, when we write the death of a character, particularly a protagonist, we need to consider carefully whether it works in the context of the story: Does this fit their character? Would they have worked out another way? Is this the right ending?
Of course, we might be very sneaky and have them only appear to die… But I didn’t tell you that.