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I was recently watching the Korean Series SWEET HOME on Netflix… toward the later issues, I mean episodes, the series changed its narrative approach and started killing off many of the characters.
Oh, sorry, spoiler alert (not really you don’t know who they killed.)
Anyway, this is a trend in a lot of modern fiction, Walking Dead and Game of Thrones come to mind.
So how does some fiction get away with it, where other fiction falls to pieces because of it?
Glad you asked.
Bad fiction introduces a character, begins developing the character, creates interest between reader and character, then kills said character unexpectedly for shock value.
Don’t do this.
This is low art and bad science character murder.
You might be able to get away with it, if the other elements of your story cover up the crime, but why force extra work and responsibility on the rest of your story? They’ve already got enough to do.
Instead, hire a professional assassin from the start, and let the other elements of your story focus on their own jobs!
Ok, so to explain why you don’t want to do it dirty like this, let’s talk about the three types of characters in your story. The Hero/Protagonist, Core Cast Characters and Red Shirts/Extras…
Let’s start at the top;
I want you to think for a second;
If you’re going to kill the hero of your story, when in the story would you do it?
Forget about a fractured narrative…
or flashback narratives…
or a story that switches protagonists half-way through…
or one guy’s telling of another guy’s story…
In a standard, single-hero, sequential story, when would you most likely kill the hero?
At the end, of course.
Either in the climatic battle of act 3, or possibly shortly after as part of the denouement to the climax. While we could argue a number of narrative reasons why you would do this, the core reason is simple;
The hero is the most important character of the story. The reader experiences the story through the hero.
If the hero dies early on, the hero never has time to develop.
Meaning either, the hero wasn’t actually the most important character of the story to begin with, or the reader never gets a chance to fully engage and empathize with them…
In either case, killing the hero of the story early, pretty much guarantees the story is going to fall apart.
Luckily, because this cause and effect is so fundamental to story structure, most writers never really run into a problem here. Even newbie writers get this one instinctively.
The real problems arise with Core Cast Characters.
Core Cast Characters
Core cast characters are the main and secondary characters supporting the hero. (Technically, potentially the protagonists themselves in an ensemble cast story, but let’s not add Vodka to the well water.)
- Han Solo
- Ned Stark (GOT),
- Alfred Pennyworth (Batman)
are all examples of Core Cast characters.
Core cast characters are the ones bad fiction falls upon to kill as a means to jolt the reader. The shock value of their death is used as a gimmick to establish narrative tension; to scare the reader into thinking, “well, if they just killed that dude, who are they going to kill next? Holy crap, I better read some more.”
When applied strictly from a shock value perspective, there’s an old writing adage that warns us why it doesn’t work!
Every character is the hero in their own story.
When bad fiction kills a character for shock value, by its nature, in order to be “shocking,” it has to come before the character’s arc is completed.
It’s not the means of death itself that shocks the reader, but the timing of the death relevant to the character’s personal journey (arc) and the readers engagement to the character.
In other words, if the murder comes after the character’s natural progression to the end of their development, if the character actually reaches their climatic hero moment (see above) of facing–whatever ‘they’re suppose to be facing’–their death would not necessarily be expected, but would fundamentally be accepted. A natural end to the character’s journey (for better or worse).
Only by cutting the character’s journey short, does a character’s death really come across, at the deepest level, as shocking. (We’re not talking jump scares here, we’re talking psychological.)
And there in lies the rub.
By not allowing the character to reach their personal climax, the writer completely undermines the worth of the character and the bond between character and reader.
Murdering for shock value, literally tells the reader “Nope, this character is NOT the hero of THEIR own story. They’re a loser… irrelevant.”
Killing irrelevant characters for shock value, disengages readers.
It instantly reduces the character to a mere story mechanic and undoes all the empathy established between the reader and character. It tells the reader, their time building empathetic bonds to the characters… and even the story itself as a whole, is not respected.
A reader who empathizes with a character, who begins to build a connection with a character and then see them exterminated outside of their proper climatic conclusion, can not possibly feel satisfaction–in fact, in almost every scenario, they will feel robbed, cheated and disengaged from the rest of the story.
Readers don’t dictate the pace or direction of a story, but their effort and time is always respected by good fiction.
Murder Artistically. Murder Scientifically.
So when you want to murder your Core Cast characters, here’s how you do it.