Writers’ Ten Commandments #6: You Shall Not Kill

This series is about breaking the ten commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do to each other, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

I’m cheating a bit here by copying (with slight revisions) a post from a short while ago that inspired me to start this series in the first place, just so I’ll have all my ducks—er, commandments—in a row.

Commandment #6: You shall not kill.

Why can’t fiction be nicer than life, all sweetness and light? Why do good characters have to die?

Caveat: I’m not talking here about mysteries and thrillers, in which you have to have dead bodies to advance the plot, and some of them may need to be more or less sympathetic. I’m talking about stories in which death occurs other than as the main event.

Off the top of my head, here are several reasons characters have to die:

  1. Death is part of life. If a serious novel that spans any length of time is to be realistic (in the deeper sense of emotional truth, not the realistic vs. fantasy sense), chances are the protagonist will lose someone close to him—parent, friend, spouse, sibling, favorite aunt, mentor.
  2. Death catalyses change. The death of someone close to us never leaves us quite the same. It may completely change our pattern of living, as when a child loses a parent or a husband his wife. It may leave us with regrets that will cause us to reexamine our values. It may cause a character to contemplate revenge, or it may lead him to forgiveness. As a near certainty, it confronts us with our own mortality. It temporarily strips away our excuses and defenses and takes us to a deeper level. This may lead to a subtle or dramatic shift in priorities, habits, and mores. If you need to force your protagonist to move forward, the death of a loved one is a surefire way to do it. Would Frodo have gone on to Mordor alone if Gandalf had not apparently perished? Would Harry have struck out on his own to find the horcruxes if Dumbledore had still been alive?
  3. Death can be redemptive. A character may directly sacrifice his own life to save another’s physical life—as in Charlotte’s Web, where Charlotte uses the last of her strength to spin the web that saves Wilbur from the chopping block. Or the redemption may be more subtle. In Little Women, Beth March contracts the scarlet fever that ultimately takes her life while nursing a poor family, but her death also sets an example of patience and faith for her sister Jo that helps Jo find her true path—a spiritual redemption.
  4. Death engages the reader deeply. See previous post. If you write it well, and if you kill the right character at the right time in the right way (i.e. so that the death has meaning), you can create an event of unmatched emotional power.
  5. Sometimes death is the only possible resolution. How could Hamlet end other than in death? When a character has reached the end of his road, you’re being untrue to your story if you don’t let him die.

The Post-Modern Sensibility

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of taking a fiction-writing class taught by Davis Bunn. He was addressing people who write for the evangelical market, which often succumbs to the temptation to “pretty up” life for the purposes of fiction. Davis emphasized to us that this approach does not work for the post-modern reader.

Readers nowadays know that life is not pretty. We expect the fictional worlds we enter to be less chaotic than reality, to make more sense and have more obvious structure and meaning; but we do not want them to be artificially pretty, serene, smiley-face places where characters do not even yell at each other, let alone die.

To make a fictional world real for contemporary readers, you have to resist the temptation to tie up all the loose ends. Some of the protagonist’s goals should not be achieved, or should be achieved at tremendous cost—such as, for instance, the death of a loved one. Triumph must be tempered by tragedy, or readers just won’t buy it.

As a seed must fall into the ground and die in order to create new life, so a character or two may have to die to give life to your story.

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2 comments on “Writers’ Ten Commandments #6: You Shall Not Kill

  1. Chris Moorey says:

    I do agree. Although the death of a character may be necessary for the reasons you give, I hate it when someone is killed off just to solve a plot problem. TV series (do they count as ‘Writing’?) are the worst offenders. Did you ever see the wonderful English film “The Killing of Sister George” which deals with that theme. However, even the great writers are sometimes guilty of ‘convenience killing’, including Mrs. Gaskell and Dickens, both of whom I love. As for Hardy – I think he could be the mass murderer of fiction writing!

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      A few TV series count as “writing,” but not many in my book. 🙂 And yes, agreed on Dickens and Hardy, though I think they killed for very different reasons—Dickens for schmaltz value, Hardy for pessimism. I haven’t seen the film you mention—I’ll have to look for it.

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