One of the most amazing parts about spending time with students far younger than you is their surprising ability to draw your attention to details you might not have noticed otherwise. This past year at Columbus Middle School, I was forced (on a seemingly weekly basis) to examine an important element of writing I had never thought much about before: character death.
One of the reasons that these kids’ stories drew so much attention to the subject was because of the seemingly arbitrary and indiscriminate nature of the deaths.
Story about a girl who dreams of becoming a superstar? BAM. Dad is killed.
Story about a new student in high school? BAM. Both parents dead.
Story about a zombie apocalypse? BAM. Millions eaten.
(Okay, maybe that last example doesn’t quite fit with the others…)
The frustrating part of reading similar stories over and over again wasn’t the sixth grader’s fascination with death (although that was mildly exceedingly disturbing), rather their inability to make a character’s death matter. No tears were shed over tragic car accidents, not even a sad thought expressed at murder.
So what were they doing wrong?
After considering novels, shows, and films where death really punches you in the gut (e.g. anything by George R. R. Martin or Joss Whedon) against those where death could have been used more effectively (e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), I’ve come up with a general list of what to check before killing a character.
Will the death move the plot forward?
Will other characters experience significant development?
Will the cause of death make sense within the context of the story?
Will the reader care about the character’s death?
Will tears slowly stream down my face as I read it?
Will mood swings take over my life for several days as I think about it?
Will I contemplate finding you and hurting you for killing a great character?
Will I desperately write D-level fan fic retconning the character’s death?
Will the mourning period ever end?
Will I ever forgive you? Yes, you Joss. You know what you’ve done.
Ultimately, you want your reader to be able to connect to the death of a character. That means making sure to fully develop the character first. Furthermore, that means providing adequate room for other characters/your reader to address the death (I’m looking at you J.K. Rowling… so many levels of disappointment in the seventh book).
Though, too be honest, I’ll just be happy if our sixth graders just stop using death as an “exciting” climax to their story. Character death shouldn’t be used because you want to be controversial or interesting. Only kill a character when the story demands that it happen.
(And yes, I did title this post after a line from the musical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More, With Feeling”)