Valar Morghulis : On killing your characters

Hello gentle reader,

for this second ROW80 check-in, I thought I would tackle the issue of killing characters in novels. Let’s say you’ve created a number of interesting and believable characters in your WIP. Is killing off one or all of them going to help or harm your novel?

Over the past few months I have had to consider this question for two reasons:

–          one of the main characters in my epic fantasy novel The Last Queen dies at the end of the book and some of my beta readers have protested against such a death.

–          I have come across several serial stories where killing off characters was an over-used writing device and it made me wonder when killing your characters actually damages your story rather than makes it go forward.

I am not talking here about the horror genre, where killing off all the characters one by one is an expected writing device. I am talking about the other genres, especially Fantasy and Historical Fiction.

The first example of a story where no one is safe is A Song of Ice and Fire by G.R.R. Martin. One of the catch phrase used in this series of books is actually “Valar Morghulis”, which can be translated as “all men must die”. In the books (as well as in the TV show Game of Thrones that is aired on HBO since 2011), a great number of the major characters die, often brutally and unexpectedly.

The second example I have come across recently is the Starz TV show Spartacus, created by Steven S. DeKnight and Robert Tapert. In this historical drama, the writers’ motto is “Kill Them All”, which translates into the death of almost every single character, save for Spartacus himself.

So I get why killing off characters can be a useful writing device. When the reader has become invested in sympathetic characters, it is always a great emotional shock to see those beloved characters die, especially if those deaths are paired with acts of bravery and/or selflessness. For the writer, the death of a character can also be a great way to move the plot along. For example, at the beginning of the second season of Supernatural (a CW TV show), the death of the heroes’ father was a great way to get the story forward. In the Harry Potter series, the deaths of Sirius Black (in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Albus Dumbledore (in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) were impressive plot devices that made the young characters grow up and move forward despite their grief.

What I am questioning here, however, is the over-use of the device. In a way, G.R.R. Martin and the writers of Spartacus have painted themselves into a corner, because their readers/viewers now know that they shouldn’t invest too much in characters that are going to die anyway. Also the element of surprise is gone: when you get to Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire, you basically expect everyone to die. In this case, the reader/viewer feels cheated because instead of being presented with a great plot and believable tragic events, he is faced with yet another character’s death that doesn’t stir any emotion in him and harms the plot instead of moving it forward.

So what do you think? Do you read or write stories in which everybody dies?

Before wrapping up this post, a few words about my ROW80 goals:

1-      Write everyday: 5/7 days. This week I wrote every day except for Thursday and Friday when my day job took over my life.

2-      Self-edit The Last Queen: not exactly done. I have actually added a few scenes to the novel instead of editing it down. Argh.

3-      Continue writing the first draft of The Cursed King: done, but only a few hundred words.

Here is the Linky for the other ROW80 participants. How have you been doing?

8 thoughts on “Valar Morghulis : On killing your characters

  1. Juliana Haygert says:

    I think that death is a part of life and it’s only normal that, if you’re writing a series, someone dies at some point.
    LOVE Spartacus, btw! Can’t wait for the last season, which they already began filming, though I confess I miss Andy Whitfield as Spartacus =(
    Progress is progress and you’re doing quite well! Keep that up!

  2. EM Castellan says:

    Thanks for stopping by Juliana! I didn’t know that the next season of Spartacus will be its last, I was actually wondering how long they could keep this up…!

  3. Haha, I laughed so hard at that Sweeney Todd picture. Good call, there. 😀

    I appreciate stories (and tv/movies) where death serves to move the plot forward, or to propel the characters into action, or something along those lines. As Juliana says, death is a real part of life, and depending on your genre, it should be acceptable (it wouldn’t work for chick-lit, but for fantasy and historical fiction, as you pointed out, it makes sense). However, the body count in ASOIAF is just ridiculous, and for the problem comes from the fact that there are so many darn characters that I don’t even have time to care about them all.

    Good luck with the editing this week!

  4. EM Castellan says:

    Thanks for your comment Lena! I finished Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire and I agree with you, it’s getting really hard to follow/care about all those characters… Have a great week too!

  5. Em says:

    5 out of 7 days is great and adding scenes rather than editing down is probably quite a common problem!! I can well imagine myself doing this when I come to edit.

    Have a great week and here is to editing down rather than up!M

  6. Tony Dutson says:

    I had something similar happening in mine. Essentially I had the Gwen Stacey situation in the Spider-Man comic -*spoiler alert*- where the primary love interest gets killed. It’s deliciously evil, but I’m offsetting the reader’s pain by adding a potential love interest for book 2.

    There’s no danger if someone isn’t going to die, but we have to balance it with the hope that it won’t be everyone.

  7. I don’t write (or read) stories where everybody dies, but I see the value in killing off a major character (or to or more, depending on cast size). In my major WIP, I blindside the reader by killing a major ally of the MC – thereby forcing her to stand on her own two feet.

  8. EM Castellan says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your “deaths in WIP”, thats’ great!

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