On Body Counts, Death, and Dying

Or, “This entire post is why I end up on a watch list somewhere.”

Thankfully, there’s nothing going on in my personal life that’s making me think in this direction. While I’ve often thought about killing characters before, it’s not something that’s come up in the novel I’m working on, either. What got me thinking about it this time, actually, was the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. I don’t follow the series, but several of my friends do, and my personal Facebook newsfeed had exploded in “Hold the door!” and other expressions of grief.

Game of Thrones fans have pretty universally come to terms with the fact that you can’t get attached to characters because they will often die or otherwise break without warning, sometimes in the middle of their character arcs. The show was adapted from dark books, and it makes sense that characters would die in a grittier, realistic-leaning high fantasy series for adults. It seems as though young adult novels, because so many of them are set in dystopias now, are leaning in an “anyone can die” direction as well, but usually sparing the lives of the protagonist and their love interest. No matter what age group you’re writing for, there are certain genres that have an expectation of death: war stories and police procedurals are bound to have a body count; in anything involving any kind of apocalypse, this goes without saying; and those darker fantasies that hope to capitalize on the success of Game of Thrones have taken the idea and run with it.

Authors and readers alike will joke on social media about the killing of beloved characters, and more often than not these jokes portray the writer as a cruel being who is playing with the emotions of readers for kicks. And really, it can feel that way when our favorite characters die: if we spend enough time with them, we can come to love them more than some people we know. I’m a crier, so even in an otherwise mediocre movie or show, if a character I like dies, I’m probably wiping away tears while trying to pretend I’m above it all. So if a story is beautifully put together and a character I grew attached to dies, I’m a mess. This becomes compounded if I can see the anguished reactions of and even changes in the character’s friends and allies and/or if the funeral or memorial is shown.

At the same time, though, I’ve never been able to kill a character of my own and have it work. Part of this might be because of the way I write: I discover stories more than I create them, and trying to arrange the death of a character for the sake of having them die doesn’t mesh well. I guess there’s a part of me that likes keeping my options open as well, because death is a pretty big deal and resurrection is, in my mind, a giant cop-out when it’s not very well-justified.

That, and death isn’t always the worst thing that can happen to a character, especially in sci-fi or fantasy. Funnily enough, this is where I shine, if the feedback from previous beta readers is any indicator. If you’re a fictional character unfortunate enough to end up in one of my stories, you’re going to get run through every psychological wringer that can feasibly be cooked up. Sure, I’ll leave you alive, and you’ll probably make it to the ending intact and with a satisfactory resolution, but getting there isn’t going to be fun, and it might not even be worth it. Woe unto you that become protagonists especially, because you’re going to bear the brunt of it.

To get really existential and even a bit dark on you guys, death isn’t something that scares me. I never had any genuine close calls of my own, but it was something I considered quite a bit whenever I wound up in a hospital or my health flared up. Sure, the deaths of other people get to me because, while I know and have accepted that I’m not immortal, I do this funny thing where I forget that other people aren’t immortal, either. So death is sad, but the actual idea of winding up as a dead body at the end of it all doesn’t bother me. Dying, on the other hand—the likely slow and painful process of getting there—that is scary.

Maybe that’s the reason that I can’t write death very well. It’s a tragic change of state, and sure, it’s sad to see a character go, but it just doesn’t do it for me. The catalyst for the change and the ramifications it has on the characters is much more interesting, uncomfortable, and frightening to me. Losing your favorite character to the plot is bad enough, but having their experiences dramatically change them before then might be just as bad. Death only hurts those of us that got left behind: if the writer leaves you alive with whatever pain you’re in, that might well be worse. It’s not that I derive any joy from torturing characters—Robert Frost saying “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” rings particularly true to me in that regard—but the pain in that is more authentic to me than the pain of just killing them. A death can move a story forward and hurt a lot, but drawn-out pain can change a character, and that’s a more challenging journey to go on.

So let’s sit down on our therapy couches and talk about our feelings. Have your favorite characters (or even your own characters) gone through anything painful recently? How did that make you feel? What would have made it better or worse?