This may come as a shock to some of you but since you are the author of your story you have the power of life and death over your characters. In a real world where there is not conclusive proof of fate, you decide each character’s fate. You are god, the almighty, the revered one and your characters will worship the paper you write on if you so desire. When I read some would be author asking about whether he should kill off one of his characters, I think, now there is an idiot. He has no idea of his story line, he has no point to make in his writing, why in the hell should I read someone like that? When we write nonfiction we are attempting to make some point, elucidate some argument, establish some basis for an opinion, or establish some set of facts from which we might want to build and argument and draw a conclusion. Now you, Mr Fiction Writer, why is it any different with you? What you write in your fictional story certainly displays your point of view on life, morality, and a great many other ideas you slosh around in your head. Why should you not be expected to make some point in your writing. You are creating an alternative universe, if you like, one that differs from the real because you control the variables and make sure there aren’t too many of them to go wrong.
Now there are only two types of storyline methods. Some writers like to take total control of their work and outline to some degree before fleshing in the story and filling it with characters. These writers have created the exact number of characters and no more. Each will have an approximate amount of time on the pages. Some will simply vanish as many of your high school acquaintances have done. These characters will come into the story on time and then disappear. They may be minor supporting characters, they may be extras, some with a walk-on speaking line or two. But the main characters will have their assigned roles and play them well. If their death is called for it will happen on cue. This type of writer does not kill off people on whimsey. If his story calls for the hero to die, then the hero dies. If the villain is supposed to die, then the villain dies on cue. This is because the writer is making a point with his story. It might do with morality or the sanctity of the church, or that there are medical problems beyond our possible control.
You may think all that very boring but think about Harry Potter. The writer outlined each book. She had to if she was going to write any sequels. She already knew that Harry was going to live and the evil magician would die. He had to die, what did you expect. Harry Potter goes from being a wimp to becoming a young man. If Mr Evil Wizard is still running around Harry can neither grow up to become an adult nor avoid any further evil from Mr Evil Wizard. What is the author’w point? Good overcomes evil. That is pretty basic as storylines go. How much money did she make of just that first book? If you can’t understand this simple point then go back to watching reality shows or playing games or texting on your iphone or whatever it was you were doing before you got that bright idea to write. You don’t belong here, you literally have nothing to say. Writing is hard work, it takes thought. Creativity does not come floating into your hear like a butterfly alighting on a daffodil. Creativity is a thought process, not happenstance.
The second method of writing novels, and by the way, both these methods work for the short story, is that the writer has a general storyline in mind. He also has a few main characters that he wants to create. Both type of writers know the end of their stories, you have to know otherwise you will get confused, become unfocused, and generally write wandering crappy storylines that readers will find difficult to follow. This second method is the discovery method. I know what points I want to make, I know how, approximately how the story will end and I already know who will live and die. If you are writing an action/adventure story and no body dies, then where is the adventure, the daring, the death defying actions that do not result in death because you, the writer, just can’t bear to kill anyone off? Living has consequences, living means confronting death and not always at our leisure. If you are sitting in a foxhle and being shot at, at least you can duct down into the hole. But once those shells start coming down, you have no control over where they land. I cannot put it in any better way. Chance versus choice. So maybe I want to write a spy adventure. Ok, I need to figure out all the who done it stuff first. I need to decide that either my spy gets the goods and comes back alive or that he gets to goods but dies or he doesn’t get the goods and comes back alive or he neither gets the goods nor lives. Those are the only four possibilities to the ending of the story. Whether he gets the girl or girls is of secondary importance, his government is not paying him to populate the world one woman at a time. So how many people have to die before we find out who got what where and so forth? I know I will need to throw in a couple of reverses before the call to action actually takes place. Then maybe another two twists before we reach the midpoint, where things are coming together. Then another twist or two before the climax. Finally, maybe one more twist of fate before the end.
If the hostile country is building some super duper submarine somewhere hidden then I have to get my spy there and figure out who he needs to contact. After all, we would never know about that submarine if we didn’t have an inside source. So I will feel my way, according to the seven major steps of plot line, and keep in mine when I need to create some disposable characters, when a new character just might need to pop up out of nowhere, and how to get rid of people who clute the story. Now, if I have to kill off characters or otherwise get rid of them, then I should take care not to develope them too deeply unless I really want a tear jerker. If you remember in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his girlfriend was not developed too deeply because she was to be sacrificed to the KGB. And through that sacrifice John Le Carre could show the depths of despair that his spy had for her loss. Give her just enough development to make it believable. If we are dealing with a cancer patient who is full of life and doing all manner of great things and his life is an open book, then that point of his death should fill us with a lasting feeling of care, of love for a fellow human being. Yes, we may tear up quite noisily, but we will be the better for it. Remember, no character ever lives forever, even the author dies and the book goes out of print and is never read again. But if you have to kill a character make sure it is for a purpose other than you are just bored with him. If we believe our own lives count then so should the lives of our characters.