I just came across this article about last night’s NCIS season premiere (spoilers galore) that touched a writery nerve. The question it raises is about killing off characters.

Is it a good idea?  Depends on how devoted you are to what’s technically best for the story.

Minor characters need to go periodically in novels and feature length screenplays . That kind of thing drives the momentum forward, adds dramatic oomph, and, frankly, thins the cast herd when it starts to get unweildy.

Star Trek was brilliant about this, to the point that it became a pop culture gem. Red Shirts can be planted from the get go. It makes it easier to send them to their doom, if you know it’s inevitable for pages and pages. Makes more of an impact, though, if nobody sees it coming until they have one foot out the literary airlock.

Major characters require more finesse. Sometimes the person at the keyboard is so emotionally invested in a character that they can’t even consider offing them. Other times the central character is created with the intention of their death inherent before a single word is typed. Even so when the time comes to actually write their death its almost impossible to lower the boom, as it were.

That’s when the hard thinking kicks in. The attempt to reason with the part of your brain that knows the entire long process that lead up to the moment of doom was your idea in the first place.

Can you weasle out of it at the last minute, because you love your character with all but one foot in the grave so much? Of course you can. If you must. Should you?

I think the really true answer to that question is only if you can write a sequel that continues the character in such a way that all the word weaving contortions it will take to justify why they’ve survived their brush against the grave to become a zombie character was worth it.

I tend to build entire elaborate plots around characters specifically created to die by the time of fini. All of my screenplays are like that.

I unintentionally developed death as a recurring theme in my writing. Perhaps because I had a lot of relatives die when I was a child, and began pondering the whys and hows at an early age. I don’t regret it. It provides a backdrop for rich, emotional storytelling.

I have a novel (one of the projects that’s garnered wonderful compliments I’ve mentioned before from TPTB, but no golden ticket…yet) that gave me perhaps my favorite character I’ve ever written. I fell in love with him. Then I realized I had to kill him.

I fought it, mentally kicking and screaming. I looked at it from every angle and couldn’t land on a way out that would honor the character and all I’d put him through. And then I did some of my best writing ever to do him justice. And do him in.

It comes down to  what’s right for the story and the characters that drive it. Because in the end, when they’ve become “autonomous “…accomplished what Stephen King calls getting up and walking around…the characters take over that place in your gut that knows what’s best. Somehow, once you trust them enough, the characters know what they’re doing.

If they decide on a death scene, whether a dramatic event or sighlike whisper, it’s up to the writer to oblige them with a shove off a proverbial cliff or by holding their figurative hand as they slip away.

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