Sometimes, it has to be admitted, a character’s only reason to be in the book at all is to die; their death is the event that pushes the protagonist into doing something, or not doing something. Or, even more depressingly, their purpose is simply to be cannon fodder.
There’s even a name for it – redshirt. A character who has no past, hardly any present, and a future that consists of a grave or – in science fiction – some particles or a burned mark on the floor. John Scalzi even wrote a book about what happens when these poor blokes realise what god (i.e., the author) has in mind for them.
Then there’s the guy (or girl) who isn’t quite the poor no-name walk-on character whose one role in life is to die, but is just as surely marked out for an untimely demise. You know the ones. The grizzled old cop who is a week away from retirement after forty years’ honourable service. The young man, or girl, who just got engaged, or just got married. Or, if a character manages to make it past the honeymoon period, the last few months of pregnancy can be deadly for both partners. Another sign of circling vultures is the character whose life has been irredeemably crap… until they meet the protagonist. Just now, things are starting to look up… until, guess what?
You can see it coming from the time the character first walks onto the page, and the author tells you about his retirement date, her pregnancy, his new fiancee. You just know that this character isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.
As a proto-author, I found myself asking how. How do you have that feeling that a character is destined for an early grave?
I came up with some rules:
- The character is at some point in their life where it would be especially cruel to kill them off (retirement, marriage, new baby etc).
- The character doesn’t get enough page time for us (the readers) to really bond with them.
- The author tells us a lot about the character rather than showing it. This one was quite interesting when I figured it out. Telling is a quick way of giving the reader a lot of information about a character without giving that character much page time.
- The character isn’t necessary to the plot.
- The character is actually inconvenient to the plot. The protagonist has either moved on, or needs to move on.
The whole thing spoils the book: the reader doesn’t connect with the character so well (because what’s the point – they’re only going to die), and may also feel annoyed because the author is trying to manipulate them. After all, what is introducing a fiancee (that you never otherwise meet) other than a cheap-and-easy way of attempting to increase the emotional payoff when you kill the character? To me, this smacks of clumsy writing.
The question is, how to avoid it?
George R. R. Martin does it brilliantly. All through A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire), you think Ned Stark is going to be the series’ hero. Until – and if this is a spoiler, you must be the last person on earth to not have either read the books or seen the TV series – he gets executed at the end of the book.
Either Martin is a closet psycho and we should all be grateful that he turned out to be an author, so he can kill made-up people instead of real ones, or he’s a sadist who enjoys making people care and then killing off the object of their affections, or he’s just a really, really great author.
Whichever one it is, Martin makes all his characters real – he makes you care, then he swoops in for the kill, just when you’re not expecting it. Oh, he won’t kill X; X is too important to the story, and too great a character to lose…. oh.
This, I think, is his secret. You can’t tell who’s going to die because Martin treats all his characters the same (i.e., equally sadistically), so we get emotionally invested in all of them, even if we hate them and want them to die. In fact, Martin manages to reverse the “red-shirt” phenomenon, by introducing characters whom you want to see die a painful death even though you’ve got a nasty suspicion that Martin might let them survive (Joffrey, that’s you).
So in order to get the reader to invest in the character and be honestly shocked/sad/glad when a character dies, I think the author has to invest that time, thought and emotion first (or else fake it really well). If the author cares, the reader will too.