There are few easier ways to really tug at a reader’s heart-strings than by killing off one of their favorite characters. It’s a pretty common practice, and something any fan of Game of Thrones is far too familiar with: the sudden, perhaps unexpected offing of a beloved character, or a not-so-beloved character. The important difference here is that loved or loathed, these now-deceased fictional folks had names and families. Above all else, they had plot relevance, and so such deaths are tailored to have tremendous impact. It could be to push the plot forward, to give a protagonist that extra push towards heroic deeds, a means by which to turn a could-be villain into a fully-fledged monster, or a number of things.
Regardless, there are an awful lot of characters who seem to be marching right into the grave. It raises a curious question for writers, really. When, if at all, is it really necessary to kill off one of your darlings? At what point does such a play cheapen the story instead of strengthening it? Are there worse things for characters than death?
I’ll start with the easy question in this case. Are there worse things for characters than death? I’d say yes, there are. I’m not talking about the be-all, end-all in which the fictional being in question is suddenly at the pearly gates (or, well, situated in far warmer climates of a sulfur-and-brimstone persuasion). This is directed more towards the resurrection of a character whose death was meant to play a key role in the plot, and once it did that point became moot. A character’s death should have some meaning or purpose, and not just be a cheap throw-away for the sake punching an audience in its collective heart. It’s understandable in certain situations with just the right set of circumstances written in, but after a point it starts to feel like lazy writing at best. At worst, it devolves into some weird ritualistic abuse of the audience that, for some, has virtually no meaning at all.
Killing your darlings is a tried and true storytelling device, however, if used correctly. I am by no means an expert on how to properly kill characters, so it’s important to keep that in mind. However, it’s also fairly easy to see the obvious safe and reasonable ways to [alternative phrasing alluding to murder goes here] a character versus ones that are clearly just cheap shock value, lazy writing, and frustration-bait for audiences (readers, viewers, and so on). The life of a character doesn’t have to be a tremendously complex one, as there are such things as throwaway characters (read as: the poor fool/fools at the beginning of most every slasher movie ever). They serve their purpose, act as some sort of cautionary tale that usually goes unnoticed until it’s too late for at least one or two others, and that’s that. However, for the characters whose deaths are really meant to be a meaningful punch in the heart, the best route is to at least give them some depth to their backgrounds. Sympathetic or not, they need to be at least somewhat possible for the audience to relate to and, as such, sympathize with. There are natural ways of writing such traits into characters and there are forced ways, and those are topics that could take up multiple posts on their own. However, it’s very easy for a reader, a viewer, a movie-goer, a whatever to see through a cheap, quickly cobbled-together death as a vehicle to push the story along.
At the end of the creative day, there should be at least some thought put into killing those darlings off. Ask this question: is the end this death becomes the means to achieving something that cannot possibly be achieved any other way? Is it the best possible route by which to further the story?
Or just kill everyone and bring everyone back to life like a mindless God with nothing better on the agenda. I imagine that could go interesting places if handled well.