Killing Your Characters Is Traumatic: And It Should Be

I don’t want to kill again. It’s just too stressful. My first major kill was of a family: father and two daughters drowned in a flash flood. I got a lot of flack for that from friends and family members with small children, all of whom seemed to take it personally. Next, there was the ex-lover of a main character who died along with his wife in a fluke car accident—decapitation—that was far too bloody, I think, for the story. In general, I’ve killed off at least one character in nearly everything I’ve ever written. I mean nothing malicious by it.

My latest killing, however, in my novel Dixon, Descending has shattered me. Partly because I truly love the character I killed off, and partly because I’ve been writing and revising this novel—that is, killing and rekilling my character—for nearly 15 years. I’m a bit chagrined to say, but that is the longest relationship with a man that I’ve had to date, and the old saying is right: Breaking up is hard to do. Well, killing off, is.

It was hard enough to write his death the first time. I was holed up in a woodland cottage that led to a startling view of Mt. Rainier, which appeared ghostlike mid-sky each afternoon. My characters were ascending Mt. Everest, and my view of Mt. Rainier made me feel like their comrade. I hunkered into their journey and then its sorrowful aftermath and wrote breathlessly, actually panting and trembling. I completed the first draft weeping. That was more than 10 years ago, and I have to say, I have been emotional each time I’ve read that death in revision.

Every time. You see, the thing about killing off a character—especially one you love—is that you will have to do it over and over as you write and revise a novel, and it will never, ever become less fraught. In fact, it shouldn’t. No one ever told me that.

I liken it to having committed any infraction of rules that plagues you, so that you continually relive it, breaking it open for reinspection to see if it holds true to a current vision of yourself. At essence, that’s what revision asks the writer to do. We must re-enter the world we have created and question everything. We must re-engage, relive, reimagine, re-kill, over and again. It’s a lower-order form of suffering, but a form of suffering nonetheless.

I admit, I think about loss far too often; it has shaped much of my life. When I write, I can’t help but examine how each death will affect a particular character. What will they learn? How will they survive? It’s been easier to fixate on that kind of aftermath in much of what I’ve written previously. Maybe I have not loved the dead enough until now. Or perhaps, I just haven’t lived with the dying for as long.

Killing off a fully realized character tests a story in a way unlike any other. It draws attention to itself, but the writer has to ask: does it draw energy away from or toward the story? Some deaths can render the story superfluous by contrast, or simply suck all the remaining energy out of a story. At its best, a character’s death should arrest some lines of story movement but create clearer narrative paths—ones of heightened tension—for other parts of the story.

I see death acting as a pinball lever, shooting a story from one path onto another and opening a new world of consequences for the characters and for the story arc. That new thrust can be as exciting for the reader as for the writer, carrying along with it a dizzying array of emotional realities: regret, relief, hubris, grief, joy, fear. The basic question about whether to kill off a character, then, is no different than the question about any narrative choice: does it work? Can it work? But there’s another question to be asked as well: Is the value to the story higher than the emotional cost to the writer?

Because there is a cost to killing off characters, especially ones you love. I found myself bargaining—“what if I killed off someone else instead?”—rethinking the very premise of the story, wondering if perhaps I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude. But I had created a world and a set of circumstances that required the outcome I was dreading, and I had to answer to my story. That is the great challenge, I think, in maturing as a writer: rising to the occasion of our stories. It’s so easy to want to shield our characters from real harm, to want to soften the blows to their lives.

But stories are about people in trouble, as we’re repeatedly told, and there’s no greater trouble than dying. So the death of a character becomes illuminating, pushes a plot forward, complicates things in all the positive ways writers are encouraged to create. What about the writer’s grief?

Good writing creates a “hook-to-the-heart,” as Alice McDermott would say. My juiciest memories of reading involve curling up in bed, a book propped against my chest. I am engaged in the intimacy between myself and the implied nakedness of the character in the text. I long for that as a reader, yet as a writer, I understand it comes at a price. Those moments when writing strips you to the bone, when you finish writing a scene that has become so emotionally truthful that you leave the house a little bloodied, wondering whether the world notices that layer of skin that’s been sloughed away from you.

Should it be such a sacrifice to write? How can it not? We give ourselves over to our characters. We nurture and sustain those who would not exist without us. It is a profound spiritual act to create fiction, an inherently hopeful act: Here, world, is something of myself that I want you to care for. Of course it costs us.

I wasn’t being mean or methodical in killing off my character. It was simply what the story dictated, and yet, part of me cannot forgive myself for it, for what it means for the other characters, for what it means for me. And each time I sit down, broken-hearted, to re-engage with that actual death, I wish for a different outcome. And each time that scene seers into me, I know it is doing its job.

If there’s any theme to writing that I could share with an unsuspecting budding writer, it’s just that: It will break your heart. It’s supposed to.


Karen Outen’s Dixon Descending is available now from Dutton.

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