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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Go Beyond the Red Shirt

Please welcome guest blogger Beth Caudill

I’m a bit bloodthirsty. I want to see some characters die. The first books I choose to read were Mystery and Horror stories. And then I moved to Fantasy and Science Fiction. Someone always died – whether they were a murder victim or a fantasy infantry soldier.

Most of the time you don’t know much about the person who dies or they are the villain and you cheer his/her passing. One of my favorite Nancy Drew stories is The Sign of the Twisted Candles because you learn about the murder victim throughout the tale. He became a part of the story, even though he died halfway through. Just because someone died doesn’t mean they can’t be an influence later on in the story. Remember Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars – his words still influenced Luke in the beginning of Episode Five (Let’s not talk about the ghost thing halfway through.)

It’s a rough world out there for our characters. Whether you are living in outer space, on an agrarian planet, or living in modern day Chicago, bad things happen. There are good ways and bad ways to go.

The first episode of NCIS as a standalone series pissed me off because at the end the terrorist shots an automatic weapon at Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon – he’s aged nicely) yet no bullets hit the airplane or Gibbs. They were no more than ten feet from each other and the shots should have gone somewhere. Do NOT let your characters out of a situation without a scratch. It’s the best way to get your book thrown across the room.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the guys we know will die. In almost every Star Trek episode the ‘Red Shirt’ Security Officer dies within the first ten minutes leaving our Captain, First Officer and Doctor free to spend the next half hour solving the mystery behind the unexpected death. While this makes a great entry in college drinking games, your readers won’t appreciate the repetition. Another example would be any SG team on Stargate besides SG-1. If you go off world, you’d better hope you go with Jack (aka, Richard Dean Anderson – another cute older actor.) It’s the only way you’d survive.

Go Beyond the Red Shirt - How to Kill a Character in Your Story

  1. Give your Character a Name – You want your readers to be able to connect with this character at least enough to put a name to his face. If you kill someone off, please give them a name. Even with an army, have your Lord Marshall inspect the troops and talk to the guy. It’s the least you can do for him since he won’t make it to The End.
  2. History – Like the hero and heroine our future corpse needs a history. Make sure to give some nice tidbits to the reader. Let the reader connect with him/her but not too much. Most of the time you won’t want your reader to hate you for killing their favorite character. (There are always exceptions but be prepared for the hate mail.)
  3. Purpose – His or her death should have a purpose in the story. In fact, it should have a huge impact on your hero or heroine. Emotion is the key to keeping your reader engaged. Even the most jaded assassin should feel something in their cold heart for their 101st kill.
  4. Be Descriptive – Let the reader engage in the death themselves. I still remember falling off the cliff with Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King. Even a parent’s death in the past can be relived in the present – a memory told to the hero, a flashback involving the villainous vampire; something the reader can experience with the main character.
  5. Do the Unexpected – Don’t just kill the Villain or the Mentor. Everyone looks for these guys to die. The reader expects it. Kill the Sidekick or Best Friend Forever (Unless you absolutely need him/her for the sequel and then maybe consider the ghost option or resurrection. Be creative.)

This list came about after I’d finished my novella Healer’s Fate and as I’d considered ideas for a paladin knight trilogy. In Healer’s Fate, I kill off my three villains, one of which doesn’t have a name. I thought he’d be creepier and more mysterious without one. Thinking about it now, I’m sorry I didn’t identify him better.

Not all my characters are willing to let me kill them. In planning my paladin knight series, the heroine’s older sister is kidnapped. She was the first person I considered killing. But this character has other ideas. She stood up and flat out told me she would not die. When I asked her why not, she gave me a human villain and a modern day branch of my knights I didn’t know existed. She’s a bit of a control freak and I’ve grudgingly agreed she can see her younger sister get married.

I hate plotting but had to concede to working out my characters ahead of time for this series to work. You can only bring characters forward in time once so I have to have them all accounted for ahead of time. Two of my knights have agreed to sacrifice themselves. In return, they’ve asked me, their author, to provide them an honorable end with a name, a history, an impact on the hero, and an awesome show down with their enemy. I’m going to do my best to provide that for them.

Beth grew up in West Virginia but now resides in North Carolina with her husband and two children. She has a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and previously worked as a quality assurance computer software tester. Reading has been her favorite activity for as long as she can remember and her home has more books than shelves to store them. While being a fulltime parent, she is pursuing a writing career.

She is a member of Romance Writers of America, FF&P and her local chapter Heart of Carolina Romance Writers.

Healer's Fate
Corliss Rumdone hides behind her status as Healer to avoid the normal wolf pack hierarchal challenges. A forced mating changes the course of her life. Instead of Raymond, the beta wolf selected for her, she mates with Liam—her best friend and heir to the Alpha pair.

Liam whisks them away to a shifter retreat so they can allow the mating bond to settle in private. But interference from those seeking power and two terminal children arouse past hurts and challenge their new relationship. Even their home is not the haven it should be as Liam must watch Corliss fight for the right to stay his mate. For one healer, death becomes a weapon to balance life.


Lynda K. Scott said...

Great advice on the 'Red Shirts'! They should have a bit of background so that their deaths come across as meaningful.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post reminded me of the movie Galaxy Quest with Crewman Number Six (or Guy) panicking because they were going to an alien planet and he knew he was going to die. It made me think about all the movies I've seen where some unknown character dies and though it's horrible, we just don't care as much as we would have if it would have been a main character.

Great advice. If I kill anyone, I'll be sure to make them "real" enough to be missed.

Sonja Foust said...

Great article! It's a subject I don't usually think about (I don't kill that many characters), but it's definitely information any writer should know!

Beth Caudill said...

Thanks Lynda, Danica, and Sonja.

We spend a lot of time talking about our main characters and some secondary characters. I think the ones we kill should get some consideration as well.

Linda said...

In one of Dana Stabanow's books, she killed off the main character's man friend. It was like a real friend had died. I screamed, "No. You can't kill him!" I had to think about buying anymore of the series after that. In fact, I think the series isn't as good anymore.

Linda Burke

Beth Caudill said...

Linda - I don't know that series...but I think of Harry Potter when J. K. Rowling killed both Sirius and Dumbledore. I thought they were done well, they made an impact on Harry....and while I was upset they died, I didn't feel like strangling the author.

Nancy said...

I never realized I had 'red shirts die' on the brain until I saw the latest Star Trek movie in the theater. Of the 3 men plummeting to set a bomb, I knew the guy in red had NO CHANCE! Your advice is spot-on. Secondary characters can die but their deaths must have meaning.

Beth Caudill said...

Hey Nancy - I wasn't impressed by the new Star Trek. I think they made too much effort to include all the cliches from the series.

I know TV thinks it's easy to kill someone to move the plot forward. As authors we need to make sure our readers feel an impact.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

These are good tips, for mysteries as well. It's important to personalize the dead guy so our readers feel the loss. And Danica, I LOVE Galaxy Quest! That was so funny with Crewman Number Six, and then he becomes the security chief at the end. But I won't kill off anyone dear to me or the readers.

Beth Caudill said...

Nancy C. Thanks, I read cozy mysteries...and they always have a death somehow connected to the Main Character.

I'm been told to watch Galaxy Quest. I never seem to get to watch the whole thing when it's been on TV.