In the roleplaying arena, I've only had a character die on me the once. It was my freshman year of college, and we were playing the granddaddy game of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. We were playing in the Forgotten Realms, and my character was from some obscure middle eastern-esque nation. He was a wizard. He had some elaborate backstory I can barely remember now, full of wealth, betrayal, and usurpation. It mattered a lot to me at the time, but not to anyone else. I was proud of his appearance - elegant, thin, and dark skinned, with rose-colored hair (red hair that was bleached by the strong desert sun of his homeland). The most I got from that was that a friend's barbarian called him "pinky." Then, on some fairly meaningless dungeon crawl, we encountered a hulking, six-eyed, gray-skinned monstrosity that tore my dude apart.
In case you hadn't guessed, I don't exactly have fond memories of that particular gaming experience.
Anyway, my next character was better suited to that particular game, and after a while I drifted away from those gamers and started playing with people whose philosophy of gaming matched mine better. The experience, however, stuck with me.
When it comes to writing, I've only killed off two main (point of view) characters, both in A Knight of the Land. Ibosh Idabelesh, best friend of the main character, Kurzon Mors, doesn't make it. He dies heroically in the final battle... though I kind of wimp out. Ibosh lives on as part of the Council of Voices, the disembodied spirits that guide the Knights of the Land. I also kill of Kurzon's brother Iveren, though that death is much more ambiguous. Iveren started off sympathetic, but he slowly loses sight of his moral compass throughout the story, until his death is almost the best thing that could happen. In all my long history of writing stories, I've never killed anyone other perspective characters, and not just because I have a bad habit of not finishing stories. I haven't even planned on killing anyone in most of them.
Frankly, I think it's that death is the ultimate downer. Even if you contrive to make a character's death not the end of the story - impossible in a roleplaying game, at least for that character's player, but sometimes feasible in a fiction - it's still pretty depressing. And really, who wants that?
The trouble is, some of the best character killers are also the best writers. George R.R. Martin, for example, has cut out my heart and made me eat it twice in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I love him for it. He has very nearly no mercy on his audience, and it makes his series hard-hitting, gritty, and intense.
That doesn't mean I think killing characters off right and left is a sure way to create hard-hitting stories. I think that Joss Whedon's habit of giving characters stupid deaths just to prove that he is 'hard' is his only glaring flaw, so it's more complex than a love-hate relationship with character death. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about killing characters.
I don't quite know how to resolve this paradox. I don't like kill characters in stories, and I don't like to run roleplaying games where my players feel like their characters are in danger of dropping dead left and right, their stories left hanging in the air. At the same time, I don't want my players to feel like their characters don't matter and their choices don't have consequences, and when I read authors like George R.R. Martin, I think "I want me some of that."
The only guideline I have so far is this: when a character dies it's the end of a story. Even if the plot continues, that story is over. Don't do it lightly. Have compassion on the readers (and the players), because we love our characters and want them to live forever, even though we know it can't happen.
But they have to die sometime. If I ever figure out how that's done properly, I'll let you know.
* * *
- When has a character death - fiction or roleplaying - left a particularly good taste in your mouth?
- When has a character death gone poorly?
- When have you killed off a character in a game you were running, playing in, or in a story you were writing? How did it go, and what might you do differently if you had it to do again?