Killing Off Characters
We were talking in the previous post about making the stakes of our real-life story life and death.
Sometimes that’s hard to do.
As writers working with our real lives as material, we can be naturally reluctant, say, to kill off a character we actually know.
I’m sure you’re ahead of me on this. I’m about to say, “Kill ’em dead.”
Knock ’em off.
Don’t hesitate for a second.
Death is always energizing for a story. If you don’t believe me, watch Game of Thrones.
But let me expand this axiom.
Don’t be afraid to put the quietus to elements other than human beings.
A marriage can die.
A dream can expire.
A way of life can end.
Death is drama, and drama is what you and I are paid for. (Okay, maybe we’re not being paid. But you know what I mean.)
We want drama. Drama keeps our readers emotionally involved. Drama pulls them through the story. Drama delivers the meat-and-potatoes ending they’re hoping for.
Drama is change.
And no change is greater than death.
“But Steve,” you’re saying, “isn’t death a bummer? Aren’t you being dark and morbid? I want my story to be uplifting! I want a happy ending!”
I agree, I agree.
But death (the demise of a character or a dramatic component) can be an upper. Why?
Because before our hero can be reborn, she has to die.
Before Luke can become a Jedi knight, the child-Luke must expire.
Before Harry and Sally can truly share a marriage, the single-Harry and the single-Sally must be left behind.
Before France can be saved, Joan must be consumed at the stake.
Here are the deaths that happen in final third of The Knowledge:
Stretch’s marriage dies
His wife takes up with his best friend
His agent Marty expires of a heart attack
His newest friend Marvin Bablik is murdered
His book crashes and burns
Yehuda Bablik kicks him out of New York
His dream of being a novelist bites the dust
In real-life only three of these demises occurred. The other four are invented.
Because these deaths either echo, parallel, or are components of the Big Death that happens to Stretch.
He dies as an amateur.
He dies as a wannabe.
He dies as an aspirant.
These deaths are good deaths.
They are doors that close so that a brighter, better door can open.
Reading the ending of The Knowledge, we don’t know for sure what will happen with Stretch. But all signs point to him getting his act together and becoming (or at least starting to become) the professional, realized writer he has always wanted to be.
At the risk of plagiarizing from Oliver Stone’s character of Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko from the movie Wall Street, let me suggest that, handled properly by the storyteller …
Death is good.
Don’t be afraid to use it.
The Warrior Archetype
A New Video Series from Steven Pressfield
Subscribe here for the full series.