She Has No Head! - Killing Characters

Since I’ve enjoyed some of these open discussion posts we’ve had of late, I thought today might be a good time to

open up a discussion about creators killing characters, and what makes or breaks a good story for you. I’m interested both as a fan and as a creator who has done my own share of killing characters and will do much much more of it before I’m done (though thank the universe for nice bright shiny happy Jem and The Holograms in which…spoiler alert…nobody dies!)

[No spoilers, except that Game of Thrones killed some characters in their finale last night, which shouldn’t really be a shock for anyone who lives on the planet Earth.]

So, anyone who watched Game of Thrones last night knows why this post is particularly relevant right now. I mean…OMG, you guys. But turn your attention to comics and you’ll find plenty of beautiful (and terrible) deaths over there too. As just one example, last week’s absolutely excellent Saga #29 ALMOST gave the finale of Game of Thrones a run for its money as it killed between two and four characters this past week (we’ll see, but it looks pretty grim for all involved to be honest) and three of the characters are significant players. The previous issue had another supporting character biting the dust too – in a quite literal blaze of glory.

A well-known bit of writing advice is to “kill your darlings” and though it’s meant as a reminder to eliminate precious and particularly self-indulgent writing, the way some creators approach their characters it almost seems like they got their signals crossed.

But for you as a reader and fan, where’s the line? Is there one?

The knowledge as a reader (or viewer) that nobody is ever truly safe, is a great and precious thing. It’s a thing that instantly gives your story very real stakes and that makes it palpably real. In life, people die, heroes and villains both, before their time and after their time. They even die when they have been presented absolutely as not only our POV hero character but one that we KNOW is fighting the good fight. When even the obvious and charismatic lead can die, all bets are off. That’s why when Game of Thrones delivers that first truly shocking death in Season One you know that nobody is safe. In any traditional fantasy story (and many other genres) we are trained to believe that even if people are going to die, that our hero, our POV character, is safe, because it’s like being safe ourselves. But not in Game of Thrones, not in Saga, and not in many other indie comics. Many indie comics seem to revel in the fact that they have the freedom that larger properties with legacy characters don’t.

But as a reader is there a point where it just becomes too much?

I’m in no way arguing that creators should pull back or censor themselves, or listen to fans, in fact, if pressed, as a creator myself, I take the opposite position. And as I said before, as a creator I have killed a lot of characters, including some “darlings” of my own, but I’m just asking you, as a reader, is there a point at which it gets to be too much for you? Where the loss is felt too deeply or too often to make the reality and stakes that come with them worth it?

Sure, it’s nice to know that the stories we’re investing our time, money, and emotions into really matter and are risky but is there a point when even well-earned permanent death begins to feel like shock value? A good comic book comparison to this issue might be the “grim and gritty” barrage in comics. I’ve talked a lot (as have others) about the idea that grim and gritty comics have a valuable and necessary place, but when they dominate the landscape (or an entire publishing line) it quickly becomes too much. By the same token is death after shocking death inuring us to it? Do even those stories begin to feel “seen it all” “done it all”?

Maybe if you know anyone can die at any moment you become unwilling to invest for fear of getting your heart broken (not just once but over and over again?)

What do you guys think? Is there a story (let’s try to focus on comics) that has given you one too many deaths, good or otherwise, that you’ve left, burned out and ready for something else? What does it take for a creator to lose you? Or conversely, are stories that are willing to kill anyone and everyone the only stories you’re willing to invest in? If so, why?

Sound off in the comments!

Kelly Thompson is the author of the novels THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING and STORYKILLER. She's also the writer of IDW's JEM & THE HOLOGRAMS the Dark Horse Graphic Novel HEART IN A BOX and co-writer of Marvel's CAPTAIN MARVEL & THE CAROL CORPS. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter is easiest: @79semifinalist

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