Killing Your Darlings: The Death of a Central Character

Author Mark HamnerGuest post
by Mark Hamner

William Faulkner famously said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  He was, of course, talking about having the guts to eliminate superfluous prose, chapters, etc. from your work.  However, as I was completing my third book, Cinder’s Reach, I had the task of killing one of my darlings in a very different way.  As a caution, I should note that everything from this point on should be considered a spoiler for those who are considering reading The Echo Chronicles.

My Echo Chronicles series revolves around four central characters: Trin, the protagonist, Cipher, his best friend, Creed, the hothead, and Dalton, the nice guy.  As I progressed through the books in the series, it became clear, both in my own mind and from my conversations with others, that one of my characters had become the clear favorite.  To my surprise, that character wasn’t Trin; it was Cipher.  Something about the fact that she never stopped trying to help others despite the fact that she was, herself, fairly messed up, really drew people to her. Trin was leaning on her more and more, and she was constantly putting her own life on the line for him and the rest of her friends.  The world inhabited by my characters is extremely volatile and dangerous.  Early on the thought struck me that it wouldn’t be entirely realistic for my characters to continue getting into dire situation after dire situation only to come out relatively unscathed.

I had considered killing Cipher early on, but it was always an internal debate.  Part of me wanted to let her death show the gritty realism of their world, but part of me just really, really liked her character.  I found myself thinking, “How would Trin survive without her?”  Then something happened that ended my debate.  Just before I began writing my third book, the real world intruded; I lost my mother.  It was unexpected; it was unfair.  And, once I finally got back to writing, it solved my dilemma: Yes, losing Cipher would destroy Trin.  Yes, it would be hard for him to go on.  But I knew I could no longer keep her alive just because I liked her.  In the real world, people die no matter how painful or inconvenient it may be for those left behind.   So, at the end of my third book, Cipher saves Trin yet again…and dies for it.

Of all the events that happened in my series, none has been more controversial than Cipher’s death.  One reviewer said simply, “I want to punch you in the face – hard.”  I’ve been asked to explain myself, to go over what I was thinking, why I would do such a thing.  I stand by my decision; it was ultimately the right thing for the series for a number of reasons.

I think that killing a central character has become almost commonplace today, especially on T.V. (“tune in, we’re killing someone off!”)  I in no way advocate killing one of your mains for shock value or to one-up the last death.  Deaths in writing can happen arbitrarily, just as they can in real life, but in writing I believe it’s important that they still serve the larger story in some way.  Cipher’s death spawned a rebellion and her bravery to the very end gave people hope, showed them that they could fight back.  It also forced Trin to face the final conflict on his own two feet, without any crutch.  It allowed my protagonist to grow up and gain the courage he needed to move forward to the end.

Killing one of your characters can be hard, especially if that character also happens to be your favorite.  It should never be done for shock, nor should it become a frequent occurrence, but if done right, and for the right reasons, it can move the story forward while providing growth for the characters that remain.  That’s my take; I’d love to know what you think!

Mark Hamner is the author of The Echo Chronicles series, an independently published young-adult post-apocalyptic series. All four books in the series, Echo’s Remnant, Empire’s Rise, Cinder’s Reach, and Hope’s Defiance are available now. Mark lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, his daughter, and his twin sons. In addition to writing, Mark enjoys hanging out with his wife, playing with his kids, and blogging about his writing experience. Learn more about Mark and his writing from his blog and his Amazon author page.

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29 thoughts on “Killing Your Darlings: The Death of a Central Character”

  1. I agree with you Mark, and I like the way you synthesized life and fiction. I think fictional death should serve a purpose and be organic to the story. Great post!

  2. Mark, excellent post, and an important, if painful, truth. I had a similar experience when I killed off a horse in one book–got many complaints about that! But as you say, it wasn’t a casual decision, and it served the forward progression of the story. And look at it this way–you’ve opened up the door to people who want to write fan fiction about how your character was brought back to life. There’s a whole cottage industry there.
    And my sympathies to you for the loss of your mother.I would think/hope that your writing after that helped you through the grief.

    1. Thanks Melissa, I appreciate your feedback. One thing I’ve learned during all of this is that, especially for books grounded in the real world, characters shouldn’t get a pass to stick around just because they’re important to the other characters. There was almost a feeling of “let’s pull the rug out and see how the other characters react.”

  3. Wow, what a lot to think about. You’re right, death is arbitrary and unfair, and we all get frustrated with the TV shows where people court danger and miraculously survive, but I’d not thought about it in quite this way before, Thank you, terrific post.

    1. Thanks Carolyn. That was my struggle with the whole thing: Yes, in writing, death should serve a purpose, and I wanted to honor that, but in life, sometimes it just happens, and its not fair. So I hope I was able to accomplish both. Thanks again!

  4. I know what you mean. I found that I had a character I liked but the only way to go on with the story required his death. This surprised me a lot. After a few weeks of thought I realized that if this surprised me, my readers would also be surprised.

  5. “…if done right, and for the right reasons, it can move the story forward while providing growth for the characters that remain.” That’s a really great point, one that can open up all sorts of possibilities for sequels, new characters, new story lines, etc.

    1. Thanks! I like to think that all things lead to growth, and the death of one of my favorite characters, while I myself didn’t even like it, really allowed my protag to grow….thanks again!

  6. I’ve come to realize if you’re writing life, it has to flow naturally. Good people die and sometimes it’s unexpected and extremely shocking. The main thing is to keep the remainder of the story on the same natural path after the death. You never know how it will help someone else.

  7. I have come to expect, in longer-running series, that sooner or later somebody might get killed. That’s how life is, even if you’re writing fantasy. My only requirement is that it better be for a darn good reason. Readers hate to have their emotions manipulated in obvious ways, and killing off a popular character is a real sledge-hammer.
    I have a main character in a yet-unpublished story that I was certain from the first was going to commit suicide. However, I couldn’t kill her in the first book, because it would be too much of a downer. So I ducked. I killed her in a third-person prologue to the second book, where someone else is the main character.
    My characters have great strength, but I don’t 🙂

    1. Thanks Gordon. Another “benefit” of having your character’s death happen in your third book, I think, is that it allows your readers to get more invested and makes the death have a real impact. I say that because I had a secondary character die very early on in my first book, intending it to give the protag a reason to fight. Unfortunately, what I heard from several readers was, “Well, we didn’t really know him that well, so….”

  8. We never know which character will grab the attention of our readers.
    I read that at a book signing a fan begged J.K. Rowling not to kill Hagrid. She admits she was thinking about it, but realized she’d killed off every male who was close to Harry. She settled for the attack on Arthur Weasley to move the plot along.
    Good points.

    1. Thanks Lois. I totally agree. I had MY ideas of which characters readers would relate to, but those ideas weren’t always correct.

      For example, I had a character named Creed, who was, in my opinion, kind of a jerk. He was also going to, later on, go down a very dark path. But I couldn’t believe how many people, after reading my first book, said, “Man, I really love that Creed dude; he’s really interesting!” What?!?

      I learned that being the “good guy” does not necessarily mean you’re going to be the most interesting character or even the character the most people invest in.

  9. I know exactly the dilemma you faced as I’ve had to do that, too. I cried like a baby when I did it, and my readers and fans tell me they did, too. Even when i re-read it, it still made me cry. No matter that I knew it was coming or that I was the one who did the killing. But, as you say, we need to keep things real, and if the story needs a character to die, then that is what must happen.

    1. Yep, it’s never easy. And if it IS easy, it’s probably not going to have the impact we’re intending. Good points, thanks Yvonne!

  10. I read your books as they came out Mark. You know I was upset when you killed Cipher….But it does give reality to the story…Not like the old A-team…..Thousands of rounds of ammo and no one ever was hit …

    1. Thanks Brian. I hated that the crew ended up basically cut in half (as far as numbers go) by the end, but to “keep it real,” these were basically kids going into one heck of a dangerous world…

    1. Indeed! Nah, unfortunately she’s dead; she got pretty severely electrocuted and then her friends buried her. I’ve toyed with the idea of bringing characters back, and I think its a really interesting concept, but I think I nailed the coffin pretty well closed on this one, unfortunately. Thanks Dick, though – pretty cool idea!

  11. A lot of my important dolphin characters die. I have one murdered by an insane dolphin, two who sacrifice themselves to a huge shark to keep it from attacking their baby, one who feeds herself to an orca to escape a slow death from illness. The family pet octopus dies of course. Octopuses have very short lives. Minor characters also die during battles with predators.I forewarn readers in the early stages by pointing out that Azure (prehistoric Earth) is a “savage place.”
    The one who chooses death by orca, was the beloved mother of my main character. I could hardly believe it when I found she had to go. Like Yvonne, I cried.
    The two who sacrifice themselves to save their baby Cosmo, die very early in the story. That’s what gives Cosmo his anger and his fighting spirit and puts the torment into his soul. It provides his character the inner conflict it needs. My main character, Ripple came within a whisker of death herself, in fact she did die but was assisted to return, both by divine and earthly intervention working together to save her.
    And yet my book is still deemed suitable for teens by people in the teaching profession. One reviewer said the deaths just feel as though things are unfolding as they are meant to.
    My personal belief is that WHEN WE DIE is less important than HOW WE LIVE. I hope this comes through strongly in my work.We all must die and showing death in our stories puts a more realistic gritty texture into it. Deny it and we risk being syrupy.
    With dolphins it’s way too tempting to stick to sweetness and light and star-dancing but who’d want to read such a story?

    1. Very good points, Tui! I’ve heard the saying that it’s less important when we die than how we die, or some variation, and I think that rings true in writing.

      I remember watching a reality show about meerkats (of all things) where the mother saw a snake go into her babies’ den and went in after it. She killed the snake but got bitten so many times she died a few hours later. Brutal, but also very noble, which sounds like the two you mention who sacrifice themselves to save their baby.

      Thanks for your post!

  12. Apologies for my lateness to the party, Mark, for various reasons I’ve been a little busy, distracted and absent of late; I am trying to catch up. I like this post, I’ve killed off a major character or two in my time but only when the story absolutely calls for it. Personally, I think the more likable the character the more impact it makes. Not that that should be a guide for knocking off characters; I’m just saying.

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