How To Kill A Character
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
OK. If you're still catching up on your favorite TV shows, let me say it now. You are being warned. There are major spoilers up ahead.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Oh, my God.
KEVIN SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) And the butchery begins.
MCEVERS: We've seen it on "Lost," "Downton Abbey," "Game of Thrones," "House of Cards," even "Family Guy." Major characters getting taken out of the game of life to the horror of viewers and reviewers. It happened again a couple of ago, this time, on "Scandal."
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MCEVERS: And "The Good Wife."
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JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia) I just saw him a few hours ago. He was...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) He was happy.
MCEVERS: Author K.M. Weiland says she loves killing people. She runs the blog Helping Writers Become Authors. She recently put together a checklist with dos and don'ts for killing off characters. I asked her about some good reasons to kill off a character.
K.M. WEILAND: Definitely, that it advances the plot. If the story cannot take place without the death, we know it has to be in there. If it enables the rest of the story, then it's worth whatever heartache you're going to put your readers or your viewers or your other characters through.
MCEVERS: What are some of the lame reasons to kill off a character that writers should stay away from?
WEILAND: Basically, the worst reason is shocking readers just for the sake of shocking them. They may be shocked, but they are probably also going to be really mad at you. They need to feel like even if this death is tragic, that there's a reason behind it. And that's something as a writer drives me nuts about television, because a lot of times, character deaths, they're motivated by these extraneous real-life reasons like actors get fired, actors move on.
But at the same time, these kind of arbitrary deaths, they have this various similitude, this realism that mimics real life, which obviously, you know, people die all the time when it's not...
MCEVERS: Right. Death isn't thematic.
WEILAND: Yeah. Exactly.
MCEVERS: Can you give us an example of a character who needed to go
WEILAND: Characters such as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man."
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TOBEY MAGUIRE: (As Peter) What happened?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Carjacker. He's been shot.
WEILAND: Spider-Man would not have gone in the direction he had were it not for that motivating death of his uncle. And we've got characters at the end of stories, like Melanie in "Gone With the Wind" or Obi-Wan in "Star Wars." These characters, they're kind of a capping of the plot and the theme.
MCEVERS: Where goodness dies or all hope in humanity is lost or something like that. Right.
WEILAND: Yeah. Exactly, yes. And, you know, there are final thrusts for whatever the main character is experiencing.
MCEVERS: Mm-hmm. You've killed off characters in your books, right?
WEILAND: Yes. It's kind of a running joke among my readership that no character is safe. But yes, I often - a lot of times, if there's going to be an important character death in a story, it's a scene that I've known about probably from almost the beginning of my conception of the story. Because these moments, you know, as we can see just from people reacting, you know, to the character deaths in these television shows, we want to explore that. We want to find out why is this person dying, why does he have to die, and where do the surviving characters go on from here?
MCEVERS: Yeah, but here's the problem. The viewers and readers do get really attached to these characters, and having them die can be really painful. I mean, the blogosphere goes insane when one of these characters gets killed off on a TV show.
WEILAND: But the very fact that they're reacting so passionately about this means that the story's doing its job. It sucked people in. It involved them with these characters. And as long as the story continues in a way that makes these deaths matter, then most readers and viewers will reconcile through the deaths, even as much as they would have liked the characters to survive.
MCEVERS: K.M. Weiland is the author of "Outlining Your Novel" and the novel "Dreamlander." She joined us from her home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Thanks for your time.
WEILAND: Thank you.