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Taking a swim with the fishes - Offing your characters

Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, Aug. 17, 2018
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There comes a time in any webcomic creator’s career where they have to be mean to their characters. And there is nothing meaner than letting the proverbial Sword of Damocles fall on a beloved (or equally unloved) character and watching their head roll to the chorus a shrill cries of, with any luck, heartbreaking outrage.

But there is a time and a place to have your creations push up the daisies. It should always be done for the right reasons such as advancing the story, serving to further the overall theme, motivating other characters or serving as a recompense for previous and/or devious actions.

Do not be tempted to kill off a character for the sake of inciting an emotional reaction however, as once the shock value has died down and people begin to recognise what you did, then they may not be particularly happy with the trick you pulled on them.

Another rule to remember is, is that if you want the impact to really stick, LEAVE THEM IN THE GRAVE! The thing about death is, is that it is kinda permanent, and removing a character from the mortal coil should have real and lasting consequences for the other characters in the story which quickly gets undermined the moment they pop up, (even worse if they are a-okay). So if you want the loss to really sting and linger, then let them go.

When you begin writing your character and overall story, do you plan to have them die or keep them alive. Now we all know that the creative process is fluid and that plans and plots change ever so quickly, but keep it in mind why you are creating the characters you are. Try to avoid creating characters for the sole purpose of killing them off, and, in the event that is unavoidable, take the time to get to know them and let your audience know them too. It is the least you can do considering they may not make it to the end.

Have you ever had to kill off a character? Why did you do it? Was it planned from the beginning? Let us know in the comments below! And join us on Sunday evening for our Quackchat at 5:30PM(EST) where we’ll be talking about this topic!

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anonymous?

RobertRVeith at 2:59PM, Aug. 20, 2018

I'm killing characters all the time. Even this week (https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/Dragons_in_Civilized_Lands/5572546/). The Civilized Lands are (ironically) a violent, deadly place. That said, As a reader, I hate those books where you can't count on your favorite characters making it to the next chapter. On the other hand, I've read books where the hero is untouchable while everyone is dying around him all the time. Those stories lack a sense of grounding… which is especially important in fantasy. If I'm doing my job as a creator, I think I should never give the reader complete confidence that our hero is going to survive. Life should be believable. Death should be a real threat. When a character survives against dire odds, the reader should have the same sense of relief and triumph that the character does.

PaulEberhardt at 2:39AM, Aug. 18, 2018

The morals of this: treat killing off characters as a taboo and when you do it anyway go about it as thoroughly as if you were trying to commit the perfect murder. You'll get readers to find unknown depths in your plot you didn't half expect yourself. ;)

PaulEberhardt at 2:36AM, Aug. 18, 2018

Before I got that positive feedback I had a lot of uneasy thoughts about it, though, partly because of the makeup as a picture book. That's why I put a warning sign saying "not for small children" on the cover. This wasn't really necessary, as I know now from several reports by parents who read with their kids even so, but I stuck to a test reader's advice to leave it in because "it adds a certain quirkiness". Paradoxically, my little book seems to help calm a bit of the primordial fear of death (which does occupy children a lot more than they usually let on!) BECAUSE it gets you involved and BECAUSE the shock part works quite effectively. It's because death IS a horrible thing and unlike most books for children and young readers my story doesn't deny it, and that apparently lends it enough credibility to make the calming and uplifting parts effective as well.

PaulEberhardt at 2:03AM, Aug. 18, 2018

However, (Spoiler Alert!) my printed book is in many ways a story about death, respectively our relation to death, and offing a carefully built-up, relatable character is even central to the plot. Moreover, death comes very suddenly, cynically and - because it deliberately clashes with the otherwise lighthearted tone of the story - unexpectedly, so as to get as much shock-value as possible out of it without actually making it gory. This involved taking care of small details, like adjusting the number of panels so you can't really anticipate the shock moment until you turn the page. I consciously did this to incite an emotional response, and I actually took great care to let the shock die down almost as quickly as it came by immediately getting to what might be called the philosophical part that evolves into an ending on an uplifting note. It's a kind of "happy catharsis", and judging from all the reader responses I got so far it works very well indeed.

PaulEberhardt at 1:23AM, Aug. 18, 2018

I totally agree that killing off a character should not be done lightly, especially because it crucially affects the tone of your story. For instance it quite certainly won't happen in my comic here on the Duck, as that would utterly ruin the playful tone that kind of defines it. Tiger dragging in dead smelly things doesn't count, because that's just what cats do, and the way he's fluttering the dovecotes by doing so just adds to the hilarity if anything.

mks_monsters at 4:44PM, Aug. 17, 2018

It is an extremely hard decision, but sometimes, necessary especially when you're trying to make a point in your story. If there's crime involved, you have to show that there are going to be casualties and nobody is spared. Everyone has a chance at being next. You're also teaching the audience the naivety of "it only happens to other people".

Avart at 9:13AM, Aug. 17, 2018

I agree, once a character dies, he/she must be buried 6 feet underground. As a creator, is hard to take that decision (and even harder to keep it). I like to make my characters suffer, even if is an overpowered one, I feel that it gives them a more realistic touch.

bravo1102 at 8:07AM, Aug. 17, 2018

And then there are character deaths just for the splatter factor. The point is not the death but how gory and different it is.

usedbooks at 6:52AM, Aug. 17, 2018

The purpose of a death usually is for the survivors' reactions. Grief, victory, changed power structure, call to action... "Senseless deaths" are senseless to the victim but purpose for a story. And if there is no reaction at all, the person dies and no one reacts, life goes on, that says volumes about the characters too.

bravo1102 at 6:49AM, Aug. 17, 2018

@used books: I am coming around to letting villains get live because as Iago the parrot said in Return of Jafar, "you'd be surprised what you can live through. " And then there are fates worse than death where you have to live with your deeds and their consequences.

bravo1102 at 6:45AM, Aug. 17, 2018

Mask of the Aryans was one comic to have lots of character death in it. Some was senseless and others tried to make their sacrifice mean something. Then there were the survivors struggling to make sense of it. And in the end it didn't. It could be seen as A failure on my part because I couldn't make sense of it. But then it was about war and prejudice and hatred and none of that makes sense either so it may have had a point after all.

bravo1102 at 6:32AM, Aug. 17, 2018

@Corruption: At least one noir film and a few stories used it back in the day.

KimLuster at 6:24AM, Aug. 17, 2018

I wrote a story once where a very strong and sympathetic character was killed, but prior to that, she'd starting having visions of her coming doom, but it turned out to be a moment of sacrifice that enabled everything else to be saved (very Jesus-like, there, huh...?). It was quite the challenge. For one, I typically hate prophetic and future visionary plots (Oedipus, anyone...? Freewill and future foreknowledge do not mesh well in my worldview), but I was largely happy with how I pulled it off. With my current story, the Godstrain, death is kinda problematic, in that Kimber Lee and a few others have come back from death already (a fact I've presented in an almost dismissal way), but... in Godstrands, some permanent death will come - I'm curious to see how I deal with it!!

usedbooks at 6:19AM, Aug. 17, 2018

@Corruption: I like it. Neat idea for a mystery story. Save the "dead all along" twist for the end or reveal it at the start for some weird ironic tale about the main character being driven insane (or sacrificing his time, social life, etc.) for the search.

Corruption at 6:08AM, Aug. 17, 2018

One idea I like, but have not seen properly done is that a character plans to fake their own death to avoid being tracked by those after them, and actually dying by accident. The person hunting them knows they planned to fake their death, and keeps looking. This can even be done before the story starts, and helps drive the story forwards.

usedbooks at 5:04AM, Aug. 17, 2018

And there have been a handful of "faked deaths" which were planned (by me and also usually the characters). The difficulty in that is that webcomic writing is such a drawn out process. The proper time to bring back the almost-died is fairly early after laying the groundwork of not-dead clues. It's waiting too long that makes it cheap and retconny. (That or not placing the clues.) Those have a purpose in the story too. So far, my nearly dead characters have all been "good guys." I haven't fake-killed a villain yet.

usedbooks at 4:55AM, Aug. 17, 2018

For your questions about writing (I always answer as a reader/viewer first), death visits Used Books infrequently. I'm surprised that readers see it as something hanging around the story all the time. I suppose I have succeeded in presenting it as a real possibility. Tbh, I had wanted to write murder mysteries but characters are too real to me. I couldn't do the "create a character just to kill off" thing or create a cast of suspects. Characters have died in my story to serve a purpose, usually involving stake-setting or showing the nature of those around them. It's usually a secondary character, fairly well developed and part of the world. I have not used death as a shortcut and won't. That silly trope where someone discovered the bad guy's identity and is immediately and conveniently offed is just too eye-rolling. I have had characters die for learning things, but the death has other purposes in the story. It's fiction, so death doesn't get to be senseless. Not when I control it.

usedbooks at 4:44AM, Aug. 17, 2018

How often and intensely death visits a story depends on the story and the characters. Some worlds have death all around, a dozen main characters with all but one (or all of them) dead by the end but all have impact to the reader. Or a world full of extras where they are dying left and right without much reader impact. Not all stories contain death at all. It is certainly the highest stakes. And stories without death can have the threat of death. If the audience lives in the moment, they can feel the tension even if sure the heroes will survive. In that case, it's important to also include other, more uncertain and real stakes (usually social stakes).

usedbooks at 4:36AM, Aug. 17, 2018

I have seen creators leave a seed of doubt, and surviving protagonists find a body later. It breaks a trope, surprises the audience, and somehow causes the even greater sting to the survivors (but also closure).

usedbooks at 4:34AM, Aug. 17, 2018

Unlike bravo (although we are often similar-minded), when I'm on the audience end, I don't find the death of a villain particularly satisfying. I like to see them in utter defeat and having to live with those consequences. In a great many cases, when any character dies, it strikes me as lazy writing. They could come up with no other resolution and death is easy. Humans are fragile and death takes us all one way or another. A villain might as well just drop from a heart attack during the climax. I'm also okay with characters brushing with death but "coming back" only in cases when it was planned and the author laid groundwork from the start. No bringing people back on a whim. Seeds of doubt must be sewn. Or you could see the doubt and leave a character dead. It can cause turmoil among survivors. (Is bad guy X really gone? Fear lingers. Or I can't believe my best friend is dead. He must have survived. I won't rest until I find him.)

bravo1102 at 4:22AM, Aug. 17, 2018

And there are genres where a pointless and random death is almost expected. The audience may hate it, but it's real and happens all the time.

bravo1102 at 4:19AM, Aug. 17, 2018

Well, some genres (like a sci-fi horror story like Interstellar Blood beasts) demand body counts and so some characters are created to be killed off. Other genres let you bring back a character to really tug the hearts of your audience (zombies and other UK ndead?) And villains just have to die. I hate antagonists who always barely manage to escape. Nope. I kill them. Always plenty more eeveel where they came from.

jerrie at 1:20AM, Aug. 17, 2018

most of the characters I killed off, were planned that way from the very beginning.


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