C is for (the secret of killing) Characters

Zombie-Sophia-the-walking-dead-sophia-30391439-480-480The issue of the killing of fictional characters has been on  my mind lately. Perhaps it was in anticipation of last night’s Walking Dead episode, which was…. unsettling.

Fiction with a high character body count is a thing right now, in books, television and movies. But there is a trick to it. And I will reveal it to you.

Think of The Walking Dead. Any TWD fan can tell you of all the tragic character deaths they have endured. Laurie. Tyreese. Lizzie. Mika. You might guess that the first episode of TWD was just LOADED with important characters that were there so they could be killed off later. But the first part of that episode was just Rick, waking up in a hospital full of zombies.

You see, many of the major characters who suffer tragic deaths in today’s fiction didn’t start out as major characters. Or even as minor ones. Most of them began as peripheral characters— more part of the scenery than people. Kind of like those redshirt security men that kept getting killed on the original Star Trek.

When you kill off a peripheral character, it’s not a big deal. It’s almost like punctuation. Big-Bad just killed a redshirt, I guess that means he’s serious. Even children can handle a peripheral character death. Those characters haven’t had time to become PEOPLE to us.

But the trick of high-body-count fiction is that before a character dies, his status is increased. He gets more screen time, he interacts with major and important minor characters, we learn a bit of his story. If he dies then, it’s not a minor death. It feels like a major beloved character has been wantonly killed. Even though a few short chapters/episodes ago that character was anything but major or beloved.

But doesn’t it give away the author’s intent when a peripheral character is built up like that? No. Peripheral characters are built up like that all the time, with no intent of then gruesomely killing the character to torture the reader. The characters may be built up because they have an important role to fill down the road, or to be a replacement for another character who is going to die or move out of the story.

In a television or novel series of the high-body-count type, new peripheral characters must constantly be introduced. The characters must go on being killed, but the character group can’t be seen to be shrinking down to nothing. The series must continue to have a base of characters to root for, love, and, possibly, mourn.

But I have one concern about high-body-count fiction. What is the author really trying to say with all the deaths. For some, it could mean that every life is precious and every person deserves mourning when the go. For others, it could mean that they believe life is meaningless, we all die anyway, so who cares if someone dies, gruesomely, right now. For some unskilled writers, random character butchery is just a way for the writer to get some attention. But writers should be concerned about what message their work is leaving in this essential area of respect for life, lest they find their ‘Number One Fan’ perpetrating a real-life massacre in their honor.


This is a post in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

2 thoughts on “C is for (the secret of killing) Characters

  1. Eep! Sorry. Had to stop reading after the first sentence. I only have Netflix, so I’m a season behind on TWD at any given time. (We’re broke as heck after my husband’s Year of Cancer.) So I’m guessing there are spoilers, at least for me. 🙂

  2. To be honest with you, I have never seen the Walking Dead and probably won’t, but I think the death of character should point at something that happens in real life and that something is that no one lives forever here.
    Patricia @ EverythingMustChange

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