To kill or not to kill?
Okay, that sounds super creepy, I know. But I’m talking about writing stories, so *whew*, no worries about that.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for happy endings. There are many books, movies and shows I’ve refused to watch, because people told me that some major character would die, and that they would have sad endings. And here comes the dilemma. How do I balance my taste as a reader with the need that, as an author, I also want to write something meaningful and effective?
Okay, I want to unpack that a little bit, because it’s clear that I’m making some assumptions. I do believe that a story can still be powerful even though nobody dies. At least, nobody I like dies. I know that. I’ve read and seen many books or shows where that was true. For example, Spirited Away. (The MC does lose her memories though, and that’s another can of worms.)
However, at the same time, as a writer one of the most common advice I’ve seen is that you have to deal with the topic of death. So in a way, death still has to be present in your story. Death increases the stakes at risk in the conflict. Death, ironically, gets people thinking about life. I think one show/manga that handled this so effectively is Fullmetal Alchemist. There, people I cared about died. And it was to the beat of the most important lesson in the series: that you can’t gain anything without sacrificing something in return.
I’ve seen so many times from book or show reviews that people not dying cheapens the message of the story. On the other hand, I’ve also seen reviews were people were annoyed at certain character deaths, claiming they were for shock value.
In my story, I am hopping back and forth between killing a major character or not. The sap in me wants to keep her alive, but I’m afraid I would just be resorting to a cheap cop-out. On the other hand, if I kill her off, I get this bitter taste in my mouth, as if it doesn’t feel right. And I do get that whisper in my head, “Leng, maybe you’re just way too attached to this character! That’s why you don’t want to kill her when you really should!”
But should I, really? How do I know?
Personally, I would rather err on the side of the cheap, because I’m not a fan of just killing characters for the sake of the gasps. But I still want to know if in the process of sparing my character, am I actually undermining some of the messages in my story?
That brings me to the next point: resurrection. I could kill her, but in the spirit of my favourite childhood anime, Dragon Ball, I could bring her back to life. And no, I don’t mean I’m actually collecting all seven dragon balls. I could pull one of those twists where it seems like she died, but she didn’t. Or that she almost died but there’s a recourse that can save her.
I’ve been a member of multiple reading communities for many years, and apparently this twist is not a popular one. A lot of people hate it, and I’m going here, “Why?” Because I love it! (Come on, at least let’s admit that it’s a better trope than the love triangle, please?) To be clear, I love it in the context where one of my favourites die, of course. I couldn’t care less if someone I don’t like dies. However, here are some of the reasons why some people are not fond of this trope: a) they already grieved the character, and they feel cheated for having been forced to grieve when there was no point; and b) it’s usually pulled in a way when only one character gets a second chance, and thus elevates said character above any other who sacrificed their lives in the story.
I find a) surprising, because personally I don’t grieve a character until I’m absolutely sure there’s no chance of them coming back, and that usually means finishing the book or the series. (I was still half-convinced that Finnick would turn out to have lived at the end of Mockingjay, for example. And even then, I’ve constructed an AU of their world where Finnick actually lived, so there.) So I was actually surprised to find that readers begin grieving and burying their faves without reaching the end. But I guess we all handle death scenes differently.
And for b), I do actually agree with this. If I do end up bringing my character back to life (if I do end up deciding to kill her), it will be in such a way that she’s no more special than the others who got killed in the same way she did.
I haven’t formed any concrete opinions about this yet. I’m mostly leaning towards bringing her close to death then pulling her back, but we’ll see.
What do you guys think? Are these twists something you particularly like or hate? Or it depends on the story and how the twist is pulled off?