Writing Woes: Killing Characters and Resurrection


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?



5 thoughts on “Writing Woes: Killing Characters and Resurrection

  1. I think FMA handled death in one of the best ways with Hughes – you meet him just enough to like him, but not quite enough to be completely devestated when he died. (I was convinced another one from Team Mustang was going to be killed off – and that would be for shock value….) You then also get to see more of Hughes from Roy’s thoughts and memories and it keeps his death relevant.

    I think it’s all about balance – in HG, you knew there would be death because of the games. Rue’s death was handled well- it had a place to show the ruthlessness and pointlessness of the games. Even Mags sacrificing herself to the mist in Catching Fire. However, I felt that Finnick *and* Prim in Mockingjay were both excessive. I finally sort of understood the Prim bit – but I still think it was excessive- and would have been an unnecessary eye opener if Katniss hadn’t been so drugged – but I digress…..

    I actually sort of like the mistaken death bit – as long as it’s not dragged out. FMA handled this well again – Lan Fan, Maria Ross.

    I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself about not wanting to kill her – and if you’re getting such a bad taste when you think of it, then maybe it’s not exactly what needs to happen – maybe it’s someone else? That way you still handle death but aren’t killing this particular character.

    I agree about the resurrection issue – it could cause its own problems- but you’d really deal with some issues that way! And done well, You do get to have your cake and eat it too.

    I feel like at this point you should go where it feels right. In my (one chapter so far) story, I went to write and this character that wasn’t even on the horizon wrote himself in – completely unexpected- though he now has his own preliminary arc. Let the story write itself for now. Worry about your message and stuff after it’s kinda together.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Bookworm!!

      I finally sort of understood the Prim bit

      Oh you have? What did you think about it? I still don’t understand why she had to die.

      I have also thought about your suggestion of killing someone else. I found I have a tendency to create new characters when I’m trying to avoid making some of the ones I currently have suffer. XD But yes, I think that’s a valid option. I really have to see if the message I want to convey would work if someone else dies in place of my main character.

      and this character that wasn’t even on the horizon wrote himself in – completely unexpected- though he now has his own preliminary arc

      Wow! That’s amazing. It’s been a while since any of my characters wrote themselves into the story. Tell me how that happened! I love it when things like that occur, because it just flows out of you and feels so right, you know?

      • Ok, so first off – I apologize for how long this took – I actually had it 3/4 written the other day, then it got accidentally deleted *cue glaring at phone*.

        On the Prim bit, President Coin of District 13 was really no better than President Snow of the Capitol. She just wanted the power for herself. This scene is similar to the Farsala Trilogy when Jiaan reminds Fasal that they have to be *Better* then the Hrum for this to actually work. Except, in FT, Jiaan makes the realization *before* Fasal can do anything too terrible. Katniss only realizes after President Coin plays on the a) innocence and gullibility of the children by making them believe the parachutes held something good and b) uses this technique after they are basically winning anyway, so it’s merely a display of power and brutality (any cost to win) and c) is affected by that loss herself. In the HG, Katniss is mostly too drugged up to realize what is going on around her, and so it is Prim’s death that wakes her out of her stupor. (There are other similarities between how President Coin treated her as an icon and how President Snow used the hunger games to make his point – both manipulated people into having no choices. President Coin only gave the illusion there was an option.) One of the issues I *do* have with it though, is that it was a too convenient way to remove Gale from the equation. I will admit I was a Katniss/Gale shipper in the first book, but by the end of Mockingjay, I realized they would never survive as a couple – they are too much alike. However, I didn’t appreciate Gale being made out to be the bad guy because President Coin used underhanded tactics.

        On the killing/resurrection, write what feels natural to the story – don’t fret over your message – it will come through no matter how you get to it. Take the pressure off yourself for a bit, and see where the story takes you. It might also help to figure out if you “see” Anina in your final scene. Maybe taking a quick peek at how you will end (i.e. your epilogue, after you have wrapped everything up) will help to straighten out who makes it to that point.

        Writing himself in is probably an exaggeration. I had tried and tried to do an outline, and even to draw a map of my town (which is still either going to be your classic fantasy psueo-Europe or more American Midwest or Depression era). I also created a character list – of a whopping 5 people (7 if you included the hazy fact that my main character has parents). When that wasn’t getting me where I wanted, I tried to write a “normal day” scene, to at least figure out how my main character would handle minor, everyday irritations. I ran into trouble because I still can’t “see” my time frame, so didn’t know what activities would be included in a “normal day”. Then I set out to write some climatic scene, again to figure out and flesh out my characters, and wound up writing what is going to be my first chapter. I’m actually pleased with the concept of it – but its definitely got problems. Anyway, I was about to write that my main character was about to address this guy who would wind up being the love interest, when I decided I didn’t want to be one of *those* books where you know the first male character is going to be the love interest. So I was just going to write some nice dude who was passing through. Then nice dude started talking, and sort of shooting his mouth off and just hanging out. (Then I wrote a whole 2 pages that have to be deleted because I went on this terrible irrelevant side trip ). I showed this part to Books, and we started talking about “Johnny” (his placeholder name – again, no setting, so no real names) and I realized that Johnny is actually going to be the catalyst for the whole story. Originally it was going to be the bad king/overlord but now somehow Johnny is really going to be to blame for why the king/overlord is (over)reacting. So the king is going to be a more relatable figure who was manipulated into some stupid actions because of Johnny. I kinda know the “how”, but I do have to figure out what Johnny’s motive is – hopefully he’ll reveal it ….

        But I really admire that you set goals for yourself – I really haven’t worked on this since I had Good Friday off, and was able to work on it for a little while. How do you set goals? Is it words per day/amount of time working on it per week?

        Thanks for sharing – and reading this far! That was long!!

      • Oh, you were a Katniss/Gale shipper at first? Interesting! I think I sort of gravitated towards Peeta from the outset because I knew he’d be endgame. I think I liked the idea of him more than the actual execution of his character though. Oh yes, you’re right about the comparison between President Coin and Jiaan. I think that scene where Jiaan stops Fasal from torturing the Hrum is still one of the best scenes I’ve ever read, and has stuck with me.

        Thanks for bringing up the epilogue! I do in fact see Anina at the very end. I can clearly see what the last scene would be. I just don’t know how to bridge the ending with the part where she “dies,” since I also see that scene happening quite vividly. But this got me thinking that maybe I’m attached to these different scenes I’ve come up with, and I’m trying to force the story to capture both, instead of letting the story play out organically.

        I completely agree that getting started is SO difficult! I went through a similar “process” as you. The first things I wrote weren’t even connected to the story. Basically, because I’m so used to fanfiction, I ended up first writing a fanfiction of Anina in a coffee shop AU. XD Aww, I love how Johnny just sort of took over a lot of your ideas for the story! It’s always fascinating to see that happening. I think that happened to me a few times with lots of the side-characters, which is why they all now have their own arcs, haha. Okay, now I’m interested in this Johnny fellow. He seems like one of those characters you would enjoy fleshing out.

        My goals are really quite hazy. At the start of this year, I aimed to have 2 drafts completed of my story. So that would roughly translate to one draft in six months (actually five months since I wanted to take a 2-month break between each draft). And from there, I aimed to have a certain percentage of the story done each month. As you can see, it’s already month 5, and I haven’t moved past the 50% mark of my story. I’m really not good at staying focused otherwise. I tell myself, “I’ll just write more tomorrow” but of course, that happens the next day, and the next as well…

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