13.48: Character Death and Plot Armor

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

The characters we create are not all destined for long lives. Sure, some are, but a great many of them are on paths that will end in an abrupt fatality of one kind or another, and in this episode we’ll talk about how we choose which characters to put on those paths, and how those paths might be shaped.

We also talk about characters who walk perilous paths and emerge unscathed (sometimes thanks less to their pluck and wit, and more due to plot armor.)

Liner Notes:“The Worshipful Society of Glovers” can be found here at Uncanny Magazine .

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Play

An SF/F conceit in which death is looks exactly like death to the people to whom it’s not happening, but is actually a transformation for the person experiencing it.

Random Access Memorabilia, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, with colors by Travis Walton
(available to read free online beginning here)

8 thoughts on “13.48: Character Death and Plot Armor”

  1. Oddly, the first thing I thought of when this episode started was the way too much pop fiction telegraphs an impending character death.

    I think part of it is just that there’s so much formula writing.

  2. I hate it when recurring secondary characters in a book series are killed in a rather off-handed manner. There is a series of books I love where the author uses a real place but with fictional characters who are so real you feel if you drove to that place you’d actually meet them on the street.

    Late in the series, a pair of secondary characters were killed but their death was only dealt with in the ‘after they were already dead’ sense. I felt it cheapened their death.

    I know authors have to make hard decisions about their stories but this was a bummer and I think the way it was handled robbed the readers of a chance to grieve the moment of their loss. Still love the author’s books, but that was an oops moment.

  3. I think the mail problem with fridging is that it is *always* men avenging women, and no stories about women. That’s where the trope becomes problematic. When you never see female characters, and then they only show up to die so some guy can get development.

    It’s okay for a side character to exist to create motivation for the main character. But if the ONLY women in a genre are side characters who exist to add to the men’s stories (especially by meeting a violent end, or being threatened with it), that becomes a problem.

  4. Thank you for covering this subject. Because I started writing after I lost my brother (and as part of my grieving process), how an author handles killing a character determines whether I keep reading their book. If they don’t handle their power over life and death with great responsibility, the cynical part of me wonders if they’ve been devastated by loss before.

    For death to work for me personally, the character needs to be well-developed, their death change the plot, and the rest of the characters truly grieve. Side note: grieving is a messy journey not just being really sad. It was comforting and validating to hear you touch on each of those points in your own words.

  5. I think I agree with Mary 😛
    Honestly, I know that readers experience far more sadness at character deaths than the author. And I’ve never been the type to cry over a death. Most of the time when a character dies I don’t even feel shocked, I just keep on going. Then grieving happens, then I feel upset.
    A VERY big part of writing death in books is including the grieving. It’s not something I’m very good at, but I’m working on getting better. I never cry when reading deaths, it’s always the characters reactions that get me.
    And then I think it should be noted that sometimes, you’re writing the first draft, and then suddenly a character dies and you’re just very, very surprised. Honestly, It’s quite shocking, I agree.

  6. The Writing Excuses core four, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard talked about killing off characters. Not darlings, characters. When can an unexpected death help your story, when is it just fridging? And when does a character put on plot armor, so they can’t die? Lots of interesting points, that you can read about in the transcript available now in the archives and over here:

    https://wetranscripts.dreamwidth.org/151517.html

  7. I just read A Dirty Job where the main characters wife dies in the first chapter. I thought it was done very well and didn’t feel fridged.

  8. My favorite discussion of this subject comes from Scalzi’s Redshirts, specifically the first coda. Discussing it would involve major spoilers for the book so I won’t go into detail, but I still highly recommend that all writers who kill characters read it at some point.

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