Writing Excuses 13.48: Character Death and Plot Armor
Key points: When and why do you kill off characters? First, ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen to your character. It may not be death. Character death should be the best move for the story, not just an easy way to make the reader feel loss. What are the consequences of the death? Do writers look at character death differently than readers and fans? Everybody hates it when you can predict a character’s death. Make them care, but don’t telegraph a death. “Most people don’t die for real at a point where the story is geared for maximum impact.” A death, like any event in a story, should be surprising yet inevitable. Set up a longer arc for the character, follow through on consequences, and make it pay off. Beware of fridging! Killing a character as inciting incident, as backstory… Make sure the dead character has a purpose beyond simply acting as motivation for the protagonist. When do you decide to give a character plot armor, because they are too important to the story to die? Consider ablative plot armor!
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Plot Armor and Character Death.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m okay. Don’t worry.
[Brandon] Well. That line… I’m okay. To kill off this season of Writing Excuses, we’re going to be talking about character death. So. First question. When do you kill off characters and why?
[Mary] Chapter 6. No.
[Howard] I’ve come back to…
[Oh, he’s serious…]
[Howard] Any time I’m thinking about killing a character or threatening the reader with that as an option, I always come back to what I think Pat Rothfuss said on one of our casts years ago, which was there are so many things that are worse than death that can happen to your characters. I ask myself that question first, because I want to know that I am choosing character death because it is the best failure mode or the best success mode that this particular story can have. I can’t just default to it, because I think that’s the only way to move the story forward or to make the reader feel loss.
[Mary] I look at the consequences of the death, for exactly the same reason. Because the death itself, sad that that character’s dead and all, but people who survive, those are the ones that I’m going to be traveling with. The consequences of that death on the plot, that… If it’s just, “Oh, and then everybody’s going to be really sad…” That’s not a consequence. I mean, yes, that is a consequence, but that’s not a unique consequence that’s going to drive things, usually.
[Brandon] Let me ask you a follow-up on that, because it prompts something in my thoughts. Do you think we look at this differently because we’re writers than readers and fans do?
[Mary] I started doing this because deaths in books as a reader annoyed me so much. It wasn’t a structural thing. Because I didn’t know why they annoyed me. I just… I hate reading things where I’m like, “Oh, that character’s going to die.” Or where they die…
[Howard] I hate reading things right can do that…
[Howard] Where I can say, “Oh, they’re dead.”
[Dan] Where you can tell.
[Mary] I hated it when characters would die and I didn’t feel anything. Because I just didn’t care.
[Brandon] I would say that annoys me a lot in cinema. They do that sometimes.
[Dan] My brother and I came up with the phrase, “That character wants to live in Wyoming.” Which comes straight from Hunt for Red October, where there is the one Russian officer who’s like, “I would like to live in Wyoming.” He’s gone. You know he’s dead as soon as he says that.
[Howard] Was that Sam Neill? Was that Sam Neill’s character?
[Dan] Yeah. So as soon as somebody starts talking about how they’re going to retire soon or they’re going to go to this place, all their plans for the future… They want to live in Wyoming. It’s hard, because the space that you’re aiming for is in between those. You don’t want to telegraph it, but you also want to make them care. Those were the two problems that you had. Finding that middle ground… This is a character I love and don’t see their death coming. That’s what I shoot for, basically, with most of my characters.
[Howard] But I don’t want that death to feel like a cheap shot. This is one of the places where the argument for narrative-driven fiction versus fiction that feels real is often centered around that. Most people don’t die for real at a point where the story is geared for maximum impact. That’s probably not how I’m going to go. That’s probably not how any of us are going to go. But when you look at deaths in stories, we always have… Always is the wrong word. But we very often have the narrative is shaped around that death. When it isn’t, often I’m annoyed. When it is, sometimes I feel like it was too convenient. There’s no pleasing me. Just stop killing your characters.
[Brandon] See, I asked this question as a writer just because the thing that it prompted in my mind is how I will have people come through my line, and just really be torn up by a character death. Which, for me, this is kind of maybe seeing in my brain, I’m like, “But that was a really good death.” Right? I’m like, “Why are you torn up about that?” It was… They fulfill their character arc, it came to a good conclusion, it… They sacrificed for something they believed in. This was a really good death.”
[Howard] I respond… in that exact situation, my response has nothing to do with my work and everything to do with the person at the table in front of me. The person at the table in front of me is grieving, and what they need me to do is grieve with them. My response is, “I loved that character too. In fact, I may even have loved them more than you did.”
[Mary] Now, see, I’m evil because my response to that is, “I am so delighted I made you cry. Thank you for telling me. I worked really hard on that.”
[Dan] My usual response is, “That’s why I killed the character, is because I knew you would react that way. If you wouldn’t react that strongly, what’s the point?”
[Brandon] Though, I will say… This is something that’s maybe just a little pet peeve of mine. I remember… This is going to date me, it’s a long time ago, but there was this TV show called 24. This had a really big cultural impact on myself and my friends when the first season came out. We watched it, riveted. In that scene… Spoilers for a 20-year-old show or whatever… The main character’s wife dies. The whole plot is set up for we need to save her. He’s going to save her. He’s the action star. He gets there a little too late, and she’s dead. I was… totally thought it was great, until I listened to the commentary, which was the wrong thing. Where they said, “Yeah, we weren’t sure if we were going to kill her or not. Then we decided, well, what would the reader… Or the viewer, not expect.” For me, hearing that, that is not what I wanted to hear. I did not want to hear you just said, “Well, what’s going to… What’s the most unexpected?” This may just be a thing for me, because that’s good storytelling in some ways. But I don’t want it to just be what’s unexpected. I wanted to be what the story’s pushing for.
[Howard] I don’t want it to be unexpected. I want it to be surprising, yet inevitable. It’s startling, but when you look at it in retrospect, you’re like, “Nope, that’s…”
[Mary] I’m really sympathetic to the, “Well, what would the readers not expect?” Especially when you are trying to decide in the moment. Because sometimes… Like, I mean, I have done things where I have plotted, planning for the character to live, and thought, “Well, maybe I will kill them. I’m not sure.” It’s not until I get there that I really… The story itself kind of… The shape of everything that’s come up to that point makes it clear to me which choice I’m going to need to make. I have a… This is going to involve spoilers.
[Brandon] Okay. For?
[Mary] For one of my own stories.
[Brandon] Which one?
[Mary] The Worshipful Society of Glove Makers. Which is on Uncanny. I kill a character in that. I can avoid… I’ll just tell you which one. I did not plan to kill that character. At all. I had planned for them to have the… We’re going to try to work this out. There’s… Trying to deal with the situation. The simplest solution for this problem character was to just… If they were just dead. So another character just kills them. I wrote it, and I was like [gasp]. Because sometimes you just… Sometimes you do just right things and discover it. I looked at it and I was like, “Oh. That… Huh.”
[Howard] Surprising, yet inevitable.
[Mary] Because it’s the simplest choice. But, because I had set up this longer arc for the character, people consistently tell me that they actually gasp out loud when they get to that death. So… That’s why I’m like… I’m a little sympathetic to that.
[Dan] Well, I think the way to make that work is to follow that up. You kill a character on a whim like that, which I’ve totally done. But then, like you were saying in the beginning, you need to follow…
[Dan] The people who survive, and follow through on the consequences, and you can totally make that pay off, even if it isn’t inevitable.
[Brandon] I think it is good storytelling. It just didn’t work for me, because I wanted to believe they were doing what was best for the story, not what would surprise me.
[Mary] But it worked for you until you knew their motivation.
[Brandon] It did. That’s what I’m saying.
[Mary] Never asked the author why they did something!
[Brandon] Let’s go to our book of the week.
[Howard] Ah, yes. Schlock Mercenary book 13, Random Access Memorabilia. I did two things in this book that I totally loved, and I’m totally going to spoil for you, because there’s so much more going on in the book that’s fun. One of them is that I killed Sgt. Schlock and brought him back from a completely… Like, from a backup. From a clone. He’d lost five days. At one point, he’s watching the video of his death, and somebody says, “Are you… How do you feel about this?” He looks at her and says, “It’s kind of cool.” It was significant to me because one, it pulled plot armor off of everybody. I demonstrated that anybody can be killed, and can lose something. Yes, I may bring them back. Second was if this is the only consequence for death, if the reader doesn’t have to mourn, how can I possibly threaten characters with death in the future? The second thing that I did was part one, part two, and part three were called Read, Write, and Execute. When part three aired, all of the computer nerds in the audience were like [choke] surprising, yet inevitable. Just by the naming of the chapters.
[Brandon] All right. So. Question for you. Can you kill off a character, as… Like a side character and have it provide motivation for other characters, but not simply fridge the character? Do you know what I mean by fridging?
[Mary] But why don’t you define it? Or shall I define it?
[Brandon] I’ll define fridging. Fridging comes from an old Green Lantern comic book, where Green Lantern arrives home to his house and finds his girlfriend stuffed in a fridge. Famously, without any kind of warning that this would happen. Simply to add more character to Green Lantern himself, to give him something to mourn over, to provide motivation. It’s become a cliché of the comic book, and just at large, media industry, that if you want to provide motivation, for often a guy, you will then kill off a female love interest or friend, to give them something to mourn over. Yet, at the same time, we’ve just been talking about killing a character when it’s completely unexpected, and the effect it has on the people around them. What is the difference between these two things?
[Mary] So, for me, this was the thing that I had to reverse engineer, because I was planning to kill off a character. For me, it’s making sure that the character has a longer plot arc that is clear and obvious, and they’re going to be fulfilling this all the way through the story. It usually involves something with the main character. Like not, “Oh, we’re going to go be happy together,” but “I am disagreeing with you about this thing.” That there’s a conflict they have with the main character. So that when you kill them off, that is left unresolved. Which is the way things happen in real life. That there’s a lot of unfinished business that you have with the people who are gone. There’s a whole that they leave. I think that that’s one of the things that happens when a lot of these characters are fridged, is that they don’t leave a hole in the plot.
[Howard] It’s very, very difficult… Very difficult for… If you kill a character as your inciting incident, and that character has a close relationship with your protagonist, you’re going to have to have done some miraculous writing to not be accused of having fridged that character. Because that piece as a motivation to start the story is very, very hackneyed.
[Brandon] Well, let’s…
[Howard] It’s super hard to do right. I wouldn’t try it. That’s just the way I feel about it. At this point. And I work in comics. So.
[Brandon] You’re extra sensitive to it.
[Howard] I just gotta steer away from it.
[Brandon] I mean, I’m going to push us on this one, just because… I do think this is totally a thing. I’m not trying to discount fridging as a cultural thing we should avoid, but at the same time, some of the best stories are told about people who wear loss as a motivation. If we look at… Just even Batman. Batman is a guy who lost his parents, and it changed him into this thing. That’s like this archetypal story that has been retold and retold and we are fascinated by it. What’s the difference between that and fridging? Is there a difference?
[Mary] Well, Batman, it’s backstory. Which is, I think, a little different.
[Mary] The… I mean, honestly, you can fridge someone mid book. I think when… I mean… I keep feeling like I’m saying the same thing over and over again.
[Howard] That character needs to feel like they had a purpose beyond simply dying as a motivation point, as an arm bar for the protagonist, for the plot.
[Brandon] Okay. So, spoiler for the first Avengers film. When Agent Coulson dies and it brings the whole team together and that’s like the pivotal moment of the whole thing. Agent Coulson? Not a fridge? Because he had had all these interactions with them before, or is he a fridge because he…
[Dan] Well, Coulson specifically sacrifices himself. So it’s a very different situation. It’s not an inert character being acted upon. It is someone making a choice.
[Brandon] So you think… That one you would say… That was a [big point]
[Howard] Well, Nick Fury even… Nick Fury knows that he needed something to pull these characters together, and so… To pull the heroes together. So he dials up the emotional impact by throwing the bloody trading cards at Capt. America. Coulson never did get you to sign these, did he? He staged that. He went and got them out of Coulson’s locker, and made them bloody. So, yes, you can argue that this is fridging, but you could also argue that it wasn’t because Fury… Fury didn’t want this to happen. He used it. He used whatever he had to turn the team into a team.
[Mary] But Coulson is also an example of how you can give a character a sense of a life outside. I’ve pointed to this in previous podcasts. The scene when he’s getting off the elevator with Pepper and he’s… And she’s like, “Are you still dating that cellist?” That’s just… It’s like, “Oh. There is this whole other life to this character.” Whereas most of the time, you’re like, “What can I tell… What can you tell me about the character who’s been fridged? They really, really loved the main character so much. They just loved them.”
[Howard] One of the reasons that Coulson works so well is that Stark really just does see him as… “Why are you calling him Phil? His first name is Agent.” Then we come around to Ironman facing off against Loki and saying, “And there’s one more person you upset. His name was Phil.” We realize that yes, he liked… He had come to recognize that Agent Coulson, Phil Coulson, had a life that Tony Stark was now wishing had continued.
[Mary] This is an example… Thank you for bringing that up. This is an example of that thing I was talking about, about making sure that the… There is a conflict point that the dying character has with the main character. Because it looks like the arc that they’re setting up is Ironman learning to recognize the puny ordinary people. Which is actually an arc that Ironman goes on. It’s just Phil is not there at the end of it.
[Brandon] I appreciate you guys letting me push you on this one. It is something that I’m really interested in. So thanks for putting up with me on it. I do want to ask just a different question. We have very little time left. I want to ask when do you decide to do the opposite and give plot armor? This is the phrase where we say a character is too important to die in the story right now. They haven’t fulfilled their plot arc. I’m going to prevent them from dying. I’m going to rescue them in some narrative way from the consequences of their choices. When do you do this? Why do you do this? Mary’s wincing, so maybe she does…
[Mary] I haven’t done that. I haven’t done that yet.
[Howard] Well, I did that in book 15. Lieut. Sorlie, who I had kind of planned for her to sacrifice herself heroically. I got to the end of the story and realized nothing she can do at this point will seem more heroic than what she has already done. The death would be a downer, and it doesn’t need to be a downer. That’s… I don’t need that sacrifice in this story. So… She lived.
[Brandon] I’ve done it before. I have a character that their story isn’t done and I feel it will be less sat… More satisfying to rescue them and continue their story than it would be to let them die there with unresolved major plot things. But I don’t always make that choice. It’s always a really hard one.
[Dan] Well, Howard touched on this earlier, but there is so many things that are worse than death. So if I find myself in this situation, I’m not going to kill that character, but I’m going to hurt them. I’m going to make them live through something, or experience something, or maybe even they get off scot free and all their friends are dead because they are the only one that lived through whatever it was. So that there are still consequences for the scene. They don’t get off scot free.
[Howard] That’s ablative plot armor.
[Howard] Something hits them, it explodes outward…
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to give you a writing prompt instead of some homework this time. A good old classic Writing Excuses writing prompt. I’ve been thinking a lot about the story Mary talked about last month, where she had the people… The alien race where they went through a kind of butterfly-like transformation at the end of their lives and lost all of their memories and had to be reminded of them. I thought this is an interesting take on death. That a story where the characters die, but don’t die. So your writing prompt is that. Do something where, perhaps fantastical, perhaps not, one of your main characters is going to go through a major transformation that is going to feel like death to those around them, but they’re not actually dying. Write that story. See how it goes. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.