The Good Kind of Beheading

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains a major spoiler for Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There is also a semi-spoiler regarding Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although nothing that should really ruin the story.

Most writers aren’t killers.

It doesn’t bring any sort of pleasure to create a character out of that magical mixture – two parts thin air, one splash of that girl we knew back in high school, a sprinkling of voice from the conversation next to us in the coffee shop, a liberal dollop of bullshit, boiled up with our own sublimated fears and desires – only to murder that character a few pages or chapters or books later. I often find myself reluctant to kill off even the characters I created for that very purpose. Even odious villains. Once I’ve spent all the time dreaming them up, I want to keep them around a little bit longer, to find out what awful shit they’ll get up to next.

And yet, the power of killing a major character, the necessity of it is undeniable. I still recall, as does just about everyone who has read Game of Thrones, the moment that Ned’s noble head is lopped from his equally noble shoulders. The whole world of the novel seemed to shift at that moment. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “It’s that kind of book.” And suddenly, all possible outcomes were in play. Anyone could die at any time and, of course, they do. The book was better for Ned’s beheading.

A lot of older fantasy wasn’t quite like that. All the main characters except Boromir survive in Lord of the Rings, and even Boromir’s death is a sort of liberation, a badly needed rehabilitation. I loved the Belgariad as a child, but I always got the feeling that nothing really bad could happen to any of the really key players. In the these “gentler” forms of fantasy when someone you like is going to die, the death is telegraphed pretty far out, so you have time to prepare; it is also generally ennobling. Death becomes a sacrifice necessary for the ultimate triumph, not a meaningless, avoidable slaughter that occurs just because a character you’ve come to like makes a stupid mistake.

And yet, as noted, this second kind of death – the senseless and unexpected – is what really puts a reader on edge, what makes her keep flipping the pages, wide-eyed, wondering if the good guys are actually going to pull off a victory. It seems like an ingredient every fantasy writer should employ, almost a necessary formula: “In Book I of your series, kill a major and likeable character.” Writers and hostage takers share a rulebook here: “Let the bastards know you mean business.”

As formulae go, I like this one, but I think it’s dangerous.

A story is a contract between writer and reader. When we open a book, we expect certain things: mysteries introduced in the opening chapters will be resolved by the close, obstacles faced will be overcome (even if only partially), and, perhaps most crucially, we will follow the characters we’ve come to know to their ends, happy or sad.

I’ve more or less arrived at the conclusions that a writer can get away with killing one major character, someone in whom both she and her reader have invested time and emotional energy, per book. Much more than that, however, and I start to feel as though I’ve been bamboozled. If these folks are going to die on page four hundred (out of a two thousand word series,) I start to wonder, “Why did we spend so much time with them in the first place?” After all, if they’re gone from the picture by a quarter of the way through the story, it can’t really be their story. The contract feels violated.

This problem is compounded when the writer introduces entirely new characters in books two, three, four, five, etc, to take the place of those who have fallen. “Ok,” I sometimes find myself saying, “if it was all going to depend on this other asshole in the end, why weren’t we paying attention to him in Book One?” I also have more trouble investing in characters introduced later in the game.

It all comes back to that unwritten contract, of course. Writers like Steven Erikson let you know pretty much up front that their stories are actually histories. We are following the grand sweep of events, not the fate of a particular hero or group of heroes. As such, we accept that plenty of people are going to die – that’s what happens in history. When he kills off crucial characters in book two, he hasn’t violated his contract.

George R.R. Martin also scrapes by because of the scope of his series. He can kill a handful of characters while retaining others that we still care about. Imagine, however, if all the Starks were dead by book six and we were expected to read about the Martells for the rest of the story…

So a writer walks a fine line. A reader expects the people to whom she’s introduced in the opening pages to be (mostly) around by the end – that’s why she bothers learning about them, caring for them. On the other hand, if the writer doesn’t stab a few in the back, that reader grows complacent; the character lives, but the story itself dies.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this question. How much killing is too much? Where have you seen it employed to good effect, and where does it undermine the story?

7 thoughts on “The Good Kind of Beheading

  1. Dragonlance Chronicles had a very weird range of party member deaths as I remember it. I hope my memory is accurate on this.

    Book 1: Riverwind gets burnt to a crisp by a dragon. We don’t really care and probably think it is kind of cool that someone is dying. Fizban dies while saving Tasslehoff but by that point we have been loudly warned that something is up with him. Then Riverwind is resurrected or healed. Don’t know what to make of the story at this point. Is it safe here or not?

    Book 2: Kitiara kills Sturm. No resurrection. It is a great heroic death and suddenly we know that Kitiara is not coming back over to the good side. Kind of shocking. A tone has clearly been set.

    Book 3: Flint dies of a heart attack. What the hell? Seriously? They mentioned the coughing over and over, but isn’t this one of the oddest deaths for any fantasy character? Totally unrelated – Tanis gets it on with Kitiara “to save his friends”.

  2. Sometimes character death is necessary. David Weber, over 13 plus books in the Honor Harrington series, kills off a number of my favorite characters. But there’s a war on, and in war, people die, good people, bad people, some poor slob who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    I guess it comes down to how realistic your fantasy is. “The Deed of Paksenarrion” by former Marine Elizabeth Moon is a good example.

    • I’ve had that Moon book recommended several times, and yours just put it over the top! I’m buying it tomorrow. Thanks for the suggestion, and for the comment. I’m also reminded, in this comment, of Abercrombie’s The Heroes, in which, as you say, “there’s a war on…”

  3. Glen Cook kills thousands of characters at a time, as does Erikson. Cook’s big thing is that he kills off almost all of the main characters after the first trilogy of the Black Company and it works so well. The constant loss of characters is great because you find yourself looking for little things to hold onto from each of them. Even the first person narrative of the series eventually changes hands due to sudden death from a character. The constant flux in the cast gave the series as much punch and coloring, so to speak, as anything else he did. The death of characters wielded by a writer that understands his readers fulfills his contract so to speak even after the extinction of the original cast if he shows the purpose of their demise and brings that around to a meaningful conclusion.

    • Great points in here. I think it can be useful to draw a distinction between fantasy that’s essentially telling a person story (or a small group of personal stories), and fantasy that’s attempting to convey a history. Erikson definitely falls into this latter category, and I’d say Cook does, as well. I think that the deaths of characters function differently in the latter, as our readerly focus tends to be on larger events and patterns. Not that we’re indifferent to the suffering and demise of individual characters, but those characters don’t play the same sort of structural role. To take the comparison to an extreme, it’s different when an Erikson character dies than when an Ursula Le Guin character dies.

      All of which is to say, I agree with you! Thanks for the thoughts…

  4. I think I’ll be in the minority here when I say that I didn’t enjoy the Malazan series for this particular reason. Why would I invest any emotional energy in understanding, empathizing, or otherwise caring about what a character is doing if I know, without a doubt, that he’ll be dead soon?

    This is, I find, doubly true of military fantasies. The character cast is too large to properly differentiate between them, and when you have great-voiced, gruff-mannered sergeant one through seven, not-remarkable-in-any-way-possible corporal one through nine, and a literal herd of whiny, how-the-FUCK-did-you-not-understand-what-you-signed-up-for-when-joining-a-goddamned-ARMY privates, it’s hard to care about ANYONE dying.

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