Safe Characters

So, you're watching The Incredibles. You get to the part of the climax where the giant robot knocks Violet out and is about to crush her. Is it tense? Are you afraid Violet might die? Well, a little, but deep down you know that something will happen at the last second to save her. Why? Because she's safe. She's a major character -- and a child at that -- in a movie in which nobody has yet died on-screen.

For The Incredibles, that's no big deal. We don't need the added tension of "somebody might die." It's enough to wonder if they'll win, and how. But what if you want your reader to truly believe that anybody could die at any time, even the protagonist?

If you want the reader to believe that anything could happen, that the stakes are real, you need to build a reputation. Some authors spend multiple books building that reputation and carry it with them in every book they write, but you don't have to be a multi-published author to let the reader know that nobody is safe. All you have to do is kill safe characters in this book.

What makes a character safe? There are many contributing factors. How important are they? How likable? How innocent? The safer the reader believes them to be, the more tension is added when they die. Kill enough safe characters, and by the time the climax hits the reader will believe that nobody is safe.

A great example is Joss Whedon's Serenity (SPOILER WARNING; if you haven't seen it, skip to the last paragraph). Coming off a well-loved TV series, and with serious sequel potential, it was easy for me to believe that none of the main cast would die. Normally this would result in a final battle that -- like The Incredibles -- is totally fun but not very tense because I know everyone will be okay in the end. Then Joss goes and kills my favorite character.

When he did this -- in such a way that it was clear Wash was really, for real dead -- it made the rest of the battle more intense than any adventure film I can think of. Zoe gets slashed in the back, Kaylee gets hit by poison needles, Simon gets shot, and the whole time I really believe they could all die. And while I still think Mal is going to accomplish their goal, I'm fairly certain he's going to die in the process too. If Wash had lived, I wouldn't have felt any of that. (END SPOILER)



Today's tip, then: If you want the reader to believe the main character could die, kill a safe character or two before the climax. The safer, the better. Your reader might not like it, but it's for their own good.

14 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

I debate this constantly, and in fact might change several portions of CaN to facilitate this. Is it bad I can already think of the "safe" characters I want to kill?

Adam Heine said...

It's bad for them ;-)

Matt Heppe said...

George R R Martin did a great job of this in A Game of Thrones. He killed off Jory(Ned Stark's guard captain) and then Ned Stark himself. This seriously upped the tension of the novel. If Ned Stark could be killed, that meant nobody was safe. I loved it. Far too often I have absolutely no fear for the survival of the protagonist. Sure, bad stuff might happen, but things will all work out in the end. Bah, put some real fear into the reader.

Adam Heine said...

Yes. In my opinion, GRRM is the king of removing character safety. The Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords absolutely DESTROYED me.

fairyhedgehog said...

While I agree with you about the added tension in Serenity, I'm not sure it improved the film for me. I don't need that level of tension for a film to work and I prefer to get to the end with everyone who matters pretty much intact.

I'm obviously going to write tamer books than you are!

Natalie Whipple said...

Yeah, I don't like killing people. But I guess I just don't write those kinds of books. I think I have injured people for that purpose, though.

jessjordan said...

Joss has always been really good about that. I'm not sure if you've ever seen Buffy, but that's a great example. I don't want to leave spoilers,in case you haven't, but suffice it to say no one was ever truly safe, and he made that clear from at least season 2.

Bane of Anubis said...

Loved GRRM's Game of Thrones b/c it threw out typical 'safe' rules. As a reader, I was kind of pissed at first, but ultimately I've enjoyed the series much more for it.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, hedgehog and Natalie, for pointing out that killing characters isn't necessary or even desirable for everyone. Just like The Incredibles, there need to be tamer books too!

And I'll admit that, as much as it increased my enjoyment of Serenity, I still haven't forgiven Joss for what he did. I was depressed for 2 weeks after the movie.

Jenna said...

I like this. :) My writing teacher says killing off characters is cheap, but I think he's wrong. I mean, it can be, if you don't do it right, but it can accomplish so much. Great post. :)

(Oh, and I bawl like a baby every single time I watch Serenity, just because of that. Wash=best character ever. "We shall rule over this land and we shall call it...this land!")

Adam Heine said...

Jenna, I think you're my new best friend :-) And your teacher's not totally off. It can be a cheap way to tug on emotions if (like you said) it's not done right. The character's death has to make sense, just like endings or anything else.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very good points, Adam. Thanks for another excellent post.

MattyDub said...

I remember where I was when Ned Stark died. I still can't believe the Red Wedding happened. I was physically ill during the climax of Serenity, to the point that I had to pause the movie to see if I could calm down (I couldn't). Court still hasn't forgiven Whedon for what happened in that movie.
That being said, I need some safe books from time to time, I think. I read for escapism.
-M

Adam Heine said...

Agree, Matty. I can't say I like it when characters I love are killed. But it adds tension and emotion like nothing else.

That said, I keep a picture of Wash on my Facebook page so I never forget.