Tricking a Reader: Character Death

In the last post, I talked about misdirection as one of the ways you can hide a secret and fool a reader until that critical reveal. But how do you do that? I think one important aspect of misdirection is to believe your own lie.

For example, say you want the reader to believe, just for a moment, that a major character is dead. This is really hard to do because major characters almost never die (George R R Martin, notwithstanding), so the reader will always be looking for the trick. For example:
  • The character's body is never shown or they died in an ambiguous way.
  • The other characters are melodramatic or otherwise overreacting to the death.
  • The other characters don't try very hard to determine if the character is really dead.
  • A main character dies anywhere other than the climax.
  • The character who died is someone normally considered safe (e.g. the hero, a point of view character, an innocent child, etc).
That's not to say you can't do these things, but the more of these tricks are present, the harder it will be to convince the reader the character is really dead.

If you want a fake death to be convincing, write it as if it were an actual death. You may not be able to show the body (though if you can, that's even more awesome), but have the other characters in disbelief. Not just disbelief, but actively trying to prove the character is really alive (check breathing, do CPR, call a doctor, etc).

The story might require the fake death to be before the climax (hi, Gandalf), but the longer the story goes without the character showing up, the more the reader will be convinced it actually happened. (Some readers -- not me -- might be in such utter disbelief that they -- not me -- will actually skip ahead in the novel to see if the death really happened. I, of course, would never do this. Not even if [spoiler redacted] from Song of Ice and Fire was struck in the back with an [spoiler redacted]).

You can do this for any kind of secret. Just think of the tricks you look for as a reader, then use them to your advantage.

I probably shouldn't ask where you've seen good character deaths, should I? Too many spoilers. Also the ones I can think of are characters who actually died, but I refused to believe it.

12 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

This is one of the things I do when I'm writing too - ask myself what the reader expects in a situation or pattern of events, and even write it in the expected way. Then I try and figure out how to change it in an unexpected way.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I refused to believe Wash as well - just, no.

fairyhedgehog said...

I don't like characters dying, and if it turns out later that they didn't in fact die I feel doubly cheated, although relieved as well.

I'm just a bit of a wuss, really.

Matthew MacNish said...

Just wait til you read Dance with Dragons. Be afraid, be very afraid.

jjdebenedictis said...

Oh, yeah. [Spoiler redacted] is totally not dead! S/He's too important! (Right? Right? Somebody hold me.)

I admit, though, in the 2nd-to-last book, I really was convinced [spoiler redacted] was a goner when s/he was getting hir face eaten, there at the end. I was so relieved to learn that wasn't the case; s/he's one of my favourite characters!

Bane of Anubis said...

Matt, I'm reading DwD - have been reading it since its release date... GRRM you are going the Robert Jordan route of boring the care out of me.

Misdirection's a tricky thing b/c sometimes it's just plain illogical (several books leap to mind) and then I'm just like, yeah, you ruined a cool concept w/ idiotic plot FUBARs.

Bane of Anubis said...

PS - I have no qualms killing MCs :)

Angela Brown said...

I have some slight issues with the whole dying angle as a misdirection. However, when worked well, hello Gandalf again, then it's quite refreshing and makes for a great read.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Robin Hobb...wait, is it Robin Hobb? I think so...
Anyway, Robin Hobb always kills off characters and i'm always devastated. Though they're usually straight forward so you're pretty sure they're dead. Pretty sure...

Matthew MacNish said...

Your query is up, good sir. I should probably email you.

Siv Maria said...

Matt made me curious so here I am and I am planning to stay. Loved reading your query letter and your book looks to be a very good read. Nice to meet you :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Krista's post is up. Good stuff.