When Characters Are Too Safe

(Remix)

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 maybe it's for their own good.

14 comments:

Tim said...

I can't believe Chewbacca died because the sky fell on him.

Miss Jack Lewis Baillot said...

Oh...I let a fried of mine read my books, and she was worried the main character would die. And I didn't know why really, because he was the main character, but now I get it. Some of the safe characters had died before him.
That's really interesting to know. (And now that you talk about it I think I've noticed it in books I read. Some characters I know will live, others I'm not so sure because characters died before them who I didn't think should have.)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

That's it. I'm killing more characters. *knives come out*

Nickie said...

I had the same reaction watching Serenity! My jaw hit the floor, and I -- I may have cried. You're right -- we need to be able to sacrifice characters (even the totally awesome ones) if the story calls for it. I am very guilty of not wanting to whack my favorite characters, but I'll just have to get over it.

Nancy Thompson said...

Nobody's safe in my books. In my first, I killed 2 of the 4 main characters. Oops, my bad!

sally apokedak said...

Oh, I hated it when Joss let &&&&& die.

good post.

Kate said...

Fascinating post. I hadn't really thought of killing anyone off like that ;-)

Sarah Ahiers said...

oh man. I can't even express my amount of shock and horror when i saw Serenity in theaters. SHOCK AND HORROR i say! I'm still sad about it.
But also, it was badass.

Christine Tyler said...

Tweeting this. Great advice, as usual.

Charles Eubanks said...

In the early drafts of Incredibles, the plane Helen flew to Syndrome's island was piloted by a different character, who died in the missile strike. Brad Bird fought to keep this scene, for the very reasons you mention.

Adam Heine said...

Is that true? Oh man, it is! That's awesome. Thanks, Charles!

Matthew MacNish said...

I kill characters, but now I'm thinking I need to do it earlier. Although, if the first book ends up being part of a series, I suppose the climax of book one is early enough.

TL Conway said...

That scene in Serenity absolutely caught me off guard! And like you mentioned, I went through to the ending with a keen understanding that NO ONE was safe.

I killed a character in my YA and cried while I wrote the scene. Now that I've shifted to MG, I don't think it would quite fit. Not yet.

Melodie said...

Michael Crichton did this really well. His characters get blown away pretty frequently and, although I think I know who's going to be alive at the end, I'm never sure enough to get complacent.
I am going to have to watch Serenity now.
Ha! Serenity NOW!