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
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.
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.
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
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.