Remember a while back there were several internet memes floating around that had to do with killing characters. All of them begin with a picture of J.K. Rowling saying “It’s hard killing off so many characters.” On the lower half was a photo of another writer and their response.
George R.R. Martin: “You’re adorable.”
Joss Whedon: “You’re new here, aren’t you.”
Stephen King: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my characters’ screaming.”
Possible underlying sexism aside, I think that the joke responses of Whedon and the others disregards the whole point of killing a character. It’s supposed to be dramatic. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to make you feel something, even if that something is “this is a callous world where injustice is common, I guess the stakes are higher than I thought. Can’t wait to see what happens next.”
That anticipation is the goal of good writing. Get them to turn the page. Get the audience to care, and to keep watching.
What I’m driving at here is that stories are driven by conflict. Great achievement must come at great sacrifice — such as a dead protagonist. Sacrifice and conflict don’t mean much without a viable and somewhat relatable force of opposition. Evil, if you will. I don’t mean maniacal overlord evil, I mean preacher evil. I mean schoolyard bully evil. I mean passive-aggressive-boss evil. Something that not only exists and walks in this world; but something that knows, deep down, the pain it inflicts is just and fair.
I advise every writer who reads this to dig inside themselves and find a shard of evil.
Writing and reading is a form of escape. We live vicariously through the people and worlds we create. It’s important every now and then to open the trap door, walk down into the basement, and say hello to the creature you’ve kept locked in the psychic cage. Some of them are abstract, from children, to purring liars, to twitching monstrosities that drool acid and hiss obscene desires directly into your brain. Imagine the same spirit in a housewife. In a friend. In a colleague. They all believe they’re right. Let them show you why.
Maybe even the hero will believe them, and then make the wrong choice.
“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
– H.L. Mencken
“Hell is paved with good Samaritans.”
– William M. Holden