On Writing

Maybe The Hero Doesn’t Have to Die

A long time killer of characters, I recently had a revelation. Sometimes — just sometimes, a character deserves to stick around. The trick is knowing when.

Look, it says it at the top of the website, the first sentence you read — Hi, I’m Kait, I kill plants and characters.

I can’t say exactly *why* I’m this way, but there has always been something about the self-sacrificial protagonist, the vulnerable hero, the character who pays the ultimate price that’s caught my fancy. From childhood, some of my favourite characters were Sirius Black, Trystan (of Trystan and Isolde fame), Hoban Washburn. Spoiler alert. They all die. Somewhere between Rowling and Whedon I got it in my head that the only way to satisfy your audience was to make them feel *pain*, and sadness, and insatiable grief.

And hey, nothing’s changed.

Except for one thing. I had a realization — sometimes, the hero doesn’t have to die.

A female warrior with short hair stands in a field with the hilt of a sword just leading out of frame. The text says "Maybe the hero doesn't have to die".

You can thank my good friend and current writing partner for this revelation. We began a writing project together in October of this year. It started with two original characters and one rather silly thought, “I bet my OC would have a crush on your OC” which blossomed into a 60,000 word (and counting) love story beset with hurdles of every kind and punctuated by more pining than I ever thought possible. The story is decidedly more romantic than any I’ve written before and it’s been such a fun learning experience — and emotional rollercoaster.

As we bandied about ideas one day, we threw out a decidedly delicious plot thought. My character would be critically injured.

As I considered it, I realized he was at a critical apex of his character arc — at long last, he and his love were together, healing, growing, experiencing contentment for the first time.

It would be the perfect time to kill him, I thought.

What happened next surprised me!

My writing partner was a bit stunned, and as they considered their character’s reaction to my character’s death it was just… not right.

And that’s how I learned two important things about killing off characters:

  1. Consider what happens after. Because my main concern was my own OC, if they were to die, well, the story is over, right? There’s a funeral, maybe a sad or bittersweet epilogue, and then the story ends. Because I was writing with a partner, they were able to show me a glimpse of what would happen after the death of my OC and it was — dismal. The other OC didn’t *grow*, learn, become a better person because they had love and it slipped through their fingers — they self destructed. It might have been a bittersweet, satisfying end for my character, but the world around them, the other character arcs in the story, just weren’t in a place to absorb the sucking black hole left by my characters absense. In real life, sometimes that’s how we experience grief, and those are still important stories to tell, but it wasn’t a good fit for our very long, very earnest love story.
  2. Ask yourself, but what if they lived? Any time you’re thinking about killing off a character just ask yourself this simple question. Do it for me, okay? ‘Cause you’ll never guess what I discovered when I asked it of myself. The story was better with him in it. An injury of this magnitude takes time and resiliance to heal. And my character? He had other things he needed to heal too, emotional wounds that he’d covered over but never addressed head on, and what became clear quickly when we started to explore what healing from this trauma would be like for him was that it provided the perfect narrative opportunity for him to start unpacking some of those old hurts and healing those old wounds. The short version, I asked myself “what if they live?” and answered “there’s so much more growing they can do.”

To be perfectly honest, I still foresee this character dying at some point. Maybe it doesn’t happen in the story, but I have an inkling that between our two characters, mine is goin’ first. It’s just how I roll. But who knows, maybe the next time I think his number’s up, I’ll decide the story still isn’t ready to lose him.

That it’s better if the hero lives.

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