How to Kill a Character

Video Transcript:

Here’s a planet filled with tons of people with hope and dreams.

Boom. They’re all gone.

Now here’s an old dying man.

Now which one of these had a real impact on you?

Which one made you feel something?

Death is a common event in both stories and the real world. But it can happen so often that we become desensitized to it. Every minute people are being brought into this life and out of it. When you read it on the news it becomes a statistic rather than anything that affects us on a personal level. But when someone we know, a family member, a friend, or maybe a beloved celebrity passes away, you feel it.

And when we write stories we try and mimic these connections to bring us closer to fictional characters and places. Sometimes closer to anyone in the real world.

So the question is, how do we make those connections? And for that, I will be drawing on examples from Star Wars and our own comic Novaborn: Tale of Inpherna. Full spoilers for both. Just episodes 1-6 of Star Wars and there’s a link to our comic [just above]. It’s not that long of a read so you can get caught up pretty quickly. For this video, you only need to read up to page 37. Read it. Come back. It will make more sense…

The thing is, in general, our society is unphased by death. Which is a very harsh thing to say but it’s true for good reason. If we felt loss and despair at every single death we ever heard about we would be trapped in a constant state of depression and it would get us nowhere. So we end up focusing on only the most personal losses.

So how do we make a life feel meaningful? In a new hope we see the entire planet of Alderaan explode. but since we don’t know anyone who lives there we only feel loss because of how the other characters react to it. Leia watching her entire home be destroyed. Obi-wan collapsing to a chair as he feels the effects of all of the deaths.

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

– Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-wan

We don’t care about the planet, we care about how it affects our characters. The impact of which could have been ruined if poorly done.

“And you call yourselves humans…”

– Star Wars: A New Hope, Leia

Now compare it to the death of Obi-wan. As much as this hurts Luke, it also affects us because we have grown to care about this kind old mystical man throughout the movie.

This is why in the following scene we see Leia comforting Luke because the audience is grieving too. They’re grieving for Obi-wan. Although Leia does have reason to grieve, we focus on Luke because at this point in the film, we hardly know Leia at all.

Obi Wan’s death cements a unity between our goals and those of the characters. We feel just as driven to destroy the death star as they do, making Obi Wan’s death a meaningful sacrifice to motivate Luke to join the rebellion and defeat the empire.

In contrast, let’s talk about a death done wrong. And two good examples of this are the Fetts. Boba Fett is setup as this silent cool bounty hunter that is the rival to Han Solo. He tracks the millennium falcon on cloud city.

He helps setup the trap that nearly kills Luke and gets Han frozen in carbonite. Then we finally get the awful payback battle of a blind swing to the jet pack and he’s gone. What a waste of a character. What a waste of setup with no real payoff.

Brittany: “Isn’t it a blind shot to the jet pack?”

Stephen: “No, he literally just swung. He swung a stick and hit him in the back.”

What a waste of a setup if there’s no payoff. Like cooking a meal and then throwing it away when it’s ready.

Jango Fett was surprisingly a better rival. There was a tense rivalry between him and Obi-wan.

“Your clones are very impressive, you must be very proud.”

“I’m just a simple man, trying to make my way in the universe.”

“Ever made your way as far into the interior as Coruscant?”

“Once or twice.”

“Recently?”

“Possibly.”

– Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan and Jango Fett

Fighting in the rain, fighting in space, and then in the final showdown… Mace Windu gets him. A character who has no idea who he is, who has never met him before, and just offs him like he was nobody. This isn’t as bad as Boba Fett but it’s more of a missed opportunity.

Both of these situations make the same mistake. They set up connections that don’t pay off.

The most important thing is that a death, like everything in a story, should have a purpose. And it can have many purposes. Wanting revenge, feeling empathy for a character, showing the end of an era, comedy, even to show that death can be meaningless.

Spoilers for our comic from here on out. Seriously, just go read it!

When we were writing Novaborn: Tale of Inpherna, we realized that Inpherna didn’t have a reason to leave home or at least not a good one. This needed to be an important quest of hers that she deeply cared about and that the reader cared about.

So we created Anthis. The boy who was born to die. We gave him hopes and dreams, we created a deep connection between him and his siblings and we treated the story like he was always going to be there. And In any other story he could have been a main character, which is why it was so tragic.

So when the day came to kill him off, it was a difficult decision. And even when we came to draw it, it was hard to do. We had grown attached to this young man and wanted him to have a happy life. And we knew that by killing him off, he would cease to be. But, we knew it would hurt. It would hurt us, the readers, and Inpherna. Creating a hole in many hearts. A hole that was filled with ambition and the desire to see Inpherna live the life she wanted to live. Just like he would have wanted. And in a way, his death became the entire reason for her quest.

But that is not to say that if you plan all of these things that they will pay off. At the start of Attack of the Clones, we see a character die in an explosion. Now, we were supposed to think that this was Padme and that she had died. But instead we don’t really understand what’s going on at all. The scene wasn’t setup correctly and we don’t really understand the situation until after it’s over. Then we know that Padme was being threatened and that she had decoys that would die for her. Now this is more of a storytelling problem in general but it means that the death of this decoy was wasted and we don’t really care about her or feel the loss that Padme feels.

In conclusion, make sure that death serves a purpose. Make sure that it means something to the audience. Either through their own eyes or the character’s they’ve come to care about. At least, that’s how I would do it.

Let me know in the comments your thoughts on the matter. We will be covering all kinds of subjects on writing, movies, and games. Which is stuff that we have learned while making our comic and our game. Subscribe and hit the notification bell and we will see you next time.

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