Side Characters – Someone Must Die #amwriting

We who write live inside our imaginations. The story unfolds before us when we are laying down the first draft, and the characters reveal themselves as we write. The side characters make themselves known to us, and gradually, we come to understand who they are and why they are willing to endure the hardships and support our protagonists in their efforts.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergySometimes, the story demands a death, and 99% of the time, it can’t be the protagonist. But death must mean something, wring emotion from us as we write it. Since the character we have invested most of our time into is the protagonist, we must allow a beloved side character to die.

Killing a side character should not be a means of livening up a stale plot. It must be an organic part of the storyline, move the other characters, force them to continue despite the struggle.

But who is Character B as a person? When the first draft is done, side characters can seem two-dimensional. The second draft is where we inject emotion into the narrative. We must make Character B’s sacrifice feel like the tragedy it is.

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.

First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.

That emotional attachment is why every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning. It must advance the plot, or your reader will hate you.

As I write my first draft, I uncover hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. I begin to see a person with values and discover their boundaries. I begin to know what they will (or will not) do.

At the outset, my characters have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will take with them to the grave. As I write, these secrets unfold before me, and I feel such love for them, for all their flaws and insecurities.

Before I became a writer, I was a reader. I am still a reader and go through one or two books a week. I seek out stories in all genres featuring characters I can empathize with. I want to meet characters who behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

If Character B must die, I want to feel as if I have lost a dear friend. Character B’s motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how Character B thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Next, ask what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others?

We have designed the plot, so we know the magnitude of the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations can change the story. Character B’s decisions are as crucial to the plot as are those of the protagonist.

In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.

When we allow the protagonist/antagonist agency, they will make choices that surprise us. When we are writing the first draft, our characters will make decisions that might take the narrative in a new direction. I love it when that happens.

Character B dies. Why? What purpose does that death serve?

The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_KhanMortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. [1]

Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

It becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate when they have unique personalities.

When I first began writing, allowing my characters to grow their own way was difficult. I had this notion that the original plot was engraved in stone. Eventually, I learned to relax and let them do as they would.

And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.

StarWarsMoviePoster1977You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Or are they a “Spock,” the beloved friend who offers themselves up to save others?

Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.

When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock for the Enterprise crew, you see their decision is not out of character.

The death of a character must raise the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader. A complex, memorable novel rewards the reader for their investment of time by making the story feel personal.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Side Characters – Someone Must Die #amwriting

  1. This post resonated with me…every once in awhile I’ll drop into a dark phase and NEED to have a character die. The feeling saddens me, but your post encourages me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this article and think you correct in most cases but even Fantasy must echo (even if remotely) real life and history. Sometimes people just fall off a horse and die or, especially in medieval fantasy, drink bad water or eat bad meat, develop dysentery, and miss the battle. It happened to Napoleon, Alexander and to most people at some time.
    I enjoy fantasy, I always have, and I often write it, but I always imagine that good fantasy should have a little more reality in it.
    Where people just catch the cold and happen to sneeze at the wrong time and so the great hero gets run through by the weakest of enemy soldiers, or their horse happens to find a rabbit burrow as they are galloping (they are always galloping) across the field.
    Plus, the horses and men would be knackered before they even reached the battle.
    Anyway, yes there should be some meaning in the death of a character but often there is no meaning at all to death it simply happens. Fantasy should reflect that more.

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    • Hello, and thank you for commenting! I feel that, just as in life, a senseless death would cause a great deal of thought among their companions, cause them to think about their own life and consider the meaning of what they do. So, in that way, it would not be meaningless, and would advance the character arcs of those left behind.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good Point, Accepted. Yet I still wonder why in fantasy few die of wounds. Lol up until antibiotics a stomach wound was always horribly fatal yet check out fantasy novels (and I know you have) they all survive. Surely at times a little reality should creep in.
    I got Robert Jordan’s (Aei Sedei- lol not sure I have spelled that right- so long since I read it), curing wounds using a clear external force or elvish medicine in LOTR but what if Aei Sedei or elves are not there? Sorry Connie (I hope you do not mind me calling you Connie) but it still seems a little “unexplained” to me. Lol- perhaps I am just thick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! You can call me anything except late for supper! (Love that cliche!) That is a very good point. Miracle medicine is only as believable as the science that supports it, so I agree–even magic medicine must have limits. Magic without limits is a fairy tale, and while we may have been inspired by fables, we don’t exactly believe in them. Magic and miracles have to be supported by a kind of science–the author should establish the rules and stick to them.

      Like

  4. Hi Connie,
    I find this a valuable and supportive post of my current draft fiction. My protagonist is a young man who through the death of his father sends him into an emotional tailspin. It then forces him to mature and take his father’s place in the family business. In my manuscript, the death of the father is one of several major pivotal conflicts. Your blog supports what I thought was the correct course to take. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. From your post: “As I write my first draft, I uncover hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style.”

    Can I assume you don’t do a large preliminary worksheet on your characters? (I know you have one of sorts because you’ve featured it in a previous post.) I was doing the worksheets in past projects, but decided not to with my current on. Instead, I’m using a spreadsheet that had a column for notes that help with each scene. In that column I remind myself to flesh out characters in specific ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! Forgive me for not responding promptly – my internet has been spotty this morning. I do make an outline for each project. But some things don’t reveal themselves until I begin writing. I create an excel workbook for every book, or series of books. That is my stylesheet, and it includes a page for the outline, a page for maps and other worldbuilding information, a page for the glossary of names and invented words, and one for character treatments as they come to me. The entire cast of characters don’t always arrive in time for NaNoWriMo, but this time i was pretty well prepared. I’m glad you use a spreadsheet too!

      Liked by 1 person

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