CSFF Blog Tour: Red Shirts and Snapped Threads

In my last post, I criticized Beckon for its high casualty rate. I thought it would be good, today, to consider why characters are killed, and why they ought to be.

One common reason for killing characters is to (in the words of one author) “create peril”. Many poor red shirts* have lost their lives for this. And much of the time it doesn’t even work. Audiences are wise to the tactic; they are not going to feel peril when a character dies if they know the character died so that they would feel peril.

What’s more, they understand that the fate of minor characters says little about the fate of major characters. The fact that an author kills an unimportant character doesn’t mean that he’s willing to kill an important character. Indeed, some authors kill the supporting cast because they aren’t willing to kill the stars.

This is, as I said, commonly done – but I can’t help but think there are better ways of creating peril, and certainly better uses of characters.

Some characters are killed because, simply, the author wants to get rid of them. Although, in the short term, they had their purpose, they have no long-term place in the story. This can be understandable, at times it may even be necessary – but it is always an artistic weakness. It is an artistic weakness to snap a thread because you can’t work its color into the design.

A character may no longer be useful, but rarely is the fault inherently in the character. Even if it is – well, we know who created him. To relate the discussion back to Beckon – and if you don’t want spoilers, go no further – both of Jack’s companions died in the spelunking expedition. His position would have been much different if they had lived; it would have been much stronger, which would probably have been a bad thing.

But it was not necessary for those characters to die even for Jack to emerge from the caves alone. If, say, Rudy had fallen into the hands of the N’watu, Jack could still have gone into Beckon alone and we might have had the opportunity to understand the N’watu. If you take the trouble, you can find tremendous opportunities in unlikely characters.

Yet there are times when death is the proper consummation of a character’s story. Then it can be done with artistic strength – when a character dies not to make the audience nervous or to relieve the author of having to handle him, but to fulfill his own story.

* Red shirts are minor characters who are soon killed, usually as a sort of demonstration of the dangers our heroes face. The name comes from the original Star Trek series, where random crewmen – generally wearing red – would tag along with Kirk and Spock only to die just when things really started to get interesting.

9 thoughts on “CSFF Blog Tour: Red Shirts and Snapped Threads

  1. I’m soft-hearted…if a likable character has to die, he or she should die a hero (at a level of saving a school bus full of children or higher) and get a long death scene, followed by lots of mourning. When all the steps aren’t followed, I’m disturbed. When NONE of the steps are followed, I’m disturbed and angry. LOL. I think I take it a bit too far, but I love your thoughts on the thread.

  2. I actually have a “bad” tendency to kill characters. But I agree that most of the bad reasons you listed for killing them, really are bad reasons. I’ve actually never killed a character for “peril” because when I read books I always got annoyed by that very thing. I kill main characters. I kill characters people come to love, and I do it for a reason. Usually it has to do less with peril and more “this is a dangerous situation, not kids stuff, people die,” because many of my historical fiction books (none of which are published…yet) are set during the rules of tyrants. My “favorite” character (of mine) ‘s death was my character named Sasha. (in my book set in the first few years of Lenin’s rule over Russia) I make readers love him. We see him mature from a 13 year old, who’s more like an 8 year old (because he’s frightened) living in the Gulags, to a strong, brave 16 year old who wants to do anything to save his country from Lenin…but he is brutally murdered before he gets the chance. His death is character development for the villain actually. He does die a “hero” though. I would have to explain a whole lot of the plot to say why, but he does die something of a hero, he dies protecting the girl. Then there’s a big mourning scene with all the other friends (more like brothers) he made while they were all in the Gulag together.
    So, to make a long story short, I agree with everything you said, and I agree with Julie the above commenter. 🙂 🙂

  3. P.S. Did you find TV tropes website? That \red shirt\ description sounds like something from it.

  4. Every time I go on the USS Enterprise I get in a big fight because I refuse to wear a red shirt. Or maybe he’s ticked because I swipe one of HIS shirts. Hey, those captain’s stripes come in handy!

    I agree that killing off a character to show off that the bad guys are bad it not necessarily the right way to go. Mind, you, I’m going to kill off a lot in my current WIP because Christian martyrdom and gladiatorial-style fights are a theme of the story, but I don’t want to do the ‘let’s kill a redshirt to heighten tension’ thing.

  5. I thought Mr. Pawlik used the deaths you mentioned for a greater purpose. They came into play later in the book as part of Jake’s self-revelation. That being said, I found myself angry, especially with the second one. Not sure why. I don’t think it was the surprise factor. When Cedric died in the Harry Potter book, I couldn’t have been more surprised, more unprepared for it. I didn’t feel angry at all. Just shocked and sad and grieving with Harry.


  6. Thanks, Julie. I’m a softie, too; I tend not to like character deaths, though I know that sometimes they’re very well-done. One of the worst things about red shirt deaths is how quickly the story – and the other characters – move on.

    Good to see you again, Natalya. Lenin’s rule is quite a time to write in. Soviet Russia was a grim place, and I imagine that grimness would, in some degree, work into any novel about it.

    It takes a brave author to kill a main character. (At least in most genres. In sci-fi and fantasy, you can often just bring them back.) It interests me that it’s part of the villain’s development. You must have invested a lot in that villain – more than many authors do.

    I did make it to the TV Tropes website. While I was working on this post, I looked up their page on red shirts. I also looked up Wikipedia’s page on red shirts, but it was not as entertaining.

  7. I bet the captain’s stripes do come in handy, Nissa. I just hope the crew isn’t too confused …

    Thanks for commenting. And I can certainly see the difference between killing a character to create peril and killing one for the sake of writing about Christian martyrdom.

    Becky, I noticed Jack’s self-revelation at the end. It never struck me as the purpose of their deaths, but who knows? It’s only an impression and might be wrong.

    The peculiar thing about Jack surviving the ordeal is that he seemed to be the one who least deserved to. Not that he deserved not to, but he dragged his friend into the mess, and then the guide had to drag Jack out of it and, well, why him and not the others?

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