How Well Did the Reader Know the Decedent?

Here is the situation: You have written a mystery, police-procedural, thriller, spy novel, western, or something of the like. Now you get to the part where there’s a dead guy. You killed off a character. Maybe your bad guy killed the person. Maybe your good guy killed the person.

It ramps up the drama. It gives urgency and purpose to the story. Maybe the good guy has to stop the bad guy before he kills again. Maybe the vigilante just wrought his first bit of rough justice.

Your hero and your villain are now rounded out. The die is cast. You can shape and define your characters around the chalk outline of this body. My question is how well did your readers know the person you just killed off? Was it a simple height/weight/age/sex/hair color thing?

If the reader is not introduced to the character, doesn’t know or relate to the character, why should the character’s death evoke any response, any pathos? Stalin infamously said that a single death is a tragedy—a million deaths is a statistic. It is cold but true. This is why anyone selling anything tries to “put a face on it.”

When you read in the paper that a bazillion stray dogs had to be euthanized, you furrow your brow, shake your head and turn to the sports section. When that commercial comes on showing a montage of sad-eyed pups and Sarah McLachlan is singing “Arms of an Angel,” something inside you moves. It connects.

It is easy for us to understand the need for the reader to connect with our protagonist. That is probably what receives most of our character development focus. We also want them to connect with the villain, to care if he gets his comeuppance. Too often, that’s where it stops. Writers often take a pass on opportunities to enrich other characters. The hero’s love interest is pretty bland, the minions and sidekicks are two-dimensional, and nobody really knows anything about the dead guy.

I saw this happen in my current work in progress. Without giving anything away, the villain kills two characters. I knew from the beginning he would kill these two characters. The real point is, people only care about one of these characters. Months later, I came back and asked someone who had read it about the two characters. She remembered the second dead guy—his job, some minor affliction he had, even his name. She didn’t remember the first dead guy at all. It may seem odd, but that is pretty much what I wanted to achieve.

In a sense, the characters in our books are like the people we see around us in real life. We know some people very well, some people we know casually, and others not at all. They are just there. They are there in front of us in line at the checkout stand or in the car next to us at a traffic light. We can have characters in our books like that too, but we need to be careful that not every character other than the main ones fall into that haze of obscurity.

If you want your action to read like real life, then acquaint the readers with characters as if it were real life. The world isn’t just made up of people we know very well and people we don’t know at all. It has dimension.
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In Ed McNally’s excellent book, The Sable City, he kills off a character fairly early on. I won’t spoil it for you, but what he does to make this character likeable and relatable is an excellent study in adding some depth to minor characters. McNally is masterful at this and so subtle, the reader may not even realize what he is doing that makes his writing work so well. But, that is the real trick of it all, isn’t it?

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What are your thoughts and who have you read who has done this sort of thing very well?

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “How Well Did the Reader Know the Decedent?”

  1. So true, Stephen. I was trying to think of whether there was an exception to your rule. Maybe the reader would care because the protagonist cares and they care about him or her. But I realized that by the time the reader understands why the protagonist cares, that they are going to care about the victim too. I won’t name names, but can think of several books off the top of my head where I didn’t care about any of the characters and the books were flops, for this and other reasons.

  2. Thanks, EM, excellent post. Now you got me thinking. I was going to start off a book by having the 2 main characters discover a dead guy in the forest. Now I’m thinking I need to give that dead guy some “meat” and perhaps have others in the story refer to him and “build” his character, even though he’s already dead. Like you say, I think the readers might need to get to know him better- dead or not. That shifts my plot of the story, but I think it will enrich it. Yes, the gears are spinning…

  3. Very well written article, Stephen. I read the Sable City as well, and your insights into the character development is quite astute. I suppose that there are many ways to accomplish the kind of pathos you are addressing in this article. I immediately thought of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where we first meet Laura Palmer as a dead girl wrapped in plastic. In fiction, as in real life, sometimes we only learn of certain aspects of a person after they have passed on. Aspects they may have been able to hide while alive. These can be good, bad, or more often both. Of course there is always the time tested device of resurrection (Think Jim Butler who never lets a bad character die once.)

    Thanks for a most thoughtful post!

    1. I really like McNally’s style. He’s a very elegant writer and his stories, while easy to read and engaging are truly masterpieces of writing craft and worthy of study.

  4. Great post, EM. I gave this exact advice to a friend who was trying to figure out what was missing in his stories. “Make me care about the characters,” I told him. Although he hadn’t really fleshed out anybody – even the main characters. I asked him whether he played a lot of video games, lol.

    And your point about not fleshing out *every* character is spot-on. The reader doesn’t need to know everything about everybody.

  5. Could not agree more – on all counts. (I read Sable City, too, and agree with you on that) All my readers cry and get mad at me when I kill off a major character – not necessarily in that order. A few still haven’t forgiven me. I suppose that’s a good thing.

  6. I’ll name names. J.K Rowling’s attempt at adult fiction, some title about a Casual Vacancy that I can’t remember( there’s another topic for a whole blog entry),has a whole slew of characters, and I don’t like or connect with any of them. Case closed.

  7. I’m another McNally fan and I know exactly what you mean, and which character you’re talking about. 🙂

    All I ask of a minor character is some little quirk that gives them depth, even if only for a moment. The interesting thing is that these quirks can often be woven into the plot itself so they’re not just ‘padding’.

    Your comment about video games is rather interesting Lynne. I’m a gamer and I’ve noticed that game developers are starting to learn these lessons too. These days, the extras who flesh out gaming worlds tend to have small, but interesting story arcs of their own. They still don’t feel like real ‘people’ but they no longer feel like painted props either.

    1. Great comment. You are right, I think there is an effort by game developers to add more depth to their worlds, and some of that has to do with story arcs, as you said. 🙂

        1. Gordon, I’m almost positive one of the regular commenters at the Passive Voice blog has mentioned actually working as a scriptwriter for video games. I think this is a future thing.

    2. I think you’re right that some of the developers are improving their story lines. I don’t play them, but my daughters do, and I’ve seen some of their games (Final Fantasy comes to mind) where there’s more to it than just running to kill the next monster. 😉

  8. Very insightful article, Stephen, and stuff that all of us should know but, I’ve no doubt, some often forget. That’s the beautiful thing about IU, the constant reminders of what it is that makes a good story.

    Great post, Stephen, thank you.

  9. Another big fan of that McNally guy here, too. And your post, Stephen. If a story revolves around a death, that character is just as important, if not more so, than the rest of the cast.

  10. A timely read. I woke up this morning determined to finish ‘the’ book about some sort of Vacancy, even though I was not enjoying it (well written but all unlikable characters). Your article has helped me to realise that its ok to walk away from a book, and has got me reflecting on character development. The book I won’t be finishing has fleshed-out characters, but I still don’t want to know about their dreams, what they are thinking, their losses or what happens next.
    I am currently in final edit mode on a MS (no one dies), so will put my characters to the test: are they are people that readers want to spend time with, and can feel genuine emotion at their demise and/or triumphs?

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