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Who lives, who dies, when you tell your stories?

Or: How I think about dead parents, lovers & friends, both in backstory and in the course of the action. #Meta #Craft


If you’re not familiar with the concept of Fridging, please go here:…
I try really hard to never fridge. I don’t kill named characters for other character’s emotional development.
A death, be it in action or backstory, has to be plausible, and while the characters REACT to it, it’s not to cause reaction.
I don’t kill when they become inconvenient.
(Well, except one time, there’s this one character I killed because I was tired of their bullshit & I wanted them dead. I had to make it worth it, despite the mess.
Killing them was inconvenient for me, as writer, but I hated that character, so it was totally worth it.)
(Nope, not telling who.)

(That person is not yet dead in my published body of work.)

(Hey, I’m totally cool with a deadpool on characters who survive from book to book.)

(That could be SO MUCH FUN.)
My ethic on killing: a dead character is emotional weight I have to carry. A living character has feelings & interiority, and can disagree with me, the author, & with the other characters.

I find living characters more entertaining, and I’m the person I have to entertain first.
I recently did a census of the dead (specifically parents) in my stories, to make sure I wasn’t killing people off too easily. Because I have a lot of dead and absent parents, especially in Galantier.

Kingdom *does* starts off with a dead Pops.
My work isn’t YA, but I still try to avoid the Dead Mother…

Dead parents of central characters? (No major spoilers)
Vohan: assassinated
Laarens’ mom: complications of a strep infection (though I note he was TAKEN from his unfit parents at birth)
Quin’s mom: diphtheria
Lin’s mom: same epidemic (Quin & Lin are neighbors)
Lin’s dad: hunting accident
Avah’s mom: bad breech birth
Fanik’s parents: drowned in a flood
Marli’s parents: structure fire
Nekane’s mom: cancer; dad: industrial accident
Harli’s dad: industrial accident
Which seems like a lot. But these characters are at least 20, most closer to 30. Their world lacks blood transfusions and vaccines, and they’re right on the edge of antibiotics. Even with Healing, keeping people alive can be really hard.
Compare to majors with living parents: Bran. Cedri. Daval. Avah (dad & step-mom). Kya. Harli (mom). Vaish’s dad. Lisel. Mai. Sashi & Reya. Celedane. Paval.
Siblings are more likely to be dead than parents, tbh.

And hey, having living parents doesn’t mean all gin & roses.
I also note here that class plays into having living parents: being working class comes with death from accidents that’s less likely in upper class families.
Young upper class with power? More likely to have dead parents. Young upper without? Their parents are still alive.
This is fairly basic demographics of any pre-modern society with an aristocracy.

Without functional Caesarian sections, some women WILL die in childbirth.
Until blood transfusions work, lots of people bleed to death.
Germs come for everyone.
It’s effectively like everyone in Galantier has a CON stat, and has to make a roll every year of their life. With negatives in the first five years of life, and conditional negatives in certain years. But every year past age 5 gives that character a bonus.
Until either one becomes a political player or reaches middle age. Or both. Then their stories get more fun. 😈

Sometimes I keep them alive despite shit that should kill them.
Because there are people like Vaish, who should be dead (I did give him a backstory that involves a flaming arrow to the face...) but manage to make their rolls.

And Vaish’s mom, who outlived 2 husbands, but also never lost any children. (She rolled lucky.)
My dirty secret is this: I don’t like killing characters.

I may say certain characters have plot armor, but really? Almost all of them do.

Because they’re my imaginary friends, and I’m not a serial killer.
Plus, it just feels lazy to kill them.

Even antagonists.
It’s not a case of being unwilling to kill my darlings.
(If you’ve finished Repudiation & Refuge, you know I’m willing & able.)

It’s just I don’t think death is actually great plot development. The stakes should be high, and death should be a possibility... but death is an end.
With a caveat: if you’re writing a war, you will kill characters. Sorry.

But even in the really bad old days of the worst wars (Napoleonic to WWI - the killing tech got excellent way faster than the healing tech) most people survived.

And came home with a level of trauma.
I agree with Hamilton’s George Washington: Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.

Another rule for character deaths, whether in-scene or not: a death never makes anything easier for anyone. It’s never convenient. It’s always a complication.
To change universes, to one that has actual historical underpinnings:

In Sophia’s universe (Regency Vampires) there’s a Series of Improbable Events that lead to Sophia (an Earl’s youngest daughter who married an Earl’s younger son during the Napoleonics) becoming Countess.
For Sophia, the events that made her Countess defied all expectations, and are the worst case scenario. Killing those people wasn’t convenient; it made Sophia’s world measurably worse with each death. Sophia would much rather I NOT kill them.
Sophia’s Oh Shit circumstances are deliberate, setting up the worst possible situation for her to have to manage. And while she’s dealing with some of the most devastating experiences humans can have, that’s intentional, because her story is me playing with 2 metaphors:
1) An aristocracy (or any hoarded wealth) sucks the vitality out of the economy and will kill its host, and
2) How a society handles trauma
(The lack of specificity is since this one isn’t yet to the beta reader stage.)
But since Sophia’s world is based on this very real one, she must think deeply about the fact that she lives in a time with 50% child mortality, and that every pregnancy is a 10% chance of death, and 50K men died in a single day about 100 miles from where she lives. (Waterloo.)
Since Sophia doesn’t get to opt out of the realities of death, neither do Sophia’s readers.

But who dies in Sophia’s world matters, because her world is premised on the idea that death transfers power, both politically (aristocracy) and in marriage. Not metaphor for her.
The logic & law of coverture as it applies to widowhood matters for Sophia.
(Aside: being a wealthy widow was often the best situation for women. No longer subject to father or husband, she controlled her money & property. Being a widow was almost being an honorary man.)
Both Galantier and the Regency Vampire world are earlier in their technological evolutions than our world — including the technology of law and social structure.

A social safety net is a technology almost specifically designed to be a cushion against death.
Third self-reference: my Sense & Sensibility reboot.

S&S requires the death of the elder John Dashwood character. In my update, yes, I kill Olivia & Corrine’s dad, but I didn’t kill their half-brother’s mother. No need. A hostile divorce works MUCH better.
I kept that very specific plot structure: a man dies, leaving his second family in an economically precarious position.

But in the modern world, my characters have access to insurance, Social Security & social support that the Dashwood women didn’t have.
But the modern world also comes with a whole other set of economic risks, from health insurance to property taxes, that put people in poverty. In a modern or future setting, it’s not necessary to kill characters to achieve the same effect as death in the past.
(I must note that John Dashwood Jr is either a fucking dick or Jane Austen screwed him up, because there’s no textual evidence the 2nd Mrs Dashwood would have been unkind to her stepson. He would have been 5-8 when his dad remarried, and raised with Elinor & Marianne.
Which is not to say the Ferrars aren’t FUCKED UP. They are. Narcissist family all over the place. Edward is CLEARLY the scapegoat, Fanny & Robert are the Golden Children, and it’s all about manipulation. Edward makes the right call accepting being disowned and going NC.)
(Sorry. Spoilers for a 200 year old novel.)

But in the original S&S, death is the only way out of marriage. And often, the only way into property (besides marriage) because the social structure in which that fiction evolved used the promise of inheritance AS the social support.
Part of the reason Georgian through Victorian lit is so often populated with dead bodies is because death is how society changed & how the individual advanced.

A seriously under appreciated aspect of the modern world is economic independence no longer requires dead parents.
S&S can be read as an early example of *The Patriarchy hurts EVERYONE*
The Dashwood women, of course.
But the entail pushes John Dashwood Jr towards stupid/greedy
Willoughby‘s manipulativeness comes from his poverty.
Edward, under his mother’s control, is getting screwed.
The Middletons are unhappy.
The Palmers will be unhappy.

The only ones who aren’t are Col Brandon & Mrs Jennings. He’s far more self-made than inherited; she’s got her widow superpowers of independence & property. They’re the example of breaking the patriarchy.
But we’re not stuck in that world anymore. We have literally written (through law) our way out of death as necessary for advancement.

Which means when we write character deaths, we have to make them mean a LOT more.
We have to be more careful when and why we do kill.
Therefore, an exercise:

Take any pre-antibiotics story with parental death and update it.
Give Hamlet a crime lab.
Give young Jane Eyre or Anne Shirley a social worker.
What if Fantine has a social safety net?
What if Jean Valjean has one?

/end of today’s deep thoughts.
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