Character: Z is for Zzz–Death of a Character

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Z is for Zzzz—the Big Sleep, or death of a character. 

Killing characters for fun and profit is sometimes part of a writer’s job.  It’s not as easy as it sounds, however, especially when you’ve created one for whom you (and the readers) have developed a fondness.

The death of a character can advance the plot or it can be secondary.  In crime fiction and mystery, which is typically about murders (more dramatic), a death sets the plot in motion.  We rarely know the victims or see little of them before they’re killed.  But without their sacrifice, there is no story.  We don’t usually feel for them except a passing sympathy for whatever plight caused their demises.

It’s different when a writer kills off a beloved character.  In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I don’t really need to put a spoiler warning here, do I?), the shocking death of beloved Hogwarts headmaster and Potter mentor Albus Dumbledore caused a great deal of mourning.

Yes, I bawled all over my hardback.  Not ashamed. 

Yes, I bawled all over my hardback.  Not ashamed.


While this was a very upsetting thing, the story needed it in order to move forward.  Harry had become too dependent on Dumbledore’s aid and comfort.  He needed to step up and fulfill his destiny as the Chosen One and take charge of the mission to stop Voldemort.

What are some of the good reasons writers kill characters?  Well, they vary, but here are a few:

  • He’s standing in the protagonist’s way, either benignly (as Dumbledore did) or malevolently (as Magnussen in the Sherlock episode “His Last Vow”)
  • He’s grown tiresome (Nikki and Paolo on LOST) and adds nothing to the plot or character development.

In this case, you might reconsider whether he belongs there at all.  If you needed him for a purpose—he stole the elderly protagonist’s purse, thus setting her on a road to becoming a crime-fighting granny—fine.  But make sure his death doesn’t compromise your other characters.  If Granny’s moral code isn’t to kill but to capture, having her beat him to death with her cane is a non sequitur.  It won’t ring true, and readers will notice.

  • For dramatic effect, to force either a situation or growth on the other characters (Dumbledore again)
  • To enable the succession of another character (killing off a protagonist is tricky, and will probably require some pre-planning)

Before you decide to remove someone from your narrative, ask yourself the following questions.

Do you need to kill a character?

What do you hope to accomplish with this person’s death?  If you’re killing someone just for the sake of doing it, then you’re probably wasting your time.  Meaningless deaths that don’t affect the other characters in some way aren’t necessary and can piss off readers or viewers.  Think about The Walking Dead.  This show kills people right and left, but fan favorite Hershel’s brutal death at the hand of the Governor in the Season 4 episode “Too Far Gone” left everybody in a state of shock.

Hershel, we hardly knew ye.  Well, we did, but that’s beside the point.

Hershel, we hardly knew ye.  Well, we did, but that’s beside the point.


Is it the right time for him to die?

Harry Potter was able to step up after Dumbledore’s death because he’s gained enough strength through training and experiences both at Hogwarts and outside it to handle the situation.  He grew up.  In Deathly Hallows, the Harry we see has worked through his angst about being the Chosen One, and he’s able to accept the help of his friends, who leave school to go with him.  He’s mature enough now to deal with it.

How will you do it?

Sometimes, you have to do the big, grand gesture, if for no other reason than this person would not go gentle into that good night.  But a character’s death doesn’t have to be dramatic.  A quiet exit can carry just as much (if not more) emotional impact.  Joyce Summers’ death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t a huge, Big Bad-caused train wreck.  After recovering from a serious medical problem, she simply laid down on the sofa one day and slipped away (“The Body”).  I triple dog dare you to watch Buffy find her mother without crying.

You don’t have to show a death to make it tragic, either.  In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the faithful, hard-working horse Boxer collapses one day and is sold by Napoleon the pig so he can buy himself a drink.  The scene where the injured horse is carried off in the knacker’s van, with Benjamin the donkey attempting a futile rescue, is heartbreaking.

We don’t see Boxer die, but we know where he’s going, and we don’t want to know.

Will you bring him back somehow?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, and readers of the magazine The Strand canceled their subscriptions en masse.  He was so inundated with letters begging for his return that he resurrected Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Poor Watson. *cue The Lonely Man theme*


It should go without saying that you need to write the character’s comeback so it makes sense within your fictional world.  Holmes had an elaborate ruse to explain his resurrection.  In fantasy literature, writers use magic, potions, or other supernatural means to bring back characters.  In my novel Tunerville, the city is infested with newly raised ghosts, the first of which becomes a comical secondary character.


Regardless of how you do it, a character’s death is a profound moment for the other characters.  Death brings change, and with it, your story will have to move in a new direction.  Make it count; give your dying character the best death you can.

Character: I is for Independence

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I is for independence.

We think of independence as part of adulthood—taking care of ourselves without parental assistance, or providing for our own needs.  Other types of independence exist, however.  Which ones will your character have or attain in your story?

This depends on several factors.  Is this person a child?  Then he may not be very independent in actual practice, but he could be in personality.  If an adult, what kind of independence does he have?

  •  Physical independence (PhI):  Lives on his own, can travel alone, and takes care of his own needs, like food, clothing, and shelter
  • Emotional independence (EI):  Can regulate his own feelings; they aren’t contingent on what other people think and don’t control him
  • Psychological independence (PI):  Makes his own decisions and trusts their efficacy

(Abbreviations are mine; I didn’t want to type independence 4,238,681 times)

Dependent people may find themselves in relationships that aren’t good for them because their EI is weak.  They may not leave the parental home in a timely manner or return constantly because they aren’t competent in PhI yet.  A low PI means they might make hasty decisions or choose something because it’s the opposite of what another character thinks they should do.

At opposite extremes, a very independent character may not seek help from others or reluctantly accepts it because he is afraid of appearing weak or is used to having to do everything alone (like Harry Potter).

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!

This Chosen One crap is bloody stupid.  Somebody help me!


The different types of independence and how they evolve—or clash—in a character lend themselves to story conflict.  And as we all know, you can’t have a story without conflict.

A character who is a minor probably won’t be physically independent, but he could definitely have EI and PI.  While these could be personality traits, the character could also develop them if he has no reliable adults around.

Children’s and young adult fiction, particularly dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, often renders adults incompetent and/or ignorant or restricts their assistance in some fashion.  It even sometimes removes them entirely.  A good example is a book I read as a kid called The Girl Who Owned a City (1975) by O.T. Nelson.

In this story, ten-year-old Lisa and her little brother Todd find themselves on their own after a plague kills everyone over twelve (PhI).  Lisa has to step up to take care of not only her brother but also other children who begin to see her as a leader (PI).  In the process, she has to learn to trust those who are close to her and can help (EI), like Harry Potter does.  Lisa is forced by circumstance into all three forms of independence.

If you create an adult character, you could make things interesting by leaving one of them out.  For example, your grown-up takes care of himself—he holds down a job, pays his bills, does all basic self-care, etc.(PhI)  But he could have crippling anxiety that causes him to vacillate wildly on making any decisions (no PI).

He could be really clingy in romantic relationships (no EI).  How independent you make him will affect his family relationships too, assuming you decide to let him have children, parents, or siblings.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.

Oh, for God’s sake, Mycroft, stop being so annoyingly fraternal.


Destroying independence is another way you could create conflict in your story.  You could take a previously self-sufficient character and render him incapable in some way.

  • Maybe he becomes ill or injured and can no longer take care of himself
  • An emotional trauma causes him to cling to someone or something that offers comfort but isn’t necessarily good for him
  • He makes a huge mistake and begins to second-guess his decisions to the point where he is completely frozen

Whatever you decide to do with your character’s independence, remember that the vast majority of people need each other.  We’re not built to go through life’s trials without any support.  If you can twist this truth enough in either direction, your story could rocket to places you never dreamed possible.

Celebrate National Banned Books Week!

As the American Library Association is fond of pointing out, in the US the last week of September is set aside to celebrate the importance of free and open information, and that many books that provoke controversy are still available.

Many works were lost during the Nazi regime, and going back even farther, at the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria.  Most of this can be attributed to attempts by one conquering group to control another, by restricting what they are allowed to read and to think.

A book-lovers nightmare, Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451describes a totalitarian regime that employs firemen not to put out fires, but to set them.  The fuel?  Books.  ALL books.

Ideas and creative thinking are deemed dangerous, and society is controlled by incessant and vapid television programming and medication.  So far-fetched!  That could never happen NOW!

Oh wait….

Image:  imagerymajestic /

Yes, it could.  Read this article from CBC News.

These days, most objections to a book are for excessive bad language, sexual themes or situations, or violence.  Some believe that if it offends them, then it must be offensive to everyone.  Access to material must be controlled, because what if a tightly-regimented young person comes into contact with a new idea?  This will not do.

Are those books behind that little guy? Quick, do something before they infest his brain with ideas!

Image:  Milan Jurek via stock.xchng

Relax, folks.  Schools and libraries know what they’re doing, I promise you.  If they included something you’re not sure about, why not take a look at it yourself before you erupt in fury?  I’ve heard a lot of people complain about a book or film they never read or saw.  How do you know if there is a problem unless you check it out?

Children’s author Betty Miles wrote a book called Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book, a story about two classmates who inadvertently create controversy when they read a picture book about puppy birth to younger children.  It illustrates beautifully how crazy parents can get when their children are exposed to certain subjects.

My take?  Start teaching kids young.  Birth and death are part of life.  People are different-looking and act different sometimes, but underneath we’re all pretty much the same.  I think it’s wrong to keep information from anyone.

Granted, I’m not talking about subjects that are beyond a young kid’s understanding, or adult-oriented.  There’s no need to shove too much crazy at them too soon.  But we don’t give them enough credit–kids are pretty smart.  And they can spot a hypocrisy faster than anyone on the planet.

“You lied to me about where this stuff comes from, didn’t you?”

Image:  imagerymajestic /

We have brains for a reason.  Without them, we wouldn’t have antibiotics, the Hubble telescope, or laundry detergent that removes grass stains.  There would be no medical advances, no Harry Potter series (a frequent entry on the banned books lists), and no smartphones.  Yeah, that one would hit you were you live.

ALL the cool cats have them.

Image: koratmember/  

Interestingly enough, the captcha code for that image download was “arbitrary rightwit.”  Sounds a bit like an Elizabethan insult.  I think it’s an apt description of those who are determined to control other people’s reading, don’t you?

I dearly hope that someday I write a book that someone wants to ban.  Not for gratuitous sex, blood, or violence, but one that challenges people to think a bit.  Some people don’t like to do that.  I have a couple of ideas.  Perhaps you’ll see me on that list someday.

When you choose a book to read this week, make sure it’s one from the Frequently Challenged Books list.  Keep knowledge accessible to everyone.  Visit and support your local library today!

Vocabulary – O Yeah

My favorite letter! Hey, I like the shape. It’s kinda like a pizza.

O is for ocean, operatic, and ohmahgawdwhatthehelljusthappened.  Well, that’s not a word. Okay.  That’s a word.  Happy now?

Shall we begin?

Oakum – in old-timey sailor talk, natural fiber ropes that are unraveled and used to caulk cracks on a ship.  They’re jammed in the cracks and coated with pitch, which traditionally would be pine tar.  Oakum is rarely used today, except in the construction of historically authentic tall wooden ships, or maintenance of the real deal.

Jam-packed with oakum.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Oblation – a sacrifice or other offering given in worship.

Buffy rolled her eyes.  She had no time to be the demons’ oblation today.  With her super Slayer strengths, she broke her bonds, kicked all of them into the lava pit and escaped the sewers in time for lunch rush at the Doublemeat Palace.

Occlude – to close off or obstruct something.

Odoriferous – giving off a distinctive smell.

Wand held in front of him, Harry cautiously entered the Muggle attic and sniffed.  He detected the odoriferous presence of a concealed werewolf.  A board creaked in the corner.  He pointed his wand at the corner and yelled “Stupefy!” The stunned werewolf fell to the floor, unconscious.

“Right,” said Harry to the other Aurors. “Let’s get him out and modify the Muggle family’s memories.” 

Sorry, I got carried away.  Been re-reading Harry Potter again, I have.

Oenophobia – fear of wine.  Really?  You’re afraid of wine?  More for me!

I’m only afraid of red wines made from zombie-trod grapes.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Officious – annoyingly assertive or dominant.  Overly enthusiastic about being in charge.  See the first sentence in Stephen King’s The Shining. 

Ogle – to amorously glance at something or someone.

Joker ogled the pretty red-haired nurse.  He grabbed her wrist and yanked her up, ignoring her shrieks.  “Batman would come after you in a jiffy,” he said.  “Lets go, bait!”  He dragged her off into the depths of the asylum, leaving Harley to pout jealously as she cold-cocked a guard.

Ohmmeter  – a thing that measures electrical resistance in ohms.  What’s an ohm?  According to, ” the SI unit of electrical resistance, defined to be the electrical resistance between two points of a conductor when a constant potential difference applied between these points produces in this conductor a current of one ampere. The resistance in ohms is numerically equal to the magnitude of the potential difference. Symbol:  Ω ”

Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.

Oilskin – cloth that has been treated with oil to make it waterproof.

Ojime  – a Japanese bead worn on a cord.  Click on this link and then the arrow to hear a Japanese person pronounce the word.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Okra – a mucilaginous vegetable pod often used in making gumbo (yuck).  Delicious when sliced and fried in cornmeal or breaded.  For more information, click this link from the University of Illinois Extension.

Oligarchy – a form of government where power is concentrated in a small class or with just a few people.  Criteria could be wealth, royalty, or some other delineator.

Ombré (ohm-bray) – a French word meaning shaded.

Like this…om nom nom…


Onomatopoeia – a property of some words that means they suggest the sound they refer to.  Examples include buzz, oink, splash, and plop.

Oology – the study of bird eggs, primarily, or the hobby of collecting them.

Opulence – riches, affluence.

Joker’s filthy, bedraggled form looked as out of place in the opulence of Wayne Manor’s ballroom as a turd on a wedding cake.

Orology – the study of mountains.

Ossuary – a repository for bones of the dead.

“Dammit, Miklos, you were just supposed to stack them nicely!”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Otoscope – what the doctor uses to examine the inside of your ear.

Outré (oo-tray) – French word meaning excessive or extravagant.

The general thought Darth Vader’s diamond-studded cape was a bit outré, but, not wanting to be force-choked, he didn’t say a word. 

Ovine – sheeplike.

Owlery – any Harry Potter fan knows this one.  A place where owls live or gather.  In the Harry Potter series, the owlery was a room at the top of Hogwarts Castle’s West Tower, where the owls used to carry messages ate, slept and rested.

Harry waits for a message, perhaps a recipe for poop-stain removal.


Oxymoron – a contradictory figure of speech.  Examples:  jumbo shrimp, Army intelligence (if you ever watched M*A*S*H*, that may be the first one you thought of), and genuine imitation.

Oysterer – someone who sells oysters.  WHICH I HATE.

“Thass all right then; we love ’em!”

Image: Wikimedia Commons says ozocerite is:

A naturally-occurring odoriferous [!!!] mineral wax or paraffin.

It is used in the making of electrical insulators, high-temperature use candles and waxed paper.

That’s all the vocabulary for today, kids.  See you next time!