Rules for Writing Death

Life is not fair, least so when it’s coming to an end. So much of human thought and culture focuses around death, it’s no wonder people get so emotionally invested in it, even in simulated form on the page. Character death can be one of the most powerful emotional experiences in a narrative, but because of the emotions involved, it’s also one that has to be handled well and placed appropriately, else you’ll have your readers/viewers rightfully crying foul.

I’ve mentioned this before on the blog; I’m currently working on a graphic novel/comic/whatever as my main creative project. I’ve got a lot of plans for it. One of my plans is to build our main group of heroes up to seventeen people, then have that group whittled around to about seven or eight as the work moves towards its denouement. So yeah, there’s going to be plenty of fallen heroes, and no Plot-Important Character Immunity.

However, as I’ve been planning this out, I’ve been thinking back to some of the other works I’ve gone through, with the characters in similar situations. Specifically, works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead. Works with an excessive amount of character death. Works where not only can anyone die, but most characters will die. And they’re both very strong works in their own right. However, all that death pushes the tone quite a bit darker than I’m wanting to go, and the sheer quantity of it makes most individual cases of characters dying lose a lot of the impact.

There’s a line there. With the story I’m wanting to tell, characters are going to die by necessity, but kill too many, or too darkly, and the work’s going to get dour, the death itself won’t be as strong at driving engagement, and any hypothetical readers are going to be a lot more hesitant to let themselves connect with my characters. I’m going to have to toe the line. Of course, I don’t have any firm idea of where it is.

I decided to put together guidelines for myself. As a mental exercise, and to make my work stronger as I progress, I’d set goals for how I’m going to be treating death in this work. Things that define the how, when, and where death is going to be applied in my narrative. Of course, as with everything in writing, these are flexible, but having them thought out in advance should make my story a lot better than it would be otherwise.

And, of course, if I’m putting in all the work anyways, I might as well make a post out of it, right? Here goes:

Only kill characters when it truly advances the story

If I just want to get a character or group of characters out of the way, there are a lot of ways to do so. Make them get pissed off and leave. Have them be too scared to get involved. Have them taking care of their own business in Timbuktu. Have them retire. Hell, if I need bad things to happen to them, it’s a simple matter to have them be grievously injured, kidnapped, or something of the like.

Death is the narrative equivalent of a big freakin’ sledgehammer. It’s there to shatter, to break down, and to drive spikes into aspects of your narrative. There’s definitely times when a sledgehammer is called for. However, you wouldn’t use a sledgehammer whenever you needed to drive in nails. Likewise, you don’t want to kill off characters every time the opportunity arises.

Knowing myself, I’m sure there’s going to be tempted to kill off characters as a means of managing my large primary cast. After all, the focus can only be on so many things without drawing the pace of the story to a crawl. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For one, these side characters could still be useful. Killing them off removes all utility I could be getting from them in the future. Killing characters indiscriminately is also needlessly manipulating of any readers who may be honestly interested in them. If anyone’s grown attached to them, it’s downright disrespectful to kill those characters off in favor of new, unproven ones. It also wastes any emotional torque such death could bring, in properly designed death scenes.

And really, there’s going to be a lot of situations where it’s just not necessary. I’ve got a story to write about death, my work will be better off just removing them from the situation in a way that leaves them alive. For audiences to take death seriously, it has to be handled respectfully, and throwing it at the wall the first chance I get without properly exploring it is not a sign of respect. Most of the time, it’s going to be both far more appropriate and easier to adequately write to have characters be injured, but survive, to be off on their own quests, or something similar, than to kill them outright.

Death is a conclusion, and should be treated as such

A lot of works do shocking, completely out of nowhere character deaths. A lot of works do them very well. That’s not something I’m really wanting to explore in this piece. I’m going for something strongly character-driven here, and every major death is the end to one of my character’s stories. That means it should be written like an ending. It will need a proper foundation, solid build up, and significant resolution. Essentially, a death scene needs its own individual arc to be handled properly in this piece, one that plays out over much more time than just the scene itself.

This holds the risks of making deaths more predictable. If done write, with death used sparingly, and only when appropriate, I may be able to avoid that, but in any case, and predictable but well-written death is still worlds better than the opposite.

Plot-important deaths are about more than just the character dying

War sucks. People die. Their friend move on, because really, they have to. Everyone’s impacted by death, though. Some more than others. But everyone carries it with them.

I don’t want members of the main cast to just die and never be mentioned again. Deaths will impact the characters close to them for long after the initial event. Some will handle it better than others, some will show it more than others, but everyone is affected. Character death is a massive thing in a narrative, and one of the most commonly-seen mistakes in modern fiction is to kill a major character just for a quick emotional peak and not use it for anything else afterwards. This wastes a lot of the deaths potential, and is disrespectful both to the characters and any reader that’s connected with them. Death always needs to drive further action.

Nobody comes back

This is an idea I’m not entirely attached to yet, because I’ve got a setting where I could easily justify resurrection in certain circumstances, but I’m definitely leaning this way. If you ever want to ruin all emotional impact character death will have, forever, the quickest way is to bring a character back from the dead.

This is a problem that’s really endemic with superhero comics. We’ve had quite a few well-publicized character deaths already, this decade. Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, just off the top of my head. All of them died. All of their deaths received major publication in mainstream media. All of their followers were totally nonplussed at their deaths. All of them are back now. Those last two things are related. After all, why should your readers take death as final when it’s obvious the writer doesn’t.

So yeah, I’m going to say that unless a death puts my story seriously off track, nobody’s coming back from the grave. I do reserve the right to have characters appear dead, but show up alive and well later, so long as nobody confirms their death and that’s foreshadowed at or around the time of killing.

No deaths purely for meta reasons

Sometimes, you can just feel the writer moving things around in the story. Nowhere is this more commonly apparent than in character death calculated to have an impact on the reader. This is the brand new villain killing the badass character just so the reader believes their super strong. This is the character dying with little build at the start of a new arc so the reader knows it’s a tragic story. This is the undeveloped girlfriend getting killed and shoved into the fridge so the audience audience is totally shocked and decides the hero has to go all grimdark now.

That’s not to say that everything that’s similar to the above is automatically bad. Just that most of the time, when the above situations are written, they’re written solely for their impact on the audience, with their storytelling utility held secondary. It’s outward facing rather than forward facing. Events can and should shock, sadden, instill joy, and otherwise emotionally effect the audience. However, you do need to give your audience some credit; they are absolutely ready and willing to connect with your characters and immerse themselves in your story. The best way to instill an emotional response is to direct events towards your characters, rather than the reader. It’s a subtle difference, but one your reader can easily pick up on. Deaths need to drive your story, not your audience; they’ll easily follow you where you’re going, if it’s well-written enough. But trying to manipulate a response out of them just makes them resist.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect readers to respond to my character’s death. But killing characters off just to make the reader respond is both ineffective, as the reader will know and fight against it, and short-sided, as it rarely is well-written enough to drive the story.

A Dark Souls Intermission

Last time, on Pain, Suffering, and Sewer Levels, we slew an absolutely grody dragon and waded in human excrement for a few hours. This time… well, this time’s going to be a little different. Occasionally, I spend a bit of time just dicking around in Lordran in between entries, leveling up, upgrading my gear, and generally doing things that don’t really advance me in the game so much. Normally, nothing worth writing about happens in those times, so I don’t make posts about them. This is one of those times, ‘cept some things happened that are probably going to come into play in the future, so I can’t get by keeping it behind the black. I’d just append it to a bigger update, but frankly, Blighttown sucks and I hate it, and that’s probably going to be a pretty sizable post already. So here. Here’s a little orphan post, shoved into the world all on its lonesome.

If you’ll recall from last update, Domhnall of Zena was kind enough to let us know that we had some resurrecting undead ahead of us, and we’d need divine weapons to properly end them. Now, if you were going to describe me in one word, you’d probably use “gorgeous”. But if you asked a blind person to describe me in one word, they’d call me “prepared”. There’s no way that I’m going to dive into Blighttown without getting myself ready. At least, not while I’m publishing all my misadventures to the world, most of whom are probably already mocking me for my failure. And as it so happens, the freakin’ sewer level holds the slimes, who I can grind for the material I need to make my weapons divine.


That’s right. You want to hold the power of Geezer Zeus in your sword? You’ve got to wade around in foul and dig through some living muck. My guess is that they’re trying to instill some humility, before granting their favor.

Green Titanite collected, I make my way back to Andre, the blacksmith. Now, I just have to pick which weapon to make divine. None of the unique weapons work, meaning I can’t use my beloved Black Knight Sword, my Drake Sword, or any of my most powerful gear. In fact, it seems my best choice may be that scimitar I started the game with.


Apparently that blade is just raging with godly might now.

Of course, any new weapon needs a good test before being put to action. And I think I’ve got the perfect patsy in mind. You may remember way back in our first entry, there’s a small coven of skeletons just outside of Firelink Shrine. I took them on when I first entered the area, but had no way of countering the regenerative abilities. Well, I may not be able to get vengeance on the stupid bridge wyvern, but these guys should be well within my grasp.


On the way back I bump into Laurentius of the Great Swamp, who we had previously saved from a dire fate as barrel chow. He made it back to the shrine safely, thus furthering my mission to populate the area with people who aren’t total dicks.

Laurentius is a pyromancer, practitioner of one of this world’s three types of mystic power. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You remember Griggs? A magic user we rescued from the clutches of the vile barrel, who relocated back to Firelink and taught me how to use his art? Can you predict what happens next?


Oh yes. In fact, this is much more significant gain than when I was taught the past two schools of magic. I am My character is not very intelligent, meaning his sorcery is weak. Nor is he faithful, limiting the miracles he can use. The spells of the Great Swamp are considered “unsavory” by most proper magic users, largely because absolutely anyone can be an effective pyromancer. These spells don’t scale with intelligence, like sorcery. They don’t scale with faith, like miracles. Instead, they scale with the amount of souls I give Laurentius to upgrade my flame.

And Exodus here may be neither smart nor pious, but he’s pretty damn good at killing monsters.

I’ve finally got some magic my physically-focused character can effectively use. On the flip-side, I don’t get as many uses out of pyromancy as I would the other schools, but that’s what Geezer Zeus invented giant honking swords for.


So we’ve got two new tools for dealing death. What say we test them out?


My fireball works well. Really well. Deals really solid damage to the skeleton, and has the added effect of preventing them from regenerating. This could be exactly what I’ve been needing.


My new sword doesn’t work nearly so well. Lets talk a bit about weapon scaling. Most weapons have one or two stats that boost the amount of damage they deal. For example, with my beloved Black Knight blade, my attack power is boosted significantly by my strength, and less so by my dexterity. Divine weapons, as it turns out, are primarily boosted by faith. And as had been previously mentioned, my faith leaves something to be desired. As a result, while I could slay these guys in a single blow with my Black Knight Sword, albeit leaving them open to revival, it takes several swings even double-handed with this stubby little divine blade.


And unfortunately, they have more skeletons than I have fireballs.

With the drastically reduced damage I deal, I go through quit a few failures in this graveyard, most of which are absolutely unremarkable and we won’t be talking about them. Nope. We will not. I’m able to retrieve my power each time, so I don’t take any permanent losses at least.


Through perseverance, I eventually make it to the end, where this giant skeleton awaits. Through some clever dodging, I’m able to take care of his smaller attendants before turning my attention solely to Goliath here.

Drawing him out towards the entrance to the graveyard gives me a lot more room to work with. Convenient since I’m out of fireballs and this sword isn’t going to be taking him down in any sort of hurry. Defense becomes my most important asset here, and I play this slow, dodging his attacks and slowly whittling away his shins.

This is actually a picture of him dying, not spiking a sword through my head.

This is actually a picture of him dying, not spiking a sword through my head.

Eventually, Goliath has had enough, and gives up the ghost. I get a bit of treasure out of my conquest, most of which is unremarkable save for a pair of binoculars. More important than that, though, is the message I’ve sent. It’s taken me eleven updates worth of play, but I’ve finally taken my revenge for their brutal treatment of me back when I was bright-eyed a bushy-tailed. These skeletons will now send the message to the bridge wyvern and everyone else, that nobody’s gonna be able to kill me and live. Except they’re dead now. So they’ll just have to give the bridge wyvern the message in hell. After I kill her.

In any case, pyromancy’s great. It gets my whole-hearted recommendation, if you’re looking to slay some enemies but don’t get good grades and never went to Sunday school. The sword, not so much. Either I’m going to have to read up on my Geezer Zeus bible or I’ll have to upgrade it some more before it’s even worth considering using in all but the strictest circumstances. I’ll figure something out. Or will I? Tune in next time to find out!

Next: We get to the place.  That place.  You know the one.

Shifting Gears: From the Writer to the Editor


Some time ago, my good friend Harliqueen decided to pursue a career in writing.  She’s working on building up her work right now, seeking to get three novellas completed before releasing them as e-books.  She’s already got two books finished up, so it’s not going to be long now before the published author’s club has to start printing out some new membership cards.

The thing is, before you finalize any big writing project, you need some good editing.  Particularly when you’re looking to make a living off of your writing, you absolutely have to make sure everything’s as near perfect as you can get it.  And self-editing, while absolutely valuable, doesn’t always cut it.  You already have your vision for the story ingrained in your mind, so you’re going to perceive your writing more similarly to your idealized end product than someone coming to it raw.  Published writers can live or die based on the value of the feedback they get from their editors.  Since Harliqueen is looking to make writing her lifestyle, she really needs some good editors.  She needs someone skilled, who has an innate understanding of the English language and its use in literature.  She needs someone wise, who can not only analyze her work, but can word his/her thoughts in easily applicable and useful forms.  She needs someone evocative, who can efficiently get her thinking along the same lines as the editor, to help her most efficiently make use of that feedback.

Well, apparently Harli couldn’t find anyone with those traits, because she resorted to asking me to join her editing team.  I know, I know.  That poor soul.

I’ve been doing what I can for her, though.  I’ve edited both of her currently completed works.  According to her, I’ve actually been useful, meaning I can finally claim that my life has meaning.  Now, I’ve done a fair bit of writing myself, and I’ve edited a lot of official documents (press releases, business plans, etc.) but this was my first experience editing someone else’s creative works.  And I experienced a lot of things differently than I had originally expected in this process.  I thought, since I’ve finally got some time this weekend, that I’d organize my thoughts on just how that works.  Hopefully, this’ll make me a more efficient editor, should I be called upon to do this again.

When writing, there seems to be an endless list of things I need to keep track of.  Are all my words spelled correctly and am I using proper grammar?  Am I hitting the right sentence rhythm?  Do my dialogues and character thoughts feel natural and distinct from the narration?  Am I communicating my ideas clearly enough?  Is my word choice the best it could be?  Writing is complicated business, and all this and more is constantly running through my head as I flex my creative muscles.  With editing, on the other hand, I’ve found that I mostly need to keep track of one very simple thing: flow.  As I read through the Harli’s work, the biggest thing I need to keep track of is my reading flow.  I’ve found that probably over 90% of the things I need to make notes about in her stories I can detect by simply paying attention to how smoothly I’m moving through her sentences.  If there’s a spelling or grammar issue, awkward wording, confusing phrasing, or pretty much anything else, it’ll cause a hitch at the rate I’m physically reading the sentences.  Every time my reading slows down or I have to double back and re-read something to get a clear idea of what it’s trying to say, that’s almost always something I need to make a note of.  So far, I’ve found that’s my best means of catching things; paying close attention to my reading flow and finding things when it’s broken or changes suddenly.

Harliqueen’s British.  I’m American.  I’ve known Harli for years, and we do most of our communication through writing.  I had thought that this would make me very used to working with British English.  I was wrong.  Everyone knows about the extra ‘u’s in words that’d just end in ‘or’ here.  But did you know that the British often use ‘c’s or ‘z’s where an American would use an ‘s’?  And that British English doesn’t drop silent ‘e’s when adding suffixes to words as much as American English does?  I didn’t, until I started this editing process.  These perfectly fine spellings still seem off to me, but it really wouldn’t do Harli any favors to have a British writing style with odd American spellings randomly thrown in.

For that matter, I’ve had to take pains to try not to impose my own writing style on the work.  There’ve been times where it’s been most efficient for me to put a recommended rewrite of a sentence of phrase in my notes, to best get across the changes I think need to be made, but even those I’ve tried to keep to a minimum.  When people buy the novellas Harli’s going to be putting out, they’ll be doing so for her writing style, not mine, and having a mongrel writing style is only going to weaken her work.  So, even if I would phrase things differently or use different terms for an idea, as long as Harli’s adequately getting the idea across, it’s really not my place to recommend a change there.

Continuing off that idea, there have been a few times I’ve recommended some changes to the content of her work.  Some ideas that could be expounded upon, some characters that had room for better development, stuff like that.  I even had a couple of ideas on how she could have developed those.  Thing is, though, pointing out areas for improvement?  That’s great.  Trying to improve them myself?  Not so much.  In order to make sure that everything is consistent throughout her story, even the ideas of how to develop her concept really need to come from Harli.  Great as a writer I’m convinced I am, and no matter how much I’d enjoy the writing aspect of it, everything in the novella really needs to come from Harli, and it’s best for the work as a whole if I do’t get too involved in developing the content.

Cooking with Testosterone: Rice and Cranberry Soup



Life is still quite hectic, right now.  So I figured I’d continue the pattern and post material I already had written, but never quite found a home on the internet.  Here’s a thing I once wrote simply for the amusement of my friends and family, which served as progenitor to this post some time ago.

Tonight’s challenger is Rice and Cranberry Soup. It was supposed to be Wild Rice and Cranberry Soup, but where I live, they stop nice things at the border in. The closest thing I could find was a Rice-a-Roni mixture that had a couple bits of wild rice within it. Any lesser person would have been stymied here, but luckily, I am very sexy, and that means I don’t have to play by the rules.

Anyways, the soup itself was really simple. Cook rice, fry veggies, throw everything into broth, heat up and eat. Decided to go with a featherweight contender for my first match. It had a lot of vegetables, though, so I can still brag about how healthy I’m being even after I eat the fatty, fatty meals I’m planning for the next two nights.

As I do with everything else, I absolutely conquered this dinner. The vegetables and rice were cooked to perfect texture, and I added just the right amount of cranberries to where there was flavor in every bite, but it wasn’t overwhelming. However, I should have used more stock and it was slightly under-seasoned, so I can only award 12 out of 5 points.

The Hybrid Heaven Review Nobody Expected

Hey guys, got a bit of a problem here.  You might have noticed that posts have dropped off a bit in frequency, the past couple months.  There’s been a couple of factors going into that and they’re all coming to a head now.  I recently found out that my job has more of a time limit attached to it than anyone thought, and I’ve really been focusing on the whole trying to stay employed so I can afford all my fancy hair products thing.  Also, the post I’ve been working on looks like it’s going to be taking a while to finish up.  Yet another big, wordy one.

I’m really not wanting to leave the blog in the lurch, but I didn’t have a post to go.  I figured I’d settle on a compromise.  I’ve been writing things for a few years, much of which has ended up in some corner of the internet or another, but I do have some stuff from years past that never found an outlet.  Seeing as this stuff’s survived transfers through at least two computers, I figured it’d be fair to give it a home, and help me get some content up in the leaner times.

To start with, here’s a review I wrote circa 2008, on a lesser known N64 RPG, Hybrid Heaven.  I make no claims to its accuracy, quality, or the not-being-a-wankerness of my writing.  This is something I did when I was still very early to the world of having people read the stuff I just write for fun, and trust me, a lot of my material back then even makes me cringe now.  Anyways, here’s hoping you enjoy!

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