Thursday, April 24, 2014

Guest Post: On Killing Characters by Jaleigh Johnson

by Jaleigh Johnson
Release Date: March 25, 2014
Ages 14 and Up
ISBN: 978-0-385-37615-0
Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers

In the scrap towns, a day’s pay depends on what you find in the Meteor Fields. Storms rain down objects from other lands, and ever since Piper’s father died, scavenging is the only way for her to survive. Until the day she strikes gold. Unconscious, lying in the fields amid the rubble, is a girl. She’s beautiful and well-dressed . . . and has a dragonfly tattooed on her wrist. The mark of the dragonfly means the girl is from the Dragonfly Territories. If Piper can get her back there, she might get a reward and be able to start a new life.
The 401 train is the safest way to get to the Dragonfly Territories, but Piper will have to sneak aboard, and convincing the girl to join her seems unlikely—until there’s a knock on Piper’s door and she learns that the girl is more valuable than she could ever have imagined. There are people who want her back, and they won’t stop until they have her. Piper wants a new life, but running for it isn’t how she thought she’d get there. And the race to the Dragonfly Territories looks like it might be impossible to finish alive.

With a cast of characters who stand up and walk off the page, THE MARK OF THE DRAGONFLY has an action-packed plot, a page-turning pace, and a vivid, unique setting that will charm girls and boys who want to escape into another world.

JALEIGH JOHNSON is a lifelong reader, gamer, and moviegoer. She loves nothing better than to escape into fictional worlds and take part in fantastic adventures. She lives and writes in the wilds of the Midwest, but you can visit her online at or on Twitter @JaleighJohnson.

On Killing Characters

“As soon as Character X is no longer useful in the story—BAM—I drop a piano on his head.”  --some author somewhere, probably

I’ve heard variations of this quote often over the years, and in some ways, I envy authors who know exactly when to kill off Character X by dropping a piano on his head or having him be eaten by rabid squirrels.  Character deaths, if done well, are an emotional gut punch and can change the course of the novel.  The stakes skyrocket.  Suddenly, the reader’s asking herself, jeez, if Character X got the axe, then who’s to say my favorite Character Y won’t be fed to the squirrel horde next. Now she’s turning pages and sweating bullets over Character Y’s fate. She’s invested.  That’s wonderful.

And yet…
Confession: as a writer, I’m not always sure when I should hoist the piano and let it fall.

Death, at least in my novels, is permanent.  Once I write that character off the page, he’s gone for good, and any stories he might have left to tell will die with him.  Maybe that’s why I haven’t killed many characters up to this point in my writing.  I always have that desire to tell more of their story.  They never stop having potential for growth and development, to find redemption or to go bad.  In fact, most of the characters I’ve killed in my stories were deaths that I planned from the beginning.  I knew their stories had a fixed endpoint. 

One exception to this happened in my second published novel Mistshore.  One of the characters, Sull, got into a fight late in the novel, a fight to the death, and I knew that there were legitimate story reasons to have Sull not survive that battle.  For one thing, he was fighting to protect his friends, and I knew his character well enough to know that he wouldn’t hesitate to give his life for them.  He was also clearly outmatched in the fight, so at the very least he was going to come away gravely injured.  The more I wrote, the more convinced I became that this was the logical end for poor old Sull.

And yet…
I just couldn’t do it.

Yeah, I know.  Maybe I’m a wimp.  But hear me out.  Part of my justification for saving Sull was that the hero of the story had already lost too much.  Losing one of her closest friends would send her over the edge, and that wasn’t where I wanted her to go.  When a character dies, it causes a ripple effect that touches all the characters surrounding him.  As a writer, I have to be mindful of that and weigh the consequences as I write.  I had to do that when I was writing The Mark of the Dragonfly too.  A certain character (I can’t say which one for spoilery reasons) died in an early draft of the novel, only to be brought back in a later draft because the ripple effects of the death were too great.  And I’ve never regretted that decision.

But there were other reasons I saved old Sull, if I’m honest. 

The thing is I get attached to my characters.  Authors do that.  True, it doesn’t stop me from making them suffer, have them make bad choices, embarrass themselves, or confront the squirrel horde in a death match.  Suffering is a necessary part of the story, of the characters’ journey and growth.  But sometimes they surprise me too, let me know that the stories they have left to tell are more important than a heroic end.  Sull’s story wasn’t finished; he had more to contribute—and I liked him!  So I snatched him from the jaws of death.
Okay, I maimed him a bit, but he’s fine.

So, yes, it’s hard for me to kill characters.  Doesn’t mean I won’t do it if the story truly calls for it.  But it’s never easy, and I think that in the end that’s a good thing.

Note:  No squirrels were harmed in the making of this post.  


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Stephanie: thanks for having Jaleigh over!

    Jaleigh: good post. I've killed off characters in my MS- it's part of the genre, mind you, being espionage, both good people and villains, and that included the death of children.

    One of my favourite authors introduced a character as a villain, later turning him into the protagonist and hero. Initially in that first book he wrote the character buying the farm, but his wife told him the character was too compelling to die, so he switched out the ending.

  3. Great post. It's extremely difficult to kill your characters.

  4. Well, one of the most oft-quoted advice to writers is to murder your darlings! But it's so hard to do. They are your darlings after all.