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I've never seen or read Game of Thrones but I hear that the author is in the habit of killing characters off quite frequently. I have no idea what these particular characters in the series are like (compared to the rest) and so it got me thinking about the differences between characters that a writer would want to keep in a novel and those that are disposable.

Before this point my thinking has been that it is only immoral (they got it coming to them) or uninspiring (they are no loss to anyone) characters in fiction that could be disposed of, but perhaps this is not so. I was also thinking that perhaps a character should only be killed off if it moves the story forward (they are a murder victim in a detective story) but maybe not.

So here's my question: what makes a fictional character in a made-up story disposable (i.e. what are his/her attributes) in a way that is satisfying to readers?


Research: I had a look at Is killing a character to further the plot necessarily a bad thing? but it doesn't really focus on what I need. Similarly, Killing off a character: deciding if, when and how looked promising, but the answers focused on the effect on the story of offing characters rather than what makes a character inherently disposable.

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    I couldn't get into GOT but The Walking Dead is another brilliant example of the power of killing off key characters for the precise reasons that @Secespitus has outlined. With most drama you know the lead characters aren't going to die because they're lead characters and so the stakes are low and the scenes predictable. But when a writer surprises you by killing a character you have come to love over several episodes or even series, suddenly you don't know who might die next and it sends the tension off the charts, removing that predictability. Huge TWD fan as a result of that tension. – GGx May 31 '18 at 12:39
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    Just read Game of Thrones. This question is based on a lot of assumptions. Reading Game of Thrones will make you question those assumptions as a writer better than any short answer could possibly do. (It's not even that the assumptions are necessarily incorrect, but they should be examined, not left unquestioned. Then you can decide as a conscious choice to kill or not to kill off characters, and what guidelines you want to follow, having examined both sides of the coin.) – Wildcard May 31 '18 at 12:39
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    "Before this point my thinking has been that it is only immoral (they got it coming to them) or uninspiring (they are no loss to anyone) characters in fiction that could be disposed of, but perhaps this is not so". What about the death of the mentor? Characters such as Obi Wan or Dumbledore? – alexgbelov May 31 '18 at 19:44
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    Precisely why I asked this question, @alexgbelov - because I recognised that my thinking was limited. Thanks for broadening my horizons. :) – robertcday Jun 1 '18 at 8:21
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Your premise is flawed: the characters that are killed are not disposable in the sense that it doesn't matter whether they are killed or not. Quite often they are peoples favourites, which makes them perfect candidates to raise the stakes for the reader.

By making it harder to anticipate what characters are killed and at which point a character might get killed you are making every encounter with an enemy, every person sneaking around, everything nature has to offer that could kill someone far more interesting - because you never know if it will kill someone and if so, which character will get killed.

These characters are important to the story. They have already showed to the reader how important they were. They have fought battles, made alliances, struggled with their problems. And most importantly: they still have things to do from the readers perspective. They have plans. But the world just doesn't revolve any single one of them and everyone can get killed if he meets an opponent that is too strong or has bad luck to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

You should use character death in a meaningful manner. Most often this includes furthering the story, for example by allowing certain actions of other characters, showing their emotions and how they cope with the death, ... But it can also be used to provoke certain feelings in your readers and keep them interested in the story. You show how it can hit everyone, how nobody is safe, how even with all their good deeds they can still be the victim of the cruel world or other cruel characters. This isn't a nice feeling, but it makes those characters feel important.

Or you make them brutal, ruthless characters that people are supposed to hate, making it satisfying when they are finally off the screen. They destroyed so much, they had caused so much pain to the reader that it feels good for your reader to know that this horror has finally ended.

The last thing is that a character can be important even when he is not alive anymore. The last tricks of a master that he taught his student and which will save him in the final fight, the caring father or mother whose kind words are remembered years later, the king or queen whose leadership had helped the kingdom through a hard time or created the hard times, the evil witch that left the heroes some nasty presents in case they would manage to kill her, ... Dead doesn't mean that a character can't play a role anymore. The character can't play an active role, unless you allow ghosts, but they can still be important and thereby meaningful, making their deaths feel important to the story.


If you want truly disposable characters, whose deaths don't matter, you are in the territory where you should think about whether you really want to give them a name. It doesn't matter if they are dead or alive, so why spend time on telling the reader their names or talking about how they die. But then they are not interesting for the reader.

Truly disposable characters simply don't matter. That's their definition.

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    Indeed, the reason why GoT is notorious for "killing off" characters is precisely because those characters are not disposable characters, they are in fact more often than not main characters to the plot (so far) and in at least some of the cases viewers'/readers' favorites. The opposite of that is the famous "redshirt" trope. – Jörg W Mittag May 31 '18 at 10:24
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    And something about the later books (and certainly seasons on TV) that have bugged a lot of people is that GoT, for the most part, stopped killing off important characters. – corsiKa May 31 '18 at 14:53
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    A good example of this is the difference between "red shirts" in Star Trek (the original series) and Spock in Star Trek II. Actually, in Star Trek II, Captain Terrell is medium disposable, and Spock is definitely not. – Todd Wilcox May 31 '18 at 15:35
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    @JörgWMittag: To extend your comment, the GoT deaths are effectively a philosophical statement: "The world is not just". These characters are killed almost exactly because readers have come to expect (and accurately predict) plot armor, and GRRM wants to remove that notion from his readers to destroy the reader's assumption that everything will turn out allright. Ned Stark was painted as the assumed protagonist (based on readers' assumptions of how plots evolve): avoids the limelight, kind, deeply honorable. His death forces the story to change from a Ned-centric plot to a webbed narrative. – Flater Jun 1 '18 at 12:44
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As the other answers have noted, the cast of Game of Thrones do not count as "disposable characters". A character is only really disposable if their only contribution to the plot is getting killed (and if their getting killed doesn't contribute anything to the plot, you'll want to ask yourself why they're even there in the first place).

There are three types of disposable characters:

  • Redshirts. Characters aligned with the protagonists whose entire purpose is to get killed, just to demonstrate how dangerous the Villain/Monster/Deadly Artifact/Whatever of the Week is. We don't care that much when they get shot/stabbed/suffocated/melted/whatever, because we only met them five minutes ago. We do care that the same thing might happen to the protagonists. (Spoiler alert: it almost always doesn't.)
  • Mooks. The antagonist's faceless goons. They exist solely so the protagonist(s) can show off how powerful and skilled they are by killing them. Often by the dozen. One or two may receive some extra characterisation (a random mook in Code Geass turns out to have been the father of one of the main characters, for example), but by and large we don't care about them. Sometimes they'll be killed by the antagonist instead, in a fit of rage, to show how dangerous and unstable they are.
  • The Victim of the Week. As you mentioned, this is the murder victim in a detective story. They're there to be killed, otherwise there wouldn't be a story. However, they're generally more important than redshirts and mooks, as their death is the entire basis for the plot. We see the effect their death has on those around them. We learn about who they were as a person over the course of the investigation. We may even see parts of their life via flashback.

Those are the only real circumstances in which it's acceptable to treat a character as disposable, and just kill them without giving them any prior character development or plot relevance.

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Your Question is quite simple to answer: Action and reaction!

In Game of Thrones, every character who died, had done something, that unavoidable led to his death. Arrogance, pride, making plans that go against the most influential people in the land. There are so many examples, but I don't want to spoiler anyone and that is also not the theme here.

Personally I think, that no character is disposable. Like I said in my first sentence: Every action, has a similar reaction. If my character would be so lunatic to walk into a tiger cage and started to mock a tiger ... it wouldn't be reasonal if there wont be happen something terrible. In that case, the tiger would get furious and maybe kill the character. So I would like to say, that killing a character isn't always a simple decision, but it can be unavoidable. If there is something I despise while reading it is, that there are no or almost no consequences for the hero and his party. No resent or revenge plans from the families of their victims, no judgement from anyone else, no resentment.

Every death should be reasonable and unavoidable. The only disposable characters are victims in a battle. You can't describe every solider and his motivations and regrets. Battles are battles. There are the only disposable Characters in a whole conflict.

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In a way, all characters are disposable; you are their god, you are free to kill characters or keep them alive, as suits your Grand Plan. The question is rather what suits your grand plan - what kind of story you're trying to tell.

For example, I am currently writing a war novel. In a war novel, you expect soldiers to die, right? I do not look at some soldiers as "disposable" and others as "not disposable". I look at what death would have most impact. In my story, no soldier "had it coming", and no soldier is "no loss to anyone", because such deaths would undermine my attempt to say that every dead soldier is a person, behind every KIA list there are people, with families and friends and comrades. I want every death to feel like a punch in the gut, so that's what I'm trying to write.

Readers have certain expectations regarding who is likely to die in a novel. TV Tropes calls it the "sorting algorithm of mortality". For example, a child is less likely to die than an adult, because a child's death is "too shocking", whereas an adult, especially male, is "more disposable". Further expectations are connected to the genre: in fantasy novels in particular, we do not expect the MC to die before the end, or at all. We do not expect the MC's romantic interest to be killed off in a skirmish that isn't the Big Battle of the book. Etc.
G.R.R. Martin subverts all those expectations. His character do not wear Plot Armour. In real life, people die in the middle of their story, so to speak, and so do they in Song of Ice and Fire. Any time genre conventions say a character should survive despite making choices that realistically we'd call stupid, the character dies. Because those deaths are unexpected, they're shocking. Because they're shocking, people talk about them, and also re-evaluate their understanding of the fictional world: now anyone can die. Now we fear for all characters.

So what is satisfying to the readers? It comes back to the story you're trying to tell. G.R.R. Martin's readers expect shock and realistic consequences. The death of a character they hardly knew, some henchman in a raping-pillaging band, would not have that impact. On the other hand, if you were to kill a Star Trek MC in a similar manner, viewers would be extremely unsatisfied: Tasha Yar was an MC in the first season of Star Trek the Next Generation, and got killed off like a redshirt when the actress decided to leave. She had to be brought back in the 3rd season for a more satisfying self-sacrificing death.

As a general rule, I'd say it's not just who dies, but how they die that leaves readers satisfied or unsatisfied. The "Dropped a Bridge on Him" trope, where a main character's death is anticlimactic, is considered extremely unsatisfying because it is anticlimactic. When someone close to us dies, our whole world is shaken. Conversely, when a character we got to care for dies, we expect drama. So when you want drama, you kill a character for whom the readers care. When you don't want drama, you either kill a redshirt, or you don't kill anyone at all.

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+1 Secespitus; I have little to add but to talk on writing mechanics.

Game of Thrones is a saga, a long-format story with many main characters so the writers (7, led by George RR Martin) have plenty of time to develop characters they intend to kill, and (like real life) keep bringing more of them into the story, with overlapping arcs that can span years.

Obviously it is hard to equate film length with book length, but a typical novel of 100,000 words can be covered in 2 hours, and GoT is about 55 hours long (I just googled, it may be longer): the equivalent of 28 full length novels.

In a single novel I could not portray more than three Main Character arcs (they have to be mostly together so their scenes overlap a lot); and sketch twice that (with overlaps too). The same goes for a typical movie.

But in a saga that can run 30 or 40 novels, you can portray literally a hundred Main Character arcs, and likely should, because it is difficult to prevent your audience getting bored following the same hero through that many books (with exceptions for compelling static characters that do not really develop at all, like Sherlock Holmes or Hawkeye Pierce).

Now obviously it would be a mistake to try and introduce a hundred MC in novel 1 of 40: You have to introduce them as you go. Their arcs must overlap, which means you (the author) need to take some off the stage to introduce others and give them a chance.

To Secespitus's point, one advantage of this approach is preventing the sense of "False Jeopardy" [A moment in a drama in which it is suggested that, despite the audience’s commonsense intuition to the contrary, a series regular might die]. We know Superman, disabled and mortalized by Kryptonite, is never going to be permanently killed or disabled. If Sherlock Holmes gets shot, it is temporary, he will be fine in a week or two.

Not so on GoT, favorite MAIN characters die every season, and the audience members that are emotionally invested in them, with love or hate, are fearful or hopeful every time that character appears. Full of anticipation about what is about to happen, which is the main fun of fiction.

It is far more difficult to pull this trick off in a single novel, there just isn't enough room to develop and kill more than one or two MC, but increasingly more leeway to kill secondaries, tertiaries, walk-ons and anonymous characters [e.g. everyone in Washington DC].

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    Your math is based on false assumptions. No book can be covered in a 2 hour film unless it's a very short book. They always have to cut a lot from the book. – Tim B May 31 '18 at 16:19
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    @TimB As I said, it is hard to equate. Much of what is cut from the book is setting, atmosphere and emotional characterizations which are shown and heard, not told. But there is a reason movie makers buy rights, they preserve the core of the story. As for my math being wrong: Not really. The math is there to show WHY you can have so many beloved chars killed, because there is room to make them beloved, and then replace with another you make beloved, and then replace that one with another, and so on. There just isn't room to do that in the typical novel-length. – Amadeus May 31 '18 at 16:39
  • Game of Thrones is a counter example to your math. The film has like one character out of three and two arcs out of three. And it's meant to cover only 7 novels which is done to like 50% coverage... – Džuris Jun 1 '18 at 9:15
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The thing to consider is: why you are killing the character?

As stated in another answer you may be trying to show that your hero is a skillful fighter. If so, you probably just want to let the reader know that the victim is in some way a worthy opponent and had it coming to him/her. The same but in the opposite sense for the villain. Killing someone helpless and innocent makes the villain seem particularly evil. It may be counter productive to make a character like this anything more than a quick sketch because it could distract the reader from the main story. (Though maybe not.)

Maybe you want to kill someone in order to make life difficult for your main character. In this case you probably want to make the reader care about them so that they can sympathise with the main character's pain. Think about Simba's father in The Lion King or Obi Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie. The main character is deprived of a wise guide and protector and is emotionally wounded at the same time. Clearly, this kind of character is very different from the cannon fodder in the previous example. A similar idea used often in romance novels is to kill the main character's first love interest leaving them devastated and at least temporarily unable to love again. In more serious literature, consider Dora in Dickens' David Copperfield who fills this kind of role.

You might even want to kill off your main character. Many of Shakespeare's tragedies did this. In this case the usual thing is to make your character rounded and sympathetic (to engage the reader's sympathy) but with a tragic flaw (to justify their death). A bit of a variation on this is to make the main character a saintly character who by his death resolves the central plot question (Christ-like sacrifice).

It all depends on your story. What does the death accomplish in your story?

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Very interesting and diverse answers already. I would like to contribute an interesting example on the specific part of the question:

...in a way that is satisfying to readers?

Consider Chronicles of a Death Foretold, by the great Gabriel García Márquez. This is a perfect example of the many sorts of characters that can be "disposable" (although not unimportant) because of what they say about the protagonist on the opening lines of the book:

El día en que lo iban a matar, Santiago Nasar se levantó a las 5.30 de la mañana para esperar el buque en que llegaba el obispo.

Which translates to:

The day he was going to be killed, Santiago Nasar woke up at 5:30 in the morning to wait for the boat in which the bishop arrived.

Biggest spoiler ever? Perhaps... but we can see how from the beginning the reader knows that Santiago is going to be killed... but ignores how, when, where, and at what point of the story.

This gives a tremendous twist to the usual novel the reader might expect (after all, the rest of the book moves "forward" in a non-linear way). It also enables them to "build the jigsaw puzzle" from the pieces given as the plot advances, making the whole experience more engaging.

On Chronicles of a Death Foretold the expectation of the character's death culminates at the beginning (which IMHO enables more depth on character development later on), whereas on the GOT saga readers and viewers are constantly on the edge of their seats and regretting getting attached to a character because of what may happen...

...However we can say those two universes could converge at some point, because some of the GOT readers will eventually see the pattern and realize any beloved character is at risk. This would have an equivalent effect as Santiago's death, because the reader will be less concerned on if the character is going to die, and more interested on the character itself.

Both ways seem really effective to present characters that will die, but it seems to me that perhaps Márquez's way is a bit more poetic (if not, complex) and fast to catch the reader.

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