Monday, May 27, 2013

On Killing your Characters by Anthony Eaton

(Or, at least, on killing the ones that will make your mother really annoyed at you…)

Okay. I’m going to start off with one of the little-known rules about writing successful fiction. But before I get to that, I want to make sure you’re not feeling squeamish. If you are, you probably better stop here. You’ve been warned.

Sitting comfortably? Got a glass of water handy? Good. Let’s go…

Want to write a successful story? One that’ll make your readers gasp? One that’ll wring an emotional response from them so much so that they phone you up at 10.00pm to abuse you for being such a horrible person?

If you do, then I have three words for you…

Kill a dog.

Not a real one, obviously. That would be just plain mean. Also slightly psychotic.

But if you’re a writer, and you want to give a story a bit of real emotional punch, then kill a dog. Works every time, I promise you.

Some case studies: (or, put another way, famous dead dogs in literature)

1. The Tod (Isobelle Carmody, The Gathering) What happens to The Tod is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. And I was 26 years old at the time. It’s also the absolute pivotal moment in that book. I’m not saying any more, because I don’t want to spoil it, but if you haven’t read The Gathering, then do yourself a favour and go and do so. During daylight.

2. Wellington (Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) No spoiler here – the first paragraph of the book is a detailed description of poor Wellington lying on his side with a pitchfork stuck in him. That’s a scene that stays with you for a long, long time…

3. Manchee (Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go). I met Patrick Ness at a writer’s festival a few years back. He’s a nice bloke. Really lovely. Until you read what he does to Manchee. Then you’ll hate him. Promise.

4. Old Yeller (Fred Gipson, Old Yeller) An American Classic. ‘Nuff said.

There are others, but you get the point. Killing a dog can be very good for business – that’s assuming that you’re in the business of putting your readers through the emotional wringer (which, let’s face it, is what writing is all about, really…)

I’ve personally killed a lot of fictional dogs, and every time I do it, I get a big response from readers.

Let me tell you about them.

The first dog I killed off in a book never even had a name, poor thing. It was just called ‘the dog’. He (I’ve always thought of this particular fictional dog as a he, for some reason) featured in the first of my Darklands Trilogy books, Nightpeople. Actually, he didn’t feature at all in the first few drafts – I added him in somewhere around about draft five or six, because I’d come to the sudden realization that:

a) The book, at that point, was basically 400 pages of three people wandering around a desert; and
b) There was nothing really happening in the book to make my readers emotionally engaged with Saria, my main character.

So I decided to give her a dog. Everyone likes dogs, right? The dog also helped me solve a few pretty gaping plot holes in the early drafts. But – and let me make this clear – when I introduced the dog into the story, I didn’t have any plans to kill him off. At least not at the beginning.

But here’s the thing – the more I wrote this dog character into my tale, and the more I teased out the relationship between Saria and the pup, the more I became aware that if I were to…you know… sort of kill the dog off, the bigger impact it’d have on the reader.

So I did. And it wasn’t pretty. And when my mother and sister read it, they didn’t talk to me for about three weeks. Which kinda validated my decision, in it’s own way.

So having killed off one dog in one book, I set my sights on bigger things…

In 2008, I published a novel called Into White Silence. It’s not a cheerful book. It’s about an expedition to Antarctica during the 1920’s that goes horribly wrong for everyone involved, including the expedition’s 60 Siberian Huskies.

The first Husky to get the chop in that book was called Pirate. He… actually, let me show you the passage in question, because it illustrates the point much better than me telling you about it. In this scene the expedition ship is caught in a storm, on the way down to Antarctica, and one of the kennels comes loose on the deck. Ivan – the dog’s Russian handler – gradually pulls all the animals out of the kennel as it crashes around, and Pirate is the final dog to be rescued…

“…Ivan eventually crawled on his hands and knees into the kennel and pulled the animal out by his tail, before wrapping his huge arms around the dog’s belly and lifting him bodily into the air to carry him across to the portside kennel. Even in the maelstrom of the storm, the sight of poor Pirate being hauled out with so little dignity raised a laugh among all of us, and perhaps that was the reason nobody noticed the next set of waves which, at that moment, rolled out of the darkness and sent the entire ship lurching hard to port.

Ivan, his arms full and his balance encumbered, went flying down towards the port rail and he and Pirate vanished over the side and into the black water. It happened so quickly that not a man on deck had a chance to assist him. One second he was there, struggling with the dog, the next, just… gone.” (p128)

Now here’s the thing – two characters go over the side in that scene, a man and a dog. Guess which one people got upset with me about? I’ll give you a clue – It’s not Ivan. (Okay, that’s a pretty bad clue, I know…)

In fact Into White Silence is a book in which EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER dies, and yet I’ve had more people cross at me about poor old Pirate than the forty or so human beings who all meet their grisly ends.

So there you have it – one of the little known rules of effective characterisation; the gentle art of killing off fictional dogs. I’ll finish with two important words of warning, though;

Firstly, remember that for the most part you need to make your reader actually like the dog before you kill it off. Otherwise this just won’t work (unless you’re Mark Haddon, of course…)

And secondly, like all good writing tricks, this is one to use sparingly – the more you use it, the less effective it becomes. And if you start killing off dogs in every single thing you write (especially if you’re writing for school) then you might find yourself in the counselor’s office fairly regularly. Pick your moment, and your dog.

Oh, and just to be absolutely clear, I’m not anti-dog. In fact, I like dogs a lot. My family has a 10 year old Kelpie Cross named Chelsea who chases possums and guards our chickens. I’m definitely a dog person.

Cats, on the other hand….

About the Author

Anthony Eaton has been writing professionally for children, young adults, and adults since the late 1990s. To date he has published eleven novels.

At the end of 2005 he travelled to Antarctica to research his novel Into White Silence which has received critical acclaim, including an Honour Book Prize in the 2009 CBCA awards and a shortlisting in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.   His Darklands Trilogy have been shortlisted and awarded in the Aurealis Awards for Australian Speculative Fiction. The final book of the trilogy, Daywards, was released by UQP in March 2010, and was a CBCA notable Australian Children’s book in 2011.

He lives in Canberra with his wife, son, and a slightly deranged kelpie cross named Chelsea, and works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Canberra.

Visit his website at:
His blog at:
Or Twitter him @anthonyeaton


  1. I see your point, but I like it best when you think the dog is dead, then it turns out the dog is NOT dead.

    1. I agree, Spot. I've always had a soft spot for "against the odds" suvival stories - especially animals.

      I was really hoping that Manchee would somehow survive and there would be a happy reunion with Todd and the (new) world would be a better place for that hope.

      But perhaps that is Tony's point - and Patrick Ness'- there's nothing like the death of an innocent dog to add drama to the story and make the (fictional) world a sadder, less hopeful place.

      Thanks for your comment.

      PS is your mother's name "Sally"?

  2. Great article Anthony! I'm a dog lover and whenever I read a book in which a dog dies (usually one I've become quite fond of) I stop reading it for a day or two - almost like a protest against killing the dog. It's a bit ridiculous, but it demonstrates your point about how killing a dog really gets people engaged with the story. I also spend the rest of the book hoping that the dog will miraculously return...poor Manchee!!

  3. I'm reading Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody, and there's a really awesome cat in it called Maruman, but I promised myself, I can't get attached to animal characters, after what happened to Machee.