What brought this to mind was a bombshell on CNN's entertainment page:
J.K. Rowling almost killed off Ron WeasleyWow.
As reported by the Guardian, Rowling says, "I did seriously consider killing Ron." Apparently, she briefly thought about killing off Harry's red-headed sidekick around the middle of the series, when she "wasn't in a very happy place."
Not in a very happy place? I guess not. She targetted Ron. Won-won. The coolest ginger in the movies for the past couple of years. The initial and continuing half of the pair that made the ultimate foil to Harry, the Great Protagonist. The series wouldn't have been the same without Ron. Hell, you can probably make a case that the series wouldn't have been at all without Ron.
Okay, so it's clear that I'm glad she got into a very happy place, or at least a moderately happy place, apparently, and didn't kill Ron. But this leads to another question--when should an author kill a character?
I'll tell you, first-hand, that it's hard to write of a death, even a fictional one. In a soon-to-be-released short story, I killed a character. He wasn't a particularly good guy, and I hadn't really even developed him all that much. Still, I teared up a little when I wrote the death scene. It's a tough thing to do, mostly because we're writing it to evict emotions in the first place.
Rarely, after all, will you read a scene that bumps along in the manner of "oh, and Joe died, and everybody else kept playing canasta." Death is kind of the ultimate big baddy, the one presence that nearly every one of us fears at our core. When Piers Anthony launched what I consider one of the greatest literary series on the planet, the Incarnations of Immortality, he started with Death. Death is the one constant, the one absolute in our lives, yet it's the one thing we can explain the least without some sort of ultimate reward on the other side.
Many great series get along without any major characters dying. The Lord of the Rings arguably does. I mean, Gandalf comes back. Boromir dies, but I have trouble identifying him as a major character. The Wheel of Time? Well, Moiraine dies, though there's been continued hints that she might be coming back. The Forsaken who die keep being resurrected on an annoyingly regular basis. Otherwise, all the dead characters could just as easily have been named Plot Device x.
JK Rowling, meanwhile, shows no aversion whatsoever to death of her characters. If you haven't read the series somehow, I won't ruin it for you, but she managed to kill off at least one per book for each of the last several. That series, on the other hand, deals with death as a prime issue. It makes sense, both from a plotting standpoint and from the view of a writer who's making an issue of death, that she would have it happen fairly regularly.
I'm not sure I have the best answer for when an author should kill a character off. What do you think?