We all saw Rick Grimes exit The Walking Dead after being impaled by a rebar, blown up by dynamite, and then whisked away by a helicopter for a future in Walking Dead movies. So, how does the show muddle on without its hero? How do a show's writers plan for a big change like that? We consulted some of our favorite genre TV writers and showrunners — Phil Klemmer of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Erin Levy of Counterpart, Sera Gamble and John McNamara of SYFY's The Magicians — about the art and science of killing off (and writing off) characters.
How does it feel to kill your darlings? Why do it?
Gamble: Because John [McNamara] and I are working together, we will have different darlings, and we frequently have to kind of push one another to consider killing each other's darlings. Occasionally, he has to tell me to be more cold-blooded to tell the best story. When I was on Supernatural, [showrunner] Eric Kripe had a rule that nobody should be afraid to kill the characters we loved. Don't miss the opportunity to tell really deep emotional stories just because you're being so protective of your entire board of players. Playing it safe is not the name of the game. But nobody ever flippantly decides that they should kill a character on a show.
McNamara: I have more of a prickly exterior, gooey interior when it comes to these things. I'll suggest we kill someone, and then I'll see it gathering steam in the room and becoming a thing, and I'll be like, "Whoa, whoa! The actor just bought a house! We can't kill him!" Sera and I did a show together called Aquarius, and the body count on that one was insane. Even David Duchovny was like, "The way you guys Grim Reaper your way through this show, I'm probably next, right? I'm probably going to end up with my head on a plate." But it was no fun killing characters that I had invested a lot of time in.
You're dealing with two realities — the reality of the show and the discipline of telling the story in the most truthful way possible, and the reality that there are actors on the show who are making a living doing that job. One should not influence the other too greatly, and in the end it doesn't, but it has to be something that weighs on your mind. Unless you're a sociopath.
Levy: For this season, we had a very big discussion about a certain character and whether or not we wanted to end the life of that character. And ultimately what we decided was that there were reasons for the story and the effect of this character on other people's lives, and we had to be true to that.
Gamble: If you step back from the production aspects — which are very, very real, because you have relationships with everyone you're working with — and if you just step back to the part where we're writers, one of the reasons I'm a writer is because it's a safe way to explore stuff that f***ing terrifies me in my actual life. Writing is such a powerful way to explore the fact that anyone you love could die at any moment. I want to bring up difficult, complicated, unsolvable things that we have no good answer for.
Levy: In that universe, people die all the time, because zombies eat you. But even in The Walking Dead, it takes a toll, people dying all the time. People have to become more thick-skinned and hard-edged after seeing all that death. Obviously, it's going to change you. On our show, we had a massacre at this highly secured office where people aren't supposed to be able to get those kinds of weapons in there. All of the people in there had desk jobs. They're not spies. So that's a horrifying thing to happen to people who are just going to work every day. If someone close to you dies, it's going to affect you.
Klemmer: We debate these things actually quite often. We had like nine characters in the pilot, and only three of those are left. Every season, the ensemble changes. I don't know how they did Friends for 10 years with the same six people! You'd feel like you're writing a scene that you'd written before. There is a compulsion to mix up the dynamic.
What is dead may never die: What about loopholes?
Klemmer: My first job writing was for Veronica Mars, and back then I didn't understand the rules of writing characters off shows. There was this character, Sheriff Lamb, and for some reason his death fell to me and my co-writer, John Enborn. We were like kids who had been given this assignment to kill, and possibly not kill, Sheriff Lamb. For a while, there was a scene in the script where the sheriff had pulled through, and another version where the sheriff had died. [Showrunner] Rob Thomas was going to make the final decision of which scene to shoot — whether the sheriff lives or dies — and it was a Schrödinger's cat moment: Do we kill him? Do we not kill him?
Gamble: Because of the nature of our show, there are times that we can magically bring a character back, because we have different timelines going on. But we weigh that against wanting death to matter, because we don't want you to feel like there are no stakes, because in real life, death matters — you lose people.
Levy: On our show, if you do kill a character, that doesn't mean the actor is done. Most characters have doubles, counterparts. The show is about how the two sides of these characters differ, and so the same actor might come back. Now, of course, if you kill off both counterparts, then you have the same experience that you would with a character on another show, which is that we're never going to see that person again.
Klemmer: It's weird to be in a room and talk about killing people and be flippant about all the ways people can die. It's like we play god with our characters; and isn't it fun to have this power? But even so, with a superhero time-travel show, it's always a struggle, because we want consequences to stick. We want things to have a real weight to them. And that's why I'm against death loopholes — once you commit to killing somebody, you should follow through on it. If you get too cavalier, nothing really matters. You can become the writer who cried wolf if you ring the bell too many times.
McNamara: Moving within timelines can really screw things up. The butterfly effect is real. It's almost impossible to truly kill someone in Fillory because of all the loops and various planes of existence. So this is not a promise, but I'm pretty sure the Beast is pretty dead. Even though we love Charles Mesure, the actor. I'm pretty sure the Beast is damn dead.
How do you handle writing a character out?
McNamara: We're pretty bespoke. Every case is different. There isn't a rulebook.
Levy: It's really important to approach it from a story perspective, so you're building to that moment — so you don't anger the audience. You want to make sure you're doing justice to the characters. In the case of Rick Grimes, it took a whole series to get to that moment. On Mad Men, you spent seasons with Bertram Cooper, and you came to love him — and we knew at the beginning of Season 7 that we were going to kill him. So we had to build towards that moment, how he affected Don's life.
Gamble: Once we realized we weren't going to save Penny, we quickly came up with this idea that we would meet a different Penny from another timeline. But what was most crucial was that Penny's death should be very costly, specifically for Kady. And we weren't going to make it so easy to ever bring the original Penny back to life. But you have to erect those boundaries for yourself on shows that are fantastical.
Someone might say, "You could bring in this kind of creature," or, "You could go to this kind of timeline," and basically un-write what you have written. And then the job of the writer becomes to make it really f***ing hard to save people. John and I spend a lot of time saying, "Okay, so if that is a way to bring them back, how do we kill that road?" That's the weird upside down of being on a fantasy show.
McNamara: I would have to call the actors whose characters are being killed off and say, "Look, this is unfortunate, but this is where we've ended up." I hated killing the Fairy Queen, because I just love Candis Cayne. I just think she's the greatest. But we told her early in the season. As an actor, it was an opportunity to deliver a performance on a whole other level. But that was a moment where I was like, "Man, I hate this."
Gamble: I wrote the episode of Supernatural where Bobby Singer died. The thing that was foremost in my mind was the arc of the character. What stories have we not told? What can we eliminate what's been making this character we love tick all this time?
Levy: We actually had a character in the first season we were going to kill, Baldwin — but then we realized there was more story for this character, and it wasn't the right time. Then she became a fan favorite. But we did have three different characters die. Alexander Pope was tough, but we definitely had to do it for Howard, and what we wanted it to do to his character. But you get an actor like Stephen Rea on your show, who is so incredible, and all of a sudden you're like, "Do we really have to do this?" But you do. It was the same with Aldrich. We had to have Baldwin kill Aldrich. He had to die for one of our characters to continue living in this universe.
Klemmer: There have been times when we killed people off because it was a good story, but then we realized we'd kind of shot ourselves in the foot. Like on Chuck, when we killed off Tony Hale's character, Emmett Milbarge. I can't remember if it was an availability thing or a budgeting thing, but it was like the bullet wasn't even in his character's head when we were all overcome with this realization. It was as if we were actual murderers, like, "What have I done?!"
Emmett is confronted with this terrorist, the terrorist is walking away, and Emmett mutters, "Pussy," and so the terrorist shoots him through the eyeball. As we all watched the episode, it was a moment of like, "Oh my god." Because we killed him for a joke. And it was a great joke. But now he's dead. And we have to live with those consequences.
What if you have to get rid of a character?
McNamara: You have to remove "have to" from your lexicon. You don't have to do anything when you're the showrunner. I don't mean to sound like I have the hubris of Icarus, but you really have a free hand. This is the closest any human being gets to become like a benevolent dictator. And it's a huge responsibility, because the character is played by an actor or actress who has a life and a career, and sometimes they want to leave the show. And sometimes they don't. And you realize that. And then you weigh what is going to best serve the story, and ultimately, you have to proceed with a little chip of ice in your heart.
Klemmer: I know people try to assign ugly motives to the writers for what they do to beloved characters. But so many times, it really does come down to business decisions and creative decisions. Whether you can afford an actor. Whether that actor wants to remain on a show. And all you see on the screen is that one second a person is there, and then they're gone. And the first person the fans go after is the writer: "How dare they do that to me!" It's more complicated than that. I'm flattered that people care so much that it feels like a personal offense when you rip a character out of their lives.
Gamble: Actors are under contract, typically for six years. So these things tend to arise more frequently around the end of a contract.
Klemmer: When I was writing Martin Stein's death on Legends of Tomorrow, I knew in my heart that we weren't intending to bring him back or come up with a loophole. There was a finality to it. It's like putting a hit out on somebody. But [actor] Victor Garber wanted to go do Broadway. So, sometimes you let people just walk off into the sunset, even though it was very complicated for us, because his character's fate was intertwined with another's. It was nice that we could keep Professor Stein's memory alive and that Jax Jackson's character was changed by his death — but even the way Jax left our show was trying to honor the loss of his friend.
It's funny how you find ways to take the sting out of it, when you lose a beloved character. And that's what gave us the crazy episode where they're worshipping Beebo. That was a catharsis for the writers, and so was doing grief therapy with a puppet in the episode that followed — because we were doing grief therapy for ourselves. We had to do something delightful and childish and innocent, because it was awful watching Victor Garber get shot and die in his best friend's arms! We had to find something to help us all get over that!
Announce it, or not announce it? How to announce it?
McNamara: I have no dog in that Walking Dead scuffle — but the fans got played. They got played hard. The Walking Dead did a very good job of fooling fans. If we were going to do something like that, why would I tell you?
Levy: I like to watch shows spoiler-free. You want to be surprised. People were trying to figure out if Jon Snow died or not by Kit Harington's haircut, and I think that was sort of great, how they played up that he had left the show.
Gamble: The only thing I hate is when people hear a rumor, and they start to flip out in advance. Sometimes you hear things like that and they're true, and sometimes they're not. Sometimes Jon Snow rises from the dead, and sometimes he doesn't.
McNamara: When [director] Nick Meyer was prepping Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it leaked that Spock was going to die, that Leonard Nimoy had only agreed to a sign a contract if they killed Spock. Paramount was not denying it, Nimoy was not talking, and I thought Nick Meyer did something brilliant: He staged this Kobayashi Maru scene at the beginning of the movie, and Spock is killed in the first five minutes. But then it's revealed to be a classroom simulation, and when Captain Kirk first sees Spock afterward, he goes, "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" And there was this huge wave of relief in the audience: "It's going to be fine." So when Spock did die, it had ten times the effect on the audience. They were sobbing.