Trigger Discipline in Writing: When to Kill Your Characters

One of my author friends is well known online for making a big deal about something called trigger discipline. In a nutshell (and I hope I’m getting this right, Myke), it’s all about making sure people realize that you’re never supposed to have your finger on the trigger of a gun unless you’re about to fire it. Many cool posters with action heroes often get this wrong–they’ll have the hero pointing a gun casually in the air, finger on the trigger. It’s a recipe for disaster (from what I’ve been told. Remember, I am far from a gun guy.) (And by the way, Myke has a new book out you should check out if you’re into contemporary military fantasy. Hot stuff.)

This post isn’t about literal trigger discipline, which I’m sure will disappoint Myke. Rather, it’s about trigger discipline from a writing perspective. So often in fantasy (and many other books–or films), authors never really get close to pulling the trigger on their plot devices. What I mean by this is that a whole lot of energy and effort will be put into setting a character up into an impossible, difficult situation. And then, at the last moment, a miraculous way out is discovered that lets everything be okay.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, I suppose. It’s the way we’ve been trained to consume media for a long time by this point. But lately, I’ve been seeing a bit of a reverse trend, inspired in large part by the success of Game of Thrones. Whatever you might think about the series (in book or television form), one thing George R. R. Martin excels at is pulling the trigger.

I remember the first time I read Game of Thrones. (Warning: spoilers for the first book ahead, though if you’re still unspoiled at this point, you’ve taken the whole “spoiler free” mantra to a whole new level of zen.) It was bloody fantasy, but it wasn’t particularly surprising or shocking–right up until Ned Stark meets the axe. I was so used to authors brandishing the gun, waving it around a lot, threatening plenty of people, and then putting it away at the last minute. To have a main character die was shocking. And not just any main character. The main character. The one we were all rooting for.


That’s what comes to mind when I think about pulling the trigger in a novel these days: showing your audience that real things are going to happen to these people. It’s a really powerful tool that helps raise the stakes in one quick blow. So when should you use it?

Not that often.

When Ned Stark died, I wasn’t just upset. I was angry.

I didn’t want to finish the book, let alone touch the rest of the series. I managed to get over it, of course–but killing a character like that is really risky, and it’s only appropriate for certain novels. One of my writing teachers, David Farland, used to talk about the contract you make with your reader. Early on in the book, you establish what you’re going to give the reader as far as experiences go. There are conventions we’re all familiar with, and you hint at those conventions to indicate what they can expect. Then, you follow through on that contract. If you set something up as a light romantic comedy, and then you have it go all Hamlet in the middle, you’re going to anger a lot of readers. In that case, you better be one of the best writers out there to pull that off.

Of course, in hind sight, Martin was setting things up for his big gun shot. The fantasy setting is gritty and harsh enough that readers are able to overcome that shock and keep going forward with the book and series (so that Martin can continue to kill favorite characters wherever, whenever, and however he can). But you don’t have to kill characters to have the same effect of a trigger pull on a different scale. You can have the consequences for an action be more severe than anticipated, or the price a character pays for a sacrifice be even harsher. You can set up one level of expectations and then deliver something different. Something unexpected.

To make something really shocking–to have the sort of impact Stark’s death had–you need to lay the groundwork first. I’m reading a series at the moment that does the same sort of thing Martin did, by establishing a romantic interest for the heroine, and then abruptly killing him. It doesn’t work the same way as Game of Thrones, because the character never really played a pivotal part in the story. He was always filler and backstory. So when he dies, we haven’t had the chance to care about him enough to really be shocked.

Again, I’m not saying authors and writers should go around doing shocking things to their plots for no real reason other than that they can. But I do think having that possibility be there–the real possibility of a sad ending–is a tool too many of us dismiss too lightly and too quickly.

Just food for thought on this fine Wednesday . . .

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