Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, the best way to prove that something in your story is dangerous is to throw a character at it. Want to show how threatening a character or situation is? Have them immediately kill someone, because who could deny that evidence?
Of course, it’d be a shame to use up a real character just to prove that the villain isn’t messing around, so the next logical step is to create a character just for this purpose.
Now, sure, this character needs to have some kind of presence, but there’s no point in building them up too much when they’re not sticking around for the duration. The best lines and most compelling conflicts can go to other characters who’ll really use them. Plus, since the cast needs to be able to function after that character is killed, it probably makes sense not to build up too many relationships. Death is compelling to write, after all, but grief is tricky.
Except that when this character’s big moment comes… it falls flat. It’s not just that their death doesn’t matter; it doesn’t even do what it was invented to do. The villain remains non-threatening, a sense of true peril is absent, so what gives?
The problem is that the character I just described is a redshirt, and the reader knew it all along.
What’s a redshirt?
Redshirt characters are those who are obviously just in the story to be killed off. The trope takes its name from early series of Star Trek, in which low-ranking crew members (whose uniforms are red) would join the main cast and then be bumped off to show the severity of the episode’s threat. Redshirts are a story’s cannon fodder, and the term is derogative because it denotes a trick that the reader saw coming a mile away.
This lack of surprise is what robs the device of all its impact. As I’ve said before, an effective character death hinges on the reader’s appreciation of what they’ve lost. That appreciation is textual – they wanted the dead character to marry their true love – but it’s also metatextual – they need to believe that that happy ending could actually have been written. If the reader knows, deep down, that the character was always going to die, that sense of loss is incredibly muted, if not totally absent.Redshirt characters fail because the reader isn’t invested in their survival.Click To Tweet
This means that if your born-to-die character is obvious, they don’t have any caché to spend on the peril you’re trying to establish. In fact, they might have the opposite effect – your villain doesn’t look dangerous and unpredictable if their victim was always going to die, and they may even seem fake if the reader recognizes you’re giving them a freebie.
Avoiding the redshirt
So, does that mean you should avoid this device entirely? Absolutely not! Born-to-die characters are a genuinely effective device, and there are lots of moments where they’re the ideal tool for a story. Yes, it’s best to do something more complex, and I’ll touch on that shortly, but sometimes you just need the tool that gets the job done, and born-to-die characters can be that tool – it’s only when they become redshirts that they’ll let you down.
The question, then, is how can you avoid writing a redshirt? Well, the first piece of advice, obvious as it may seem, is to treat them like a regular character.
The movie Suicide Squad is about a group of supervillains forced to work as a governmental strike force. Though powerful, each member has an explosive device implanted in them, enforcing their loyalty – a conceit that they and the viewer have to invest in for the plot to make sense.
At the start of the movie, each of the characters is introduced via a short sequence that includes a scene depicting who they are, a dedicated snatch of music that tells the audience something about them, and a set of fun facts that appear on the screen along with their codename. That is, all but one…
That one character is Slipknot, who is dropped off by car as the group’s mission starts. Rather than the flashy introduction of every other team member, Slipknot is introduced by a line spoken from off-camera: ‘Here comes Slipknot, the man who can climb anything. Wonderful.’
Almost immediately, Slipknot tries to escape and his explosive device is activated. Then again, of course it is; that’s the only reason he’s in the film at all, and anyone who was paying even the smallest amount of attention knew it. Is the audience now on alert, thinking that any member of the group could meet the same surprising fate? No, because Slipknot was so glaringly expendable that, if anything, he made it clear that the other characters aren’t going to be treated in the same way.
It’s the very basest level of how to pull off a born-to-die character, but still something that’s going wrong in contemporary, blockbuster fiction, so it’s worth clarifying: for the reader to invest in a born-to-die character, that character has to feel as real as everyone else. In the case of Suicide Squad, creating a custom intro for every other character is part of what gives the game away, but this might also refer to characterization and relationships. If your born-to-die character lifts right out of the group, the reader will sense it and start waiting for that lift to come along.
A recent film in the same genre that took the opposite approach is Deadpool 2 (spoilers until the end of this section). In Deadpool 2, the titular hero gathers a group of superpowered allies to further his goals. There are headshots, introduction scenes, and a fun recruitment montage… then the characters are massacred, almost to a man. It’s a fun subversion of the redshirt character, and one that works because of the effort that goes into it – many of the characters are well-known actors (one, shown for only a few seconds, is a superstar), and the film puts enough effort into the introduction that the viewer believes these characters will be with them for the duration.
While Deadpool 2 plays this as a joke, it’s also an illustration of craft – for the joke to land, the audience has to buy into the characters. Deadpool 2 does this by investing time and characterisation, and that’s the chief way to stop your born-to-die character becoming a redshirt. Give them some good lines, build some relationships, and maybe even go the extra mile and give your born-to-die character their own Twitter account and send them out on promotional interviews.
Building up your redshirt
The way to avoid creating a redshirt character is to build them up into a more complex character. Be warned, however, that many, many authors have started this process and then found that they love their new character so much that they don’t want to kill them. Good!If you don’t mind killing a character, why do you think the reader will miss them?Click To Tweet
If you’re that invested in your character, imagine how the reader’s going to feel. Rue’s death in The Hunger Games is perhaps the book’s most striking moment; a wrenching death that drives home the idea that there really is only going to be one survivor. Rue is depicted as an innocent character with unique knowledge and is allowed to develop a personal relationship with the protagonist. In truth, she’s not even a particularly well-developed redshirt, but enough work is put in to make her an effective loss for the reader.
If Rue has a problem as a fleshed-out character, it’s that she doesn’t have a believable personal arc. That is, in a fight to the death that she can’t hope to win, there’s no real hint that she might have a way to get out alive. While her death ends up partially inspiring revolution, a canny, experienced reader can see from the start that she must be there to die, because there’s no real narrative potential for her to live.
To this end, it’s a good idea to think about what believable arc your born-to-die character can have. What would they have done if they hadn’t died, and how can you present it in a way that makes the reader believe that that might be where you’re going?
This feat is achieved in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. If you look at the shape of the story, it’s clear that Boromir’s death is there for the sake of the narrative – it steps up the threat and kills off a normal member of the group, showing that anyone might die. However, Boromir was also an agent of his kingdom, someone trying to hold it together, and it’s believable that he might have gone on to do so if he had lived. His family and kingdom re-enter the story later, showing that his concerns and goals weren’t fleeting excuses to have him around: they had enough narrative presence to persist past his death.
When developing your own born-to-die character, avoid turning them into a redshirt by considering the hypothetical arc of their story if they hadn’t died. What would they have done next, not just in the text, but metatextually: that is, how would you have used them next? A part of the reader knows they’re reading a story, and they catch glimpses of the mechanisms behind the scenes. Fictional death feels like a tragedy when something is lost, so find something to lose.
Was there a time when Tolkien knew he wanted the fellowship to fall foul of a badly run kingdom and that he wanted to kill someone off a third into the story, but hadn’t yet connected those two things? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a mentality that can work for you – is there anything in your story’s DNA that can bolster a redshirt, and if not, what can you add?
The sympathy factor
Sometimes, for all our sophistication, sympathy wins out. You’re probably tired of the clichéd cop sidekick who’s shot just two days before retirement, but there’s a reason that this trope is so popular (and so widely mocked). It’s such a total shame, such an immediate shot of sympathy, that the reader is sucked in, even if only for a moment.
Again, this is a device that can scream ‘redshirt’ when used poorly, and it’s a poor equivalent for an arc, but if you don’t have the time or room to turn a redshirt into a real character, it can be an effective mask.
If this is the way you want to do things, the best advice is to choose a source of sympathy that’s metatextually believable. For example, sticking with the theme of superhero movies getting lazy, there’s a scene in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where the protagonist’s girlfriend tells him she’s going to study at Oxford University. The web-slinging hero agrees that she has to take the opportunity and that, once their immediate problems are solved, he’ll be joining her.
A viewer with any sense knows that the next Spider-Man movie is not going to be set in England (not nearly enough skyscrapers), and with deadly villains established, it’s immediately clear that the movie is now counting down to a dead partner. The character in question isn’t exactly a redshirt in this story, but the lesson is the same: if the reader knows, on a gut level, that the story was never going to play out in the way described, there’s a hard limit on how much sympathy they can feel when things go ‘wrong’. After all, that cop character might be a cliché, but retiring isn’t exactly impossible, so it doesn’t place a limit on the reader’s reaction.Make a soon-to-die character’s future too rosy and the reader will smell a rat. Click To Tweet
In some cases, there just isn’t time to do anything about your redshirts. Maybe your story starts with the antagonist storming in, killing people left and right. If that’s the case, your first step should be to assess whether the scene genuinely works. If you’ve gone for a prologue where three unknown characters square off against a threat and two tragically die, it’s worth taking a look at whether that tragedy is actually going to land. A lot of readers have sat bemusedly through an opening that has no emotional impact (often because it’s overly cinematic – seeing someone perish often bridges this gap, but less so in print).
If you still have faith in the scene, consider what small details you can use to invite sympathy for your red shirts. Can you show panic, pain, camaraderie, sacrifice, or something else that will endear them to the reader even as they’re being killed off? Could you begin a few minutes before the attack and show them cooking or playing cards – something that suggests they have a life outside their fatal purpose?
However you can make your redshirts feel real, go for it. Massacring a bunch of faceless lemmings isn’t going to wow anyone.
Inverting the redshirt
While most readers might not have heard the term ‘redshirts’, they’re familiar with the device, and that means you can use it to your advantage. Stories like Guards! Guards!, ‘Yeoman’ and Redshirts take the reader’s understanding of disposable characters and play off them, adding depth to characters who are usually there just to perish (and even pitting them against that seeming inevitability).
You can also use this knowledge to misdirect the reader. To close out our superhero movie examples, in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer Joss Whedon played with the perception that the movie franchise was going to kill off a character. Not just any character – received wisdom suggested the archer Hawkeye, less popular than other characters, would be the one to go. Halfway through the movie, the audience meets Hawkeye’s family. It’s a humanizing moment but also one which, to the attentive viewer, looks an awful lot like priming the viewer’s feeling for Hawkeye’s upcoming demise. At the movie’s climax, sure enough, Hawkeye shields a child from gunfire with his body… and is pushed to safety by another character, who takes the bullet, dying on the line ‘You didn’t see that coming’, as much said to the audience as to Hawkeye.As with any device, you can invert the redshirt to mislead the reader.Click To Tweet
It’s a rug pull that makes the actual death surprising – with the space available, it would have been difficult for Whedon to flesh out the other character enough for his death to matter and hide the fact that he was doing so. Instead, he took an alternate route, deflecting the audience’s attention by seeming to introduce a familiar technique. In this way, you can use obvious redshirts to direct attention from the actual redshirt, to make a main character’s death more shocking, or to make the reader expect a death where none is coming.
Death of the redshirt
Redshirt characters are pointless because they neuter the very effect they’re there to create. Nevertheless, fleshed out a little, with the extra care needed to make them seem like ordinary characters, they can become a useful device for storytelling.
How do you avoid writing redshirts, and where have you used born-to-die characters in your writing? Let me know in the comments. For more great advice on this topic, check out How (And When) To Kill A Character and The Best Ways To Root Out A Cheesy Villain.