With most books and movies, you go into it believing that the main characters are probably going to live (well, the heroes at least). Of course, there are many of works where they can and do die, but the reader will likely assume that the main characters are safe unless you do something to show that they aren’t. Think of Star Trek: when Captain Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet, you know they’ll live, but the guy in the red shirt who came with them is likely to be killed.
There are stories where pretty much everybody is at risk of dying, and naturally, such stories tend to be more thrilling, as when a main character gets put in danger, you don’t immediately assume they will live. When I think of this mood, I think of the TV show 24. Nearly the entire cast from the first season dies by the end of the fifth; the only three major characters introduced at the beginning who survive all eight seasons are Jack Bauer, Kim Bauer, and Tony Almeida (and Tony appears to have been killed once, but is revealed to have survived two seasons later). When watching 24, it’s clear nobody is safe.
Please note that I am not talking about main character death when it’s the result of a heroic self-sacrifice for the greater good. Such a death is not quite as unexpected (unless said sacrifice turns out to be in vain).
Now, when it comes to writing, it’s actually not all that difficult to create this kind of mood. If I want to create an “anyone can die” mood, I simply create one extra character at the start of the story, and start to develop them as if they are going to be one of the main characters, maybe even establish them as bring a long-time friend or lover of the protagonist. Then, I have them killed, preferably in a pointless death (meaning that nothing good comes out of it. The cloud of their death does not have a clear silver lining). I don’t do this too soon, because if I don’t give them time to develop, they’ll just seem like one of those redshirts.
If the story is a sequel, I can avoid having to create a new character, and make a bigger statement by simply killing one of the main characters from the previous story whom I do not need for the sequel.
Doing this sends a message to the reader that I am not afraid to kill characters. Thus, the reader will expect it more, and be less likely to assume that the protagonist and other main characters will survive all the dangers.
However, while creating such a character does make it clear to the reader that main characters are at risk of being killed, if they are the only character to die in the book, that mood will eventually fade. Thus, I don’t actually do this unless I am really serious about killing off characters in that work, and intend at least another death.
Additionally, if I don’t create the mood that anyone can die, it can be a lot more surprising to the reader when somebody does. In other words, if character deaths are uncommon, each of them would have a greater effect, but readers will assume the protagonists will survive. If character deaths are common, it creates suspense, and makes it clear nobody is safe, but each death has less of an effect. I guess which option is better depends on the story.
Most of my stories do not present the idea that anyone can die, at least, until I got more ruthless in the last couple story arcs of “Swogprille”. I tried more seriously to create that mood in the mid to later chapters of “The Cromm Conspiracy”, and intend to be even more ruthless if I write a sequel. In addition, I’ve got a few longer stories in the planning phase where anyone can die.
It’s not easy to kill characters. If I don’t get somewhat attached to them, they’re no fun to write for. If I don’t see them as people, I can’t write them well. Nonetheless, it can be a powerful event in any story. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to check my e-mail. White Rakogis, signing off.