Note: The final paragraph of this post contains various spoilers.
You know, I really wish writers would kill more of the characters we love.
This sentiment doesn't spring out of a latent sadism or some sort of empathetic deficit, I assure you. Like everyone else who enjoys good stories, I form attachments to particular characters, identifying with them and rooting for their success. When they're in peril, my pulse quickens, my mouth goes dry, and I frantically flip the pages to see how it all will turn out. I'm emotionally invested, in other words. And it's that very investment that makes me believe it's sometimes in a story's best interest for an author to drop the hammer on well-rounded, likeable characters.
To see what happens when storytellers refuse to do so, just consider the action movies of the eighties and nineties. Arnold or Sylvester or Jean-Claude might have faced scored of baddies armed to the teeth and itching to unload them into the heroes' friends and family. Yet the main thrills from such films come not from imminent peril to such folks, but from the inventive dispatching of the antagonists. After all, we know none of the important people will die except the villain and only at the story's precise climax. If someone's going to perish, it'll be a tangential character introduced at an opportune time. It's a simple formula -- and likely the reason why the genre's on life support.
If insulating major characters from meaningful peril cuts dramatic tension off at the knees, placing them before the real possibility of death gives it a growth spurt. In the first section of The Passage, Justin Cronin created a kind widower, carried him through terrible peril and killed him suddenly with radioactive fallout. Justified (aka The Best Show on TV) offed Raylan Givens' aunt with a close-range shotgun blast in a scene that felt like a slap to the face. And Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer sends one major character to a grisly demise. These stories don't offer impersonal body counts. They serve up white-knuckle reading and viewing because you know precious little is off the narrative table.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Kurt Komoda)