Red Shirts: Help, I Just Killed Thirty People in One Chapter

Your fantasy novel sucks if no one dies. There, I said it. Someone has to die for a story to be a great adventure. It can be as personal as The Hobbit or just a wanton massacre of side folks like A Song of Ice and Fire. Someone’s gotta die and I just got a little bit of literary trigger happiness and killed 30 in one chapter.

Red Shirt

“Red shirt” is a term that originated from Star Trek, in which characters are introduced only to be killed off later. For a series in which a different arc was introduced every few episodes, this made a whole lot of sense. You wanted to establish some people to draw some kind of attachment to. Shows that are infamous for red shirts include Attack on TitanBreaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. If you see a character and immediately start betting how long into the episode they’re going to last, they are most likely a red shirt.

Red Shirt Why

In order to answer this question, you have to examine your work. Is your character a brave hero who works alone? Then, perhaps introducing a bunch of people who are going to die anyway might not be the way to go. In Berserk, every character gets a proper backstory (more on that in a bit), so when the Eclipse comes, you’ve had time to establish some kind of connection. Red shirts, on the other hand, mostly exist to show the readers how much danger the protagonist is in during a scene.

Let’s discuss Attack on Titan for a second. It’s pretty established that the titans are bad news. Do the characters who die serve a purpose in showing us how much danger the protagonists are in or is it just to garner some human empathy for characters who train so hard and only die anyway?

Red Shirt Prevention

It seems that the way to prevent a character from becoming a red shirt is to give the reader or viewer a reason to care about them. Do they have a backstory? Do they interact with other characters outside the scene? Do the “red shirts” interact with each other?

In my work, I kind of wanted to establish that my main character is constantly in danger, but not in a Dark Souls kind of way where literally everyone wants to kill you or a Game of Thrones kind of way where the work should be renamed A Game of Ulterior Motives. When characters die, it’s part of the plot or to illustrate that no one is truly safe, that it’s not just my main character. The world is designed to put everyone on edge, but not to the point where genuine friendship is infuriatingly absent. It’s all about balance. So, write on, my fellow homicidal narrators.

Red Shirt happy






P.S.: Photo source. Most of my pictures are from Unsplash, a pretty awesome dumping ground for high-quality, free-to-use photos.

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