It’s hard to kill off a character, especially a beloved character. We debate, gnash our teeth and wring our hands, (They don’t reeeaally have to die do they? What if I just rewrite the plot? Or maybe throw in some magic Lazarus serum. Yes, that’s it! Lazarus serum!), we cry (and hope our readers do too), and then we stare at the page totally drained of emotion and wondering if we’ve just made a huge mistake and where to go from here.
But here’s a secret. Killing off a character also can be opportunity to have a little fun. Hey, we’re writers, remember? We torture our characters for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner, and elevenses).
A well-written exit is a chance to make our adored character larger than life. The culmination of everything we’ve tried to convey about them, and it can be a huge page-turner and fan favorite if done right.
Here are some of my favorite final exit examples and why I love ‘em. Warning: Minor spoilers for Castle, Star Trek and Burn Notice.
The Exit: In the semi-finale of a thread spanning multiple seasons, the loyal and beloved Captain Montgomery is revealed to be the mysterious “third cop” in a group of vigilantes entangled in the events surrounding the murder of main character Kate Beckett’s mom twenty years ago. Now, that past has caught up to him. He’s the only remaining survivor of the vigilante group, so the bad guy pulling the strings considers him a liability and gives Montgomery an ultimatum: turn over Beckett or they’ll kill his family.
Captain Montgomery: Castle
Montgomery sets a meet with Beckett at an abandoned air field hangar. As she walks up to meet him, she gets a text that tells her he’s in cahoots with the bad guys. When she confronts him, Montgomery shows his true (awesome) colors. He used Beckett as bait to lure the bad guys, knowing he could get her safely away and take the bad guys down. Which he does. At the price of his life.
Why it Works: The twists! It’s a huge shock to the Castle team and viewers that Montgomery played a part in the backstory of Beckett’s mom’s death. We feel a sense of betrayal and whiplash, and because we’re so thrown off our game, there’s a lingering unpredictability throughout the rest of the episode. We have no idea what to expect.
The emotions! There is a very deep bond between Montgomery and Beckett, which is shown beautifully here as he gives his life to save her. Viewers, too, get the sense that, while Montgomery might be flawed or have made past mistakes, he is a man who stands his ground, a man to admire.
The lines! I have a soft spot for exits that include lines of bravado in the face of imminent danger or death. Montgomery’s last words, before he takes out the final bad guy (Who has just told him he can’t hide): “You’ve got that ass backwards, boy. You can’t hide from me.”
The Exit: George Kirk is on-screen less than 12 minutes. I love him anyway. The Romulans are attacking. The ship is crippled. There’s only one way to save his wife and infant son…stay behind. Not only does he do that, he does it with an aplomb and conviction of character that makes me want to cheer and weep at the same time.
Kirk’s Dad: Star Trek (The new movies)
Why it Works: Well, see above, for starters. Simultaneous cheering and weeping is like the gold medal standard of reader/viewer reactions.
Also, the pacing! It helps here because events move so fast and build a foundation of intensity that heightens our emotions all the more. The fact that they kept the dialogue running between Kirk’s parents throughout all of this was a brilliant move.
The effect on other characters! This is a great example of how a character death can alter the course of the lives around him or her. Sometimes, writing someone off isn’t the hardest part. It’s keeping everyone else going in their absence. We haven’t even met Kirk yet, but we sense this will play a defining role in making him the character we know and love. Don’t forget about managing the aftermath of your Grand Exits.
The Exit: Madeline Westen, chain-smoking, straight-talking mom of spy hero Michael Westen, is trapped in a house with her grandson and Jesse (one of Michael’s fellow former spies) as the bad guys close in. Like, the really bad guys. The ones who also have Michael and gang pinned down in an office complex across town, threatening to kill Madeline and her grandson unless Michael gives himself up to die. So, what does Maddie do? She takes herself out of the equation. They have explosives in the house, but no remote detonator, so Maddie gives her grandson to Jesse to escape and sets it off herself, taking down the bad guys in the process.
Madeline Westen: Burn Notice
Why it Works: The attitude! This ties back to my earlier comments about great final lines. Madeline Westen chooses to go out on her own valiant, kick-A terms. In a situation where the bad guys should clearly hold all the cards, she flips their metaphorical poker table so fast, it’s not even funny. They’ve lost their main bargaining chip, and Michael is now free to rain down hell on them.
There also is a strong sense of steely, motherly protection in her final scene. She wants to stick it to these guys, and she lets them know it. The bad guys enter the house, see a 50+ year old woman lounging on a couch smoking a cigarette. She fixes them with a sly, how-do-you-like-me-now smile, says: “This one’s for my boys,” and hits the button. People don’t forget characters like that!
Misc. Other Favorite Exits
- Draco – Dragonheart *“Look to the stars.” Happy sigh.*
- Boromir – LOTR *Can you say “redemption?”*
- Wally Hamilton – The Far Pavilions *This one made me ache in a way beyond tears.*
How about you? Any you want to add to the list?