Recently, a beta reader who was looking over a novella for me said she wasn’t surprised when a certain character died: something about the guy just marked him as a ‘red shirt’ from the start. At first I was a little concerned. This character’s death was supposed to be a turning point, an event that showed that we were moving into the climax of the story and that things were serious now. If this guy seemed like a red shirt, that might dampen the impact of the moment.
(Point of interest: The term ‘red shirt’ comes from the original Star Trek series and refers to the fact that whenever an away party beamed down to an alien planet, there was generally one red-shirted crew member who got eaten/phasered/wasted by the bad guys. I hope that was educational for you. Next week I will explain the term ‘Jump the shark.’).
I didn’t want character X to be a red shirt, in part because often red shirts have no name or personality. They exist to die, basically. I don’t want to populate any story with corpses-in-waiting. I try to make every character distinct and memorable, and like to think that I did so with character X.
But a character can have a personality and still be marked for death. And as I thought about it, I realized that maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to have the readers pick up on little things, like the fact that a certain character isn’t long for their world, so that you can obscure the bigger things going on. For example, in this story when character X dies, it’s a bit of a surprise but perhaps not a huge surprise. His death might even lull the readers into a false sense of security: ‘I saw that coming, so all my other assumptions about where this story is going to go will probably be right as well.’ Or ‘Well, sure, X is dead, but all the other characters are safe.’ And that’s when you can really twist the knife. The best time to do something unexpected is right after you do something expected. Sure, a red shirt can die, that’s what they do, but a major character as well just a few pages later...?
My point is that red shirts can be useful if you use them strategically. No one likes a character who’s just there to up the body count, but even characters who have to bow out early can still make an impression.