TV writers say killing characters is a 'tricky thing'

Emmys: Show runners of "Downton Abbey," "The Americans," "House of Cards," "The Walking Dead" and "Masters of Sex" discuss killing off characters.

"Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes is no stranger to death — he's had to kill off several characters on his hit PBS series — but he does have an issue with characters who are killers.

Fellowes joined other TV show runners Scott M. Gimple ("The Walking Dead"), Michelle Ashford ("Masters of Sex"), Joel Fields ("The Americans") and Beau Willimon ("House of Cards") to talk about their craft with Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara. Among the topics they touched on were the sometimes grim work of killing characters.


As McNamara pointed out, killing the main characters on TV shows used to be nearly unheard of. But in recent years, major characters seem to be dropping like flies. As Fellowes pointed out, sometimes that was by necessity.

"After three years [the length of a standard British TV actor contract], anyone who wants to go, goes," Fellowes said. And because of that, he had to eliminate some of the most beloved characters on his show, including Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Matthew (Dan Stevens). But the only character he ever intentionally killed was William the footman (Thomas Howes), who died in World War I. But Fellowes told the writers that he had to do it because having everyone in the house survive the Great War was just too unrealistic.

But one kind of death he does not like is the wanton death of characters at the hands of other characters, something that happens regularly on "The Walking Dead" and "The Americans," just to name two.

"It's a tricky thing," Gimple said of trying to avoid making the many deaths on his show into a hum-drum occurance. "You want there to be an emotional reaction."

But Fellowes said in no uncertain terms, "I have a problem with murdering heroes." By which he meant characters we root for but who commit heinous acts. "I don't get it."

Fields, whose spy characters on "The Americans" sometimes engage in bad deeds, took issue. "I actually quibble with the word 'murder' in the case of our show," Fields replied.

What was his reason? Find out in the video.