Writers are murderers.
Well, kind of. We do spend a lot of time killing people. Fortunately, those people live exclusively in our imaginations (and in the imaginations of our readers), so we never get arrested for our crimes.
However, before you whip out the Grim Reaper’s scythe with your throaty, maniacal laugh, make sure you are killing characters in the right way. Doing it wrong can cause frustration in your readers; or worse, it may prompt them to never read your writing again.
So, put aside your scythe for just a second, and ask yourself two questions before pronouncing capital punishment: Why are you killing this character? And when does that death occur in the narrative?
Your answers will help you decide if the death is right or wrong for your story.
It’s important that you’re killing a character for the right reasons. K.M. Weiland has an excellent blog post on this topic, and I’ll expound on some of her points, while including my own words of caution.
Good reasons to kill a character:
- It advances the plot.
- It fulfills the character’s personal goal.
- It motivates other characters. *(See my word of caution below.)
- It feels like just punishment for the character’s previous actions.
- It empathizes the theme.
- It makes the danger feel more real. **(See my word of caution below.)
* On motivating other characters:
When using a death to motivate other characters, be aware that this can easily become cliché. This is especially true if the character is killed too early in the story, before readers have had the chance to connect with her. To avoid this problem, think first: How important is it that readers see this death happen? Would it be just as powerful as backstory, for example?
If it is important, give readers time to connect with the character, so the death means something to them, too. This way, they will relate to the surviving characters’ grief and indignation, and they’ll be on board with their new motivation as if it were their own.
** On making the danger feel real:
Using deaths to establish the level of danger can be an excusable way to kill minor, extraneous characters, as in the Jurassic Park films. (See “Bad reasons to kill a character” below.)
There’s a drawback to this, though: It’s predictable. Make sure your characters have a purpose besides dying. Also, I’d recommend pairing this with another reason, to give the death more meaning.
Here’s an example: Think of Dennis Nedry’s famous death in Jurassic Park, which is actually a death done right. After betraying his employer, dooming everyone in park, and running off with stolen embryos that could make him rich… he meets a very timely (and well-deserved) end. It’s the literal, horrid consequence of his actions. Also, it increases our fear of the dinos. (Double whammy.)
Bad reasons to kill a character:
- To remove an extraneous character.
- Just for emotional impact.
- Just for shock value.
I’ll talk about each of these in more detail below:
To remove an extraneous character
If your character is extraneous… why is he there in the first place? His death will be more impactful if he’s a needed character. He should feel important, or else readers will see the death coming… and they won’t care when it arrives.
A good tip from Standout Books: You should feel reluctant to kill your character. If it doesn’t hurt for the author and the reader, you should revisit that character’s role in your story.
Just for emotional impact
Some people might disagree with me here, but I don’t think emotional impact, in of itself, is a good enough reason to kill a character. (See my post on “The Right Way to Torture Your Characters,” which discusses a similar theme.)
Messing with your readers’ emotions for no particular reason may feel like a betrayal of their trust. If a character must die, there should be a reason. Does it advance the plot? Is there a greater good accomplished by the character’s death?
Just for shock value
Again, every death should have purpose beyond shock value. There are a couple exceptions to this, though. Sometimes a shocking, seemingly-random death is used to demonstrate a theme, such as the evils of war. This is most acceptable when highlighting a real-life issue, and less so when demonstrating the problems of a fictional universe. (E.g., a World War II book vs. a space opera.)
Also, some genres – like horror – rely on shock value to increase tension and terror. (Hitchcock’s Psycho could be an example of this.) However, this rule generally does not extend to genres like fantasy and science fiction, where readers expect more meaningful storytelling, rather than scary thrills.
Now that you’ve established a good reason for your character to die, it’s time to figure out when it should happen.
The answer depends on what you want to accomplish with your story, and how important the character feels to your readers. Generally, there are two methods for timing your character’s death:
Method #1: The random death.
Sometimes, it’s best for death to come out of nowhere, without warning. This technique is popularly used in The Walking Dead.
The result? Readers feel like no character is safe. It puts them constantly on edge. If you use this method, be careful. Make sure if works for your story. It can potentially backfire if the character is long-standing, for example.
Method #2: The prepared death.
For characters that have strong emotional significance for your readers, it’s best to prepare them for that death, even if on a subconscious level. This doesn’t mean you have to use obvious foreshadowing, or that the death can’t be unexpected! But there are ways to subtly ease readers into a major death scene without making them feel emotionally violated. Here are four of them:
1. Use “almost deaths.”
You can prepare readers for the idea of a character dying by giving them scares beforehand. Let the character “almost die” once or twice before he really dies. This way, the true death will be less of a shock, though it will be no less painful.
You can circumvent the predictability of this by giving “almost deaths” to other characters, too, whom you don’t plan on killing. This way the readers remain on the edge of their seats, agonizingly aware that no one is safe, but never knowing which characters will actually die. (Mwahaha!)
2. Weave it into your story’s theme.
If the character’s death fits comfortably within the theme of the story, readers will be quicker to forgive you. They may not like the death, but they’ll reluctantly agree it had to happen.
3. Make it a natural part of your character’s goal.
Maybe death is the natural conclusion to everything your character has done up to this point. Maybe it’s the only way to accomplish what she ultimately wants. Perhaps she has to make a final stand, where death is a form of victory for her. This kind of death is much easier for readers to accept.
4. Don’t rush through it.
If a major character has to die, don’t speed through the emotional fallout. Linger on his death; give readers time to grieve, to process. An anticlimactic, half-hearted death for a well-loved character will have your readers up in arms.
This doesn’t mean that every death has to be heroic, (far from it!), but if the character is important, their death needs to feel equally important.
What are some deaths you liked or disliked in fiction? (Be very, very careful not to mention spoilers!! Omit actual character names, please.) What would have made those deaths better, in your opinion? Share in the comments below!