On Writing

Killing Your Characters

The book shakes in your hand. The paper gently caresses your fingertips as  you hesitantly turn the page, dreading of what you’re about to read. A tear escapes your eye as your favourite character draws their last breath. We’ve all been there, even if the tears weren’t literal (mine usually are!). Killing characters is not something that should be taken lightly, but often is. Before killing off one of your beloved characters, there are a few things to consider.

Reasons to kill them.
What is the point? There should always be a reason for their death. “For the shock factor” or “to make the readers cry” are not acceptable reasons, though they can certainly play a role in the death. There has to be a point, or the death will not be meaningful and it certainly won’t elicit a response from your reader. If there is no point, no one will care. Here are some reasons why you may kill a character.

To develop the main story.
This is one of the most common reasons for a character death. A character will die, and this will cause certain events to occur. This death could be at the beginning of a book, the middle, or perhaps even the end. It could be the prompt for the story to start (eg the death of a loved one and the resulting quest for revenge), or it could be the conclusion (eg the bad guy finally getting what he deserves).

Character development:
This is a great reason to kill a character. What impact will the death have on the surviving characters, especially the protagonist? Is this what prompts them to begin their epic journey (think superheros)? Or has it absolutely shattered their view of the world, causing them to make stupid decisions or distract them from their goal?

One reason a character may die, is that death is just a sad reality of their world. This one can be a little tricky though, you still don’t want the death to be unnecessary. Is your story set during the black plague? Odds are someone is going to have to die from it, or it won’t seem realistic. Just be careful about which character you choose. Pick the one that will either drive the story forward, or have a significant impact on the protagonist.

How are you killing them?
At the risk of sounding morbid, I do think it is incredibly important to think about how the character is going to die. Is it accidental? Is it a murder? Were they terminally ill? Choose a method bearing in mind all of the things mentioned above.

The death must fit into the story. Is your protagonist’s father killed by the bad guy at swordpoint, sparking the protagonist’s desire for revenge and the death of the killer? Is it the bad guy finally being eliminated at the end? This drives the story forward.

It must also have an impact on the remaining characters: Did this boy see his father get killed and is consequently haunted by nightmares? Or did he just hear about it, and not have any proof but gossip? Then, once the bad guy is dead, is the character happy? Maybe revenge wasn’t so sweet after all. This affects his thoughts and how he develops as the story progresses.

The death must also be realistic in the setting: Who killed the father and why? Was the father a traveling merchant who was ambushed on the road? Did they let the son live? That doesn’t seem very realistic, perhaps the son escaped instead, or maybe they captured him in the hope of selling him into slavery. Whatever you choose, it must be believable.

When not to kill your characters.
So, we’ve discussed when it is okay to kill your characters, but what about when it’s not okay? Think about the number one goal you have with the character’s death. You want to elicit a reaction from the reader. This will not happen if your character death is unrealistic, has no impact on any of the characters, or does nothing to push the story forward.

The Shock Factor.
Killing your characters for the sake of it. Don’t do it. All it does is leave the reader feeling frustrated. Unless there is a reason, like what is discussed above, do not kill them. It seems to be this new craze at the moment, especially in fantasy writing, to kill as many characters as possible just to make the readers cry. If the death doesn’t add anything to the story, there’s not point! If the only consequence of their death is to make the reader feel sad, don’t do it!

Eliminating Useless Characters.
This falls into the grey category. First of all, think about why your character is useless. Have they played their part in the story? Did they contribute and influence it, but now have nothing more to add? Then okay. Kill them. Perhaps the boy found a mentor to teach him. The mentor taught him everything he knew, but died in battle, saving his pupil’s life. His death had an impact on the boy and re-sparked his desire for revenge.
But, if your character is completely useless throughout the entire book, ask yourself why they’re there in the first place. What would happen if you removed them? Would anything change? If the answer is “not much” then you should probably just erase them entirely, not kill them.

Killing too often.
Deaths are a common thing in fantasy books, especially unnamed characters caught in the crossfires. But that’s the thing, they’re unnamed, or are not in the book for very long. They’re not a “main character”. Every once in a while I come across a book (or tv series *cough GoT) where main characters seem to drop like flies. I have a real problem with this. This is the shock factor coming into play here. Is there actually a reason for their death? Did they really need to die? It gets to the point where yet another character dies, and instead of feeling sad, you’re left with the song “Another one bites the dust” in your head. It gets so tiring. If you have that many characters whose lives you can throw away so easily, you probably need to reassess their importance to the story, even if they are a fantastic character.

So, next time you feel like killing of one of your characters, I encourage you to stop and pause. Have a think about the reasons why and how they need to die. Remember, the goal is for your reader to feel something. You want the death to impact them.

Happy writing!


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