How to Kill a Character
Any good author knows a character's struggles are what makes them likable. Through their pain, we see our own hardships. Through their struggles, we see our own conflicts. Through their growth, we see our own development.
This is why character death is so powerful. The death of a character reminds us of our own mortality, a touchy subject for many. Character death is the simplest and most effective way to draw your readers closer to your story. But, only if you do it right.
To do so, you must answer a series of simple questions.
Who Is Your Character?
Before deciding to kill a character, you must consider the character himself. This takes into account both their character profile as well as their function in the story. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What effect did this character have on the plot? Consider how they've driven the plot forward. Have they been a constant hindrance, or have they played a proactive role in the story?
- What effect did this character have on other characters? This includes personal relationships they've had with other characters. What type of influence did they have in the story?
- What will the story lose once this character is gone? What role does this character play in the story? How will the loss of this character affect the roles of the other characters in the story?
Another thing to consider when writing character death how important the character is. The importance of the character in the story will determine how you'll write their death. There are three major character types: Minor, Secondary, and Major.
- Minor characters are non-essential characters in your narratives. This type of character is usually killed at random, often to justify a plot point. As a result, minor characters garner little emotion, other than pity.
- Secondary characters exist to support the goals of the main character. Because of the role they play, the death of a secondary character must be done with care. Their influence on the story has earned them such.
- Major characters are the main characters of a story. Since these characters are interwoven into the plot, killing one can change the course of your story. As a result, killing a major character needs to be meaningful. Otherwise, your readers will feel cheated.
Knowing these two things determines the amount of thought and detail you should put into writing a death scene.
How Do They Die?
How you write the actual death of a character depends on your style of writing. For some, excruciating detail about the death is necessary. For others, the details around the death are vague. Both types of writers need to know some details surrounding the death, such as:
1. What do they die from?
- How people react to a death depends on the death itself. A murder will get a completely different reaction than a suicide. Even if the same weapon is used.
2. How long will it take for them to die?
- The longer it takes for a character to die, the more closure the other characters can get. If a character dies quickly, there is no chance for closure.
3. Why did you choose your character to die this way rather than anything else?
- This allows you to explore the effects the a character's death can have on the rest of your novel. What method will provide the most impact on your story?
Once you've answered these three questions, conduct some research on what it's like to die through your chosen method. Using these details as you write about your character's death will add realism to your story.
Why Must They Die?
Characters are usually killed off for one of the following reasons:
1. The character fulfilled their purpose
- Has a character finished their story arc, and have no other reason to exist? Instead of letting them fade in the background, kill the character.
2. It's to emphasize a theme.
- Death can have a beautiful meaning in literature. By examining themes, such as isolation and forgotten innocence, the character's death also becomes meaningful.
3. It's to advance the plot.
- Is their death necessary for the plot to move on? Whether it's a heroic sacrifice or a way to challenge the main character, the character's death has purpose. Necessary character death can be hard to swallow for both the character and the reader.
By providing a reason for the character's death, the death is justified. Your readers become more empathetic because the understand the death's justification.
When Do They Die?
When a character dies affects how other characters react to their death. This has the potential to make a bad situation even worse for your characters. Here are some things to consider:
1. Is their death expected?
- Most death is not expected, but in certain cases, it can be. This is usually the case if your character has a terminal illness of some sort.
2. Is their death convenient?
- Where are the other characters while this event is occurring? How will the news reach them? How will they react? This has the ability to change the entire course of your narrative.
- Will the death of this character make it harder for the protagonist to reach his goals? For example, if the best friend of the main character dies, the protagonist has lost emotional support. Because of this, they might find themselves hesitant to take on new challenges.
3. Why must he die at that specific moment?
- Would any other moment get a more powerful emotional response from your readers? If so, consider shifting the placement of this character's death. Having a character die at worst possible moment garners the greatest emotional response.
Where Do They Die?
Where your character dies can be a question of where the plot happens to be at that moment. But, the location of their death can also be symbolically driven. If so which, this question needs more exploration.
To get a message across, you must use multiple symbols. By themselves, symbols mean nothing. But, together, they can paint a picture of the message you are trying to convey.
When creating a symbolic scene, here are some things to consider:
1. Is the location itself symbolic?
- Places, like churches and libraries, often represent ideas, like morality and wisdom, to people. A death in one of these locations may symbolize the loss of morality and a return to more "animalistic" values.
2. Are the objects at the location symbolic?
- Objects can represent ideas as well. Roses symbolize love, gold symbolizes wealth, and olive branches represent peace.
- Yet, in the context of death, these symbols are much more complex. A death near a rose garden could mean that love conquers death or that death is loveless. Dying near gold objects could symbolize the corruption of man through wealth or how meaningless money is. An olive branch could represent peace through death, or the exact opposite. The meaning of these symbols depend on the context in which these symbols are used.
3. Are the people at that location symbolic?
- Different roles and titles that people have often carry meaning. For example, children represent innocence and law enforcement represent safety
- To have your characters play a symbolic role in a scene, either have them die or react to the death. The death of a child and the child's reaction to death can represent the loss of innocence. The death of a police officer or a police officer's reaction to death could represent the lack of safety in the world, or how no amount of safety can protect us from death.
After considering these three questions, you can create a death scene with meaning.
The Character's Legacy
When your character dies, their influence does not end. They still have an impact on the world they lived in. How the death of a character shapes a plot is determined by how other characters react to the death. Their reactions have the ability to change the current course of the narrative.
Here are some ways your characters should react to death.
1. They mourn.
- Grief is a huge part of creating an accurate death. Consider the roles the dead character had in their life. Were they someone's child? Parent? Friend? Partner? Consider how their different roles in their life affected others.
- People grieve in different ways, adding another layer of complexity when approaching death. Mourning can be slow or quick, making people angry or depressed, depending on the character. When killing a character, your story slows down for a moment to handle the loss.
2. They adapt.
- Each character in your narrative has a role that they play. Letting a character die means that this role becomes vacant. The remaining characters must grapple with this concept, changing their dynamic to keep maintain stability.
3. They are influenced.
- The living take away their own meaning from someone's death. This may come as a lesson (don't do drugs or look both ways before crossing the street), or as a realization (the world moves on or the good die young). This can give either give your characters confidence to move forward or set them back several steps.
By allowing your living characters to react to character death makes your story real.
Bad Reasons to Kill a Character
For the most part, you can kill a character with no problem on your reader's part. But, if you do any of the following, expect an uproar from even the most loyal of fans.
1. There is no reason for the character to die.
- If your character's death has no purpose, don't kill the character. Making sure the death will have meaning will give your death scenes more impact. This makes your narrative that much more compelling.
2. You stopped liking writing about the character, so you want to kill them.
- If you no longer want to write a certain character, it shows in your prose. The character seems underdeveloped, highlighting your lack of interest in anything the character does. Instead of killing a character you don't like, remove the character altogether. It may be difficult, but it saves your story as a whole.
3. You want to have your readers like a new character instead.
- This happens most often when you want to kill the main character. While this is an effective plot twist, your readers will not accept a new character as well as the original. While it's possible, know that the dynamic of your story has changed. The new character must have a different set of interests, motivations, and roles in the story. Otherwise, there was no reason to kill the original character in the first place.
One of the worst examples of character death occurs in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Final Problem.
Firstly, a new character was introduced: Professor James Moriarty. This is the first and last time this character appears in a Sherlock Holmes book. His purpose is to die alongside Sherlock Holmes, ending the series.
Why would Doyle end his series at the height of its popular? He wanted to pursue more historical fiction and writing about Sherlock Holmes was getting in the way. He stopped liking his own character. There was no logical reason for Holmes to die.
The result? His readers knew what he was trying to do. And they were absolutely livid about it. There was so much fan backlash that, 8 years later, he revived the series.
What does this mean for you? Have a good reason for your characters to die, or you will regret it.
The death of a character can be an insightful experience for both your reader and your character. It bonds your reader to the living characters. It makes your story that much more meaningful to them.
How do you approach character death? Leave a comment below!