Killing Your Characters: How to Do It and Why You Should

As writers, we have a love-hate relationship with our characters.

As readers, we have a love-hate relationship with writers.

Killing off characters is a tricky business. It’s not exactly something we enjoy reading about, and it’s certainly not something we like doing ourselves. But – as morbid as it may be – death is what makes the writing world go ’round. There’s an increasingly high number of deaths in fiction. It pulls at our heartstrings, making us remember once again everything that made us fall in love with that character in the first place. But killing a character can be harder than you think. There’s the matter of who, and why, and how, but most importantly when. Timing is everything. Depending on what kind of story you’re writing, you might need to kill your character at the climax, or the end, or, if you’re feeling particularly creative, the beginning. The beginning though, I would recommend only for the most advanced writers unless it plays a major part in the plot, because it’s hard to make readers care about a character they’ve only just met.

Your characters are like your children. You created them, you raised them, and despite their better judgments, they’ve made mistakes, but you were there to help them learn from them. We writers get just as attached to our characters as the readers do, if not more. So coming to the conclusion that one of them needs to die takes careful precision and planning. Here’s a basic breakdown to help you decide if it’s the right move for your novel:

Who: Before anything else, you need to figure out who it is you need to kill. If you’re really crafty, you might be able to swing killing the main character while still completing the story. But this will most likely affect your narration style, and obviously limits when the event can occur. Many writers find that opting for someone close to the main character is best – the best friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a sibling. Someone who will be in the story often enough for the readers to get to know well. This creates the same dramatic effect, while still allowing the reader to experience the emotional impact the protagonist is going through.

When: As I’ve said, this is arguably the most important piece of information. It will affect how the rest of your book turns out, will either make the climax seem more or less powerful, and by the end of the novel, will either have your readers wanting more or feeling cheated. I can’t tell you exactly where the best place to kill a character is – that depends on the novel. But I can tell you this. Give the readers time to get attached. It makes the initial impact of the character’s death much more powerful. Allow yourself enough time to build up to it – don’t rush. Let the character live a little bit of their life first. As a matter of fact, if you’re looking for the timing that will give off that heartwrenching emotion, let the character live just enough so that they’re beginning to overcome something they’ve been struggling with. They’ve been recovering from a drug addiction, but relapse and overdose; They’ve gone their whole lives without knowing how to swim, and just after learning, an incident causes them to drown; The disease they’ve fought for the better half of the book finally goes into remission, but out of nowhere they fall ill and pass away. If you want the scene to pack that extra punch, try having your main character be involved with the cause of death somehow.

Where: An important part of any story, with the right setting you can add some extra emphasis to the scene. You have to take into account the personality of the character you’re killing, the circumstances of their death, the setting throughout the rest of the book. If you’re looking to create a sense of irony, you could kill them in a place that they loved, like a hidden clearing they frequented in the forest. If the character senses their death coming (terminal illness, threats, etc.), they could die in the place they least wanted to – this would make their death seem more tragic. For example, a cancer patient dies in hospital when he’s been begging to go home.

Why: Despite what readers may believe, we don’t just go around killing characters for laughs. There are lessons behind their deaths, or at the very least, they needed to die in order for other events to take place. Think carefully about the events that will take place before and after the scene. Make sure this death needs to happen. If it doesn’t, all you’ll be doing is creating filler and confusing the readers. So if you’re planning to kill a character just for the good ratings, STOP. It isn’t worth it. Don’t ruin a good story by throwing in an unnecessary death. It’s a plot point, not a marketing ploy. Use it sparingly.

How: This one is all up to you, I’m afraid. How you decide to end your character’s life is what will make your story unique. It’s what will provide the impact, the drama, the emotion, the WOW factor that you’re looking for. I can’t tell you how to do that. Just think carefully, plan everything else, and this part will come to you. If not, then revise again, because maybe your character should be kept alive.

Like with children, us writers will cry for our fallen characters, too. Writing a death scene is like watching them die right in front of you – if you’re not crying while writing it, something’s wrong. Either you haven’t given enough information about the death, allowed enough time to get close to the character, or the setting & circumstances need to be changed to provide more impact. Let their death come with the story; don’t go into the novel thinking, “I want to write a really sad book where somebody dies.” In the writing world, that’s the equivalent to hiring a hitman. It’s malicious. Don’t let a character die for the wrong reasons. After all the time you’ve spent on this character – creating their backstory, describing their facial features, sculpting their life – you deserve to make that hard work mean something. Make their death mean something.

And if you do it right, your story just might mean something.


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