Google “how to kill a character”. Seriously, do it. There are dozens of links, posts, and witty little graphics showing the ways to cause death, soften the blow for readers, and create compelling death scenes. What is severely lacking here are authors addressing why any character has to die. What purpose does it serve, really? The reasons behind the death of a character aren’t about compassion, dramatic effect, or back-story. Killing a character is about the ones who live.
Get Over It
Death is a touchy subject, but it isn’t the weight of “ceasing to be” that makes it so powerful in society. The real punch comes from the fact that everyone else continues to be after the one individual is gone! Think about it, that’s the salt in the wound. What does everyone do after someone’s gone? They get over it. Ouch.
This process of getting past the death of a loved one in order to continue to pursue health, wealth, and happiness provides the reason for writers exploring this topic so obsessively. Death in literature only serves those who survive. Within the story, a death of a character should only occur to create conflict within and surrounding the remaining characters. If someone gets bumped off for dramatic effect, humor, or side characters just drop off like flies, then the death element is being misused.
For examples of how death is used to move a story forward and serve a function, see the previous post. Since that was covered already, here are a few questions to help determine where the real work needs to be done when a character is on the chopping block:
Who killed the character? Why? How does this change them? (Every antagonist kills for a reason, and the death of a main character needs to have some kind of effect on them as well.)
Who was closest to the character? What role did the lost character have in their life? How will this role be filled?
Who was present at the death of the character? How does this affect their view of life/mortality? How do they change as a result of this experience?
How does the continued existence of this character in memory affect the major events in the rest of the story?
Readers Attend the Funeral
Some lit ends with most of the major characters dead, if not wrapping up with the main character dead. How is this about the surviving characters now? Well, guess what, it still is. In these cases, it’s the reader who survives to navigate the mourning process. Just remember, the readers attend the funeral.
In many cases, the death of major characters is intended to turn attention on the themes rather than the literal events on the story. Tragedy story arcs traditionally end with the death of the protagonist, often allowing this to be the natural consequence of their poor choices and/or moral degenerate nature. Take Shakespeare’s extensive works as examples of killing off protagonists, the most notable examples being his plays Hamlet and Othello. His exact reasons for killing these people off will likely remain forever shrouded in mystery (the same way Steven Moffat’s penchant for knocking off fan favorite characters will always be a riddle of heartache and destruction) but the effects of these deaths serve to do one thing: make the reader carry the weight of a loss.
Never forget the role of a reader in the story being crafted. Storytellers of all kinds create relationships between the reader and the characters, crafting the reader’s perception of the events as a painter layers colors or a builder frames a house. Everything is done for the reader’s view. In using the major death of a character, and giving no room for the other characters within the story to react, the reader is left without a guide to processing the loss. Since everyone knows writers who kill off characters are mad scientists who just like to watch the world burn, here’s an analogy for what happens with each kind of character death.
First up, a death within the story can be followed by some kind of closure to produce a specific direction. This is like winding up one of those Happy Meal car toys and letting it go on a smooth wooden floor. The tension and power of the character’s death provides all the mounted potential energy in the little car/reader. Because of the mechanism designed to control it (move it forward via wheels and the tightened spring), this energy is channeled in a specific direction. If the character’s death was justified, and the response of the other characters is some kind of closure, then the reader will most likely travel the path of closure too. They were spoon-fed that emotion because they had something to follow. This applies also to a “how could you do that?!” emotion. If the other characters are incensed, enraged, or left feeling empty about the loss, then the reader again has a path. Even if each of the other characters has different feelings, then those are all paths made available to the reader. Writing in an epilogue is just a way to further control the direction of readers’ emotional response.
Next up, a death in the story happens right at the end and on the very last page. While many people write these types of scenes and come back with a sequel or “exclusive content”, the truest form of this is in a standalone story/novel/movie. While the directed mourning of the previous example looks like a controlled release of tension, this is basically a spastic bottle-rocket approach. All the storyteller can do is measure the explosive elements, set the charge, streamline the reader for rapid ascent, and finally light it and run! There’s no way of predicting the direction and power of the explosive emotional reaction except for diligent research, preparation, and countless misfires (aka drafts). A well-written scene of this kind hits the reader like an emotional gut-punch and leaves them on the mat sucking in air just enough to keep thinking, “What?! WHAT?! How could…? Why would-? You heartless monster!” And then their journey starts… Honestly, the recovery process of people emotionally scarred by deaths in fiction would be fascinating study. Psychologists have probably begun to address this, but the art of sending readers into a true mourning process is incredible when done well.
WARNING! PLEASE READ!
Authors aspiring to this, make sure you know where you want the readers’ grief to go, or you might get their rocket of remorse right up your butt. Badly done, this will get some of the worst reviews you’ve ever seen!
Killing Character How-To’s and Links:
On Killing Characters | Write World
- This is the first choice post for this topic. If there was internet applause, I would have it playing on a loop for this page.
Kill a Character | Helping Writers Become Authors
5 Practical Ways to Kill Your Characters | Writers Village
Kill of a Main Character in Literature | Wikihow
- Totally elementary, but if you need a 101 lesson then click this one.
How to Kill Characters with Impact | Avajae.blogspot
Alfred Hitchcock’s 50 Ways to Kill a Character | Open Culture
Kill of Characters | Missliterati