How to Kill a Character and Get Away With It

It may sound wrong but when we’re reading a book where characters die, i.e. most fantasy, sci-fi, and young adult books, we need to ask ourselves – was their death effective? Let me explain before I go any further.

Think of a book you read where a character died. Once you have it in your mind, try and relive the moment when this beloved individual takes their final breath. If he/she is on the protagonists side and a character that you’ve grown very attached to, then the death should be a kick in the feels. But what happens when this “kick in the feels” is more of a disappointment than heartbreak? The difference between the two is what I want to talk about today.

First I want to look at the archetypes which are almost sure signs of character death.

Archetypes

  • The Savior: simply by comparing such a character to the Christian Jesus (Savior=the Hebrew name for god) we can see that this individual will make a sacrifice for another. Though not always through death it seems highly likely that such a character will give his life so that the hero can finish his/her journey.
  • The Mentor: the mentor assists the hero and helps them along their journey toward independence. They often provide counsel, guidance, and protection, though there often comes a point where the hero needs to become the hero and this often results in the removal of the mentor. This doesn’t mean guaranteed death, but you would probably be wise to put your money there as a precaution. Sometimes the mentor retires, experiences a roll change, or is separated from the hero by necessity of the plot. Killing the mentor, however, creates a tension for the main character that pushes him into his role and provides motivation for the hero’s actions throughout the rest of the story. That being said, the mentor should only be killed if he has accomplished his purpose and there is another character in position to provide the same plot/character development once he is gone.
  • The Prodigal Son: As I write this I have a little bit of guilt. The prodigal son is linked to the idea of repentance and positive change, but when you find yourself reading about one, best beware. In many instances death is the ultimate redemption. There are several books I’ve read in the past few years, which will all remain nameless at this time to prevent spoilers and angry readers, which saved a character in this way. After choosing the dark path he/she betrays his/her friends and is left with only their choice and others who are similarly aligned. The return journey may be possible, but it will take a long time for the author to do it in such a way as to redeem them in the eyes of the reader. To have them killed in the pursuit of forgiveness is often the only way to accomplish this.

Death is not something to be taken likely. I’ve found a few authors to be confused on this front and consider killing a main character to be only useful for stimulating a strong emotional reaction. Yes, this happens, but it shouldn’t be the only reason and especially not the main reason you kill off a character. Just like when someone commits a murder it requires careful planning. Though I want to make it clear that I am in no way supporting the practice of actually murdering someone.

Some Pointers to Remember

  • Decide who will die: I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: this is not something to take lightly. This can be done before or during the writing phase, though if you wait too long it will be harder to properly lead up to the death.
  • Lead up to the characters death from the beginning: When you decide who is going to die you should also know why. Remember, deaths of main characters should be purposeful. There is little more disappointing than for a reader’s favorite character to meet an unsatisfying end. As sad as this sounds the author should be setting up the story for a character’s death as soon as he/she introduces said character to the audience. This means outlining all the events that will lead up to this final moment.
  • Purpose: Remember, this is often a crucial part of your story. It may not be the end of the world if a character is killed badly, but it may very well ruin your book as well. So be careful and plan ahead. The character’s death often does one or more of the following things for your book:
    • Moves the plot forward
    • Develops the protagonist
    • Fulfills the character’s ultimate goal
    • Stimulates an appropriate emotional response from the audience.
  • Timing: Timing is everything. Kill a character too soon and the readers could get upset because they and the character weren’t ready for it. Too late and the death will seem pointless.
    • Also, don’t forget about the relative speed of time in writing. As the author you have the great power to slow down and speed up time when it suits your needs. Speeding up time will allow you to move through events that require little time, or to gloss over scenes to elicit an almost dreamlike state from the reader. On the other hand, slowing down a moment will add extra emphasis. This could be a good way to set up a scene like, I don’t know, maybe the death of a major character.
  • The story continues: Now that you’ve killed off one of your beloved creations don’t stop. Hopefully you made the death something memorable, touching, and effective so that the story gets better from there. With loss comes the potential for greater growth.

There are a great many parts to a story that can make a good book great. Dialogue, substantial plot, and character development being a few, but it’s important to realize that how you kill your characters can have a profound effect. In any great adventure it isn’t just about what the hero accomplishes in the end, it’s also about what, and more importantly who, they have to lose along the way.

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