Character deaths: they’re one of the best ways to get readers talking about your story, but they’re also a big risk. Done poorly, a death scene can alienate readers for life. Pull it off just right, however, and you’ll earn a piece of your readers’ hearts.
Decided it’s worth the risk? Here are a few things to remember when writing character deaths.
Make the character (and their death) important to readers
Death is a heavy topic — one readers want to feel something about when they encounter it in your book. If a character dies and we don’t care, that feels wrong and perhaps a little frustrating. An effective character death makes sense for the story and has a big emotional impact on readers.
That means we need to care about the character who’s dying. Reasons for caring may vary, including but not limited to hating the character, loving the character, or loving or hating another character who cares about them. The dying character’s connection to the reader matters less than the fact that a strong connection exists at all.
While killing a villain can feel quite satisfying, don’t shy away from killing off reader favorites. Done well, a beloved character’s death gets readers’ emotions keyed up and makes for an unforgettable story. Be careful, though. If the death feels manipulative or fails to serve the story, readers will still remember your book — but for the wrong reasons.
Make the character (and their death) important to other characters
When someone close to us dies, it changes the landscape. We deal with the obvious practical and emotional fallout along with an avalanche of unexpected feelings and obligations.
Readers expect to see this reflected in your fictional world. If a character death has little effect on your story or characters, it has no business taking up precious word count. If the death should have a significant impact but you don’t show it, readers will find this both distracting and frustrating.
Not only that, deaths give you a huge opportunity for character development. How a character — especially a point-of-view character — reacts to a death reveals a lot about who they are.
Add some nuance
With that in mind, explore surviving characters’ reactions to the death. Go beyond the obvious. Readers don’t want or need to hear how your protagonist is sad his brother died, or that he misses him. Get specific. Show an unexpected moment when the brother’s absence is especially keen.
Also, dig into what Donald Maass refers to in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction as “third-level emotions.” Sure, your protagonist is sad. What else are they feeling at the same time? And what else besides that? Once you reach that second “what else,” you’re entering third-level-emotion territory. These unexpected feelings will evoke the primary feeling of sorrow far better than using words like “sad” or “mourning” ever could.
Underplay, don’t overplay, a death scene
The bigger an event’s inherent emotional impact, the more of their own feelings readers will bring to the table. Leave room for those feelings.
Much like sex scenes, less is almost always more. Over-writing these scenes will have the opposite of the effect you want: distance and disengagement. Readers want to experience their own emotional journey here. They can’t do that if you tell them exactly how to feel.
In the actual death scene, keep your prose a little sparse. Limit emotional exposition. Let readers experience it firsthand. Save the rich emotional descriptions for later, in the quieter moments that follow. This also makes for more realistic prose: most of us don’t process our emotional reactions to major events as they’re happening. We feel most deeply at unexpected times, like when we’re waiting at a traffic light or tidying up after the children go to bed. Use these moments to the fullest, but let your death scene stand on its own.