As writers, we hear the phrase kill your darlings a lot, but when it comes time to pull the trigger, be sure you have the right reasons before you off your characters. The following post aims to examine the reasons why you might kill a character, why you shouldn’t kill a character, and then what to do once you have a dead body. All great life advice. Shall we?
Have a Purpose
In a sick and twisted way, writing a death scene can be a lot of fun, but there’s a place for gratuitous violence–actually, you tell me, where exactly is the place for gratuitous violence? That being said, the purpose of killing a character should be crystal clear in your mind before you do it. Let’s explore a few reasons for killing a character.
Derive an emotional response that supports your theme
Piggy in Lord of the Flies by William Golding was the voice of reason, anchoring the boys to civility in the ever-increasing chaos. Then they killed him. Lord of the Flies is an examination of the rules and order necessary to maintain a safe environment. Piggy’s death truly supported this concept in a shocking and tragic way. I remember being horrified when I read his death scene and after the shock, came the fear. What would happen to them all? Two strong emotions.
Motivate your protagonist
Death is a great motivator. Revenge is a wonderful storyline. It’s like the two were destined to be together. Any story that has an unjust/untimely death can easily lay the foundation for a justice-seeking protagonist. But revenge is just one motivational flavor. Death could also be an impetus for reflection and change. The death of a character can become a mirror for your main character, reminding them of both their strengths and their shortcomings.
Move the plot along
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s death devastates the fragile balance between the two houses. After that, well, you know how the story goes. Mercutio was one of my favorite characters, I was truly sad that he died, but I concede that Mr. Shakepaere needed to make a sacrifice to the plot gods in order to move things along. If your story has arrived at a stalemate, perhaps you, too, need to make a sacrifice to plot gods in order to keep the ball rolling. However, …
Use caution when killing extraneous characters
This is important to consider because if you kill them, did they need to be there in the first place? Be sure that their mere existence served a purpose before you go slashing extras for the sake of slashing extras.
So you’ve killed someone, now what? Be sure that you’re carefully demonstrating the weight of the death on your remaining characters. Review the five stages of grief after you write a death scene and see how you can incorporate these emotions into your grieving characters. Using this method will ground your story in reality.
Then there’s the actual body. Don’t forget about that. What does happen to the body? It’s really easy to kill someone off, but then you got to clean up the mess. Is there a funeral? Does the body decompose? Be sure to tie up loose ends or you risk losing credibility.