There comes a point in every writer’s journey when they realize that with the power to create a world comes an important responsibility: they have to decide who gets to live and who gets to die in their story. Killing characters can often be a necessary evil, however painful it might be to eliminate someone we’ve spent countless hours dreaming up. The more important the character, the more difficult a decision it may be to get rid of that character.
A character’s death can often be an effective, powerful way to elicit emotion from the reader. But like most things in story craft, it has to serve a purpose. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about “senseless” death. What it does mean is that as writers we must be careful manipulators who have a good reason for the deaths we present in our stories. Here are some things to consider when introducing a character death.
Good Reasons to Kill a Character
- Advancing Plot : Among the most important reasons a writer can have to kill a character is to advance the plot. Whether it’s a murder mystery where the death of character can frame the plot, or a drama where the loss sends the protagonist in a downward spiral—a character death can be a fantastic way to drive the plot forward.
- Comeuppance: Throughout the storyline, a character can do things to “earn” their own death. Sometimes, this results in the demise of the character as the culmination of these events.
- Emotional Response (in the protagonist): When done well, a character’s death can be hugely motivating to the protagonist. A death can be the wake-up call they may need, or turn their emotional world upside-down. By extension, this may also elicit an emotional response in a reader.
Poor Reasons to Kill a Character
- Emotional Response (in the reader): Emotional responses in readers are difficult to predict. What is predictable, though, is that readers tend to dislike obvious manipulation. Death that is written to shock or sadden the reader frequently can just frustrate or anger them instead.
- Eliminating a “Token” Character: The death of minor characters—especially minorities, women, and undeveloped characters—can often be trite ways of introducing death or a sense of realism to a situation. Consider the classic case of the Star Trek “Red Shirt” character death. Sure, it might “show” how dangerous the situation is. But it’s also so predictable that it’s become a joke in popular culture.
- Eliminating an Unnecessary Character: If it’s easy to kill a character because they aren’t really necessary to the plot, it might be wise to think about whether or not you need to have the character in the novel in the first place. Here’s more on writing meaningful minor characters: The Supporting Cast.
The Importance of Death
At the end of the day, killing characters is important and necessary, especially to add a sense of reality to your story. In fact, there are often times that writers don’t go far enough and are afraid to go through with a character death. Don’t be afraid of eliminating a character when necessary. And remember: the characters that are the hardest to kill off just might be the ones you need to.