In writing – and in life – we are often faced with countless choices. As an author, one of the biggest choices is whether or not to kill a character. So what’ll it be – church bells, or chopping blocks? It’s a death row pardon, two minutes too late: Alexa, play “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette.
Death is never a joking matter – in novel form especially, it can drastically change the trajectory and tone of your story. Characters act and function like humans, after all. Life (or the lack of it) always has some kind of ripple effect. For this reason, killing a character has to be done with tangible reason and taste in mind. Maybe you’re fully aware that it’s going to cause your readers to angrily throw your book at the wall and go to bed frustrated. But as long as you have a specific reason for such a heinous act, there’s a solid chance you’ll eventually be forgiven. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.
As far as figuring out what potentially qualifies killing off a character as “reasonable,” you’ll just have to read on. Or else – off with your head!
Killing Characters That Add Depth
These are personas you add to your story with the sole-purpose of killing them off later to bring emotional depth. This involves strategic foreshadowing, meaningful backstories, and a believable cause. You’ve got to plan your character killings from the start. A prime example of this might be Rue from The Hunger Games. The audience was encouraged to like her – pity her, even. And she had enough time in the story to show her worth both to her family, and alongside other characters like Katniss. Her death fueled the rage the reader would feel toward the Capitol. This mirrored what the characters were feeling, and brought the story to life (or death) for the reader. For more help with writing in the Young Adult genre, read this article HERE.
Kill Characters That Readers Hate
Ah yes – the satisfying kill. This is a character that gets the best of everything, even though they don’t deserve it. Or maybe they constantly terrorize your main character, and your readers hate them as much as your protagonist does. Reading about their death should be oddly pleasant, bringing about a new tension to your story. Better yet, it may make readers slightly question their own sanity for finding such joy in the death. And like the above example, maybe your protagonist goes through a similar feeling, making the whole experience extra-meta.
Killing Characters That Readers Love
This one is probably the most complicated of the appropriate-kill categories, because it’s a slippery slope. If you’re killing off the fan-favorite just to piss them off and send shockwaves through Twitter, that’s not good enough. Alternatively, if you do this to showcase the beautifully haunting loss felt by other characters, and as a vehicle to bring new narrative tones to light, it can be effective. Best rule of thumb for determining the difference between these two potential outcomes, is asking your beta-readers their thoughts about that specifically. If they cite being more irritated than understanding, then your story has some tweaking in its future.
Kill Characters That Are Disposable
I know that’s a weird adjective, but hear me out: some characters literally serve no purpose. In these cases, maybe you don’t even kill them at all. Maybe you decide to just scrub their entire existence from the book as a whole. But if you’re looking for a character to kill to bring emphasis to some other idea, you can do that. The story won’t really miss anything without them, and you get to showcase a tonal change. This can also be a dangerous slope into the category of “killing just for the fun of it”, but the buzzword here is “intention”. If the killing is a vehicle for something bigger to come to pass, then you’re probably okay – even if you decide your character won’t be.
Writing is a delicate art, and killing characters is anything but. It’s both logistically and emotionally messy, and handling it the wrong way may end up biting you in the butt. But with a little sensitivity and artful consideration, even your darlings will thank you when the dagger stabs them in the back.