How to Kill a Character
As a writer, you get to witness the beautiful birth of your characters. You get to watch them grow and change throughout your story. You get to throw obstacles at them and see them come out the other end, stronger than ever before. As a writer, you spend hours mapping out every little detail and feel the love of your creations pour into your heart.
Unfortunately, as a writer, you also must occasionally witness the death of a character.
Character death is a well-travelled road for me. Three out of the four books I have written so far have included the death of a character.
Why so many character deaths, you may ask?
Well, I don’t execute them without a reason (pardon the pun), nor should any writer. Every death is pre-planned and happens in a way that will affect the progression of the story or the character’s growth. And that is where there is room for mistakes, like killing a character when you don’t need to kill them.
There is a point in every fiction novel where a type of death must occur. This could be the death of a relationship, a habit, or a dream. Every writer has to create a form of death in every book. But what about when it must be an actual death?
How are you, the creator of your book and all that is in it, supposed to write that?
Let’s unravel the steps that will make this journey easier for everyone involved.
Step 1 — The Premonition
Character death begins before the story even commences. When you are carefully planning out your characters and plot, you should be thinking about the fates of each of your characters. You should never kill a character out of the blue to cause shock or emotion from your readers. Every step must be carefully plotted out — with purpose.
Purpose is an important word when talking about characters. Each character needs to have it and use it to grow and develop an arc throughout the story. What will they contribute to the plot? Will they be a sidekick, a romantic partner, or an antagonist? Give them a role to play and let them play it out until their death. Give them a purpose before you even consider their fates so that you’re not tempted to leave it out.
When planning your book, think carefully if any of your characters have questionable fates. You must understand why your character needs to die. There should be no characters killed off simply because there are too many characters in your book and you need to get rid of some of them. If you find yourself in this scenario, begin by asking yourself if you should delete those characters altogether before pulling the trigger.
A character’s purpose must be more than just dying. Give time for the readers to get to know and care about the character. Otherwise, the death will be meaningless and easily forgotten.
One of the best things about pre-planning character death is writing the foreshadowing and premonitions that surround that death. Again, pre-plan these hints so that they don’t seem randomly placed and confuse the readers or give away the death before it happens.
Step 2 — The Reason
Just like your character needs a purpose in your story, you need a purpose for killing your character.
The reason for death is not the method in which you will use to kill your character. It’s the reason why death is occurring in the first place.
For the Plot
A common reason to kill a character is to drive the plot forward. The character must exit for the story to continue down a certain road. An example of this type of character death is found in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore must die to allow the next book to happen. If he had stayed alive, Voldemort would have never acquired the Elder Wand and Harry would have relied on Dumbledore to help him search for the Horcruxes, which would have lessened his struggle.
To avoid giving your characters an easy road, consider killing off an essential character and making the rest of the characters struggle. Try taking away a source of information before they can reach it, stealing their mentor, or taking their loved one.
Character death in the right circumstances will fill a character with so much anger and grief that they will lash out or make stupid decisions. Motivation can be a tricky thing to find in a character. It’s not as simple as laying out a goal and sending them after it. Each obstacle they face will break them and to keep on moving forward, they will need to be motivated by something strong enough.
An example of character death that resulted in character motivation is found in A Game of Thrones when Ned Stark is beheaded by Joffrey Baratheon and Arya Stark makes it her mission to learn how to kill so that she can murder Joffrey and avenge her father.
It’s an amazing moment when you see your devastated character rise from the dirt with anger on their face and face the problem facing them without a trace of fear. The truth is, sometimes a beloved character must be sacrificed for another character to reach their full potential.
What goes around comes around.
The same goes for character death. Sometimes, all those bad choices a character makes will bring karma swinging its fist.
After all, a bad character can only go so rotten before right-doers come knocking.
Even your not-so-morally-great characters have to have a purpose behind their deaths. You can’t just kill them out of spite. Awful characters need to have a part to play in the good character’s growth and arc as well. They have to stick around until the time comes where the characters can’t gain anything else from them.
An example of a character that was killed by karma is Clove from The Hunger Games. During her time in the arena, she kills tributes and revels in their terror. Eventually, Thresh finds out that she killed Rue and creates her own terrifying death as recompense for her actions.
For the Theme
Sometimes a death must occur for the theme of the story to be understood and have an impact on its readers.
This type of character death is usually hardest on everyone. The character is likable, vulnerable, and maybe even relatable which causes the act to pull at everyone’s heartstrings. But you must do it for the sake of getting your message across to your readers.
An example of this type of character death is found throughout the play Hamlet. Throughout the story, Hamlet is fascinated and obsessed with people dying while many people around him die tragic deaths.
Step 3 — The Aftermath
The moment directly following a character’s death is very delicate and must be treated as such.
You need to be careful not to disrespect a beloved character by moving on too fast or forgetting them altogether — especially if their death was plot-driving or motivating.
Allow yourself and the other characters to react to the loss. Give everyone room to mourn and react in their own way. This moment is often a good opportunity to indicate character traits. Which characters will sob and hide, which will comfort the others, which may not react at all — putting up a brave front?
Giving your characters this time to grieve will have a more emotional effect on the readers and give your character a proper farewell. It will allow readers to decipher what the reason for the death was and begin to come to terms with it.
Step 4 — Letting Go
If you don’t cry while writing the death scene, you’re not doing it right. Your book is an extension of yourself and your characters should feel like old friends. Do you cry when you lose a friend? Of course, you do. Only this time, you aren’t only losing a friend. You’re the one forcing them to leave in the worst way possible.
So, let your tears out and release your qualms about killing that character. You have to make a promise to yourself — even write it down if you must — that you will kill the character, even if a big part of you has cold feet.
There is no reset button on death in real life, hence, there shouldn’t be one created in fiction writing either. There is a point of no return in every book and death is just another one of those points.
If you have killed a character, you had foreshadowing, good reason, and character growth that came from it. Why should you erase all of that just to bring the character back and not do them justice in the story?
The only acceptable circumstance for a resurrected character is if it’s pre-planned that they will die and come back, like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. His character still had a lot of purpose to fulfill that none of the other characters could have taken on and carried for him.
Character deaths are powerful for both writers and their readers. They cover a range of emotions from sadness, to anger, to even satisfaction. Writing a death scene will be one of the hardest things you will ever have to write, but knowing it was for a good reason will help you through your period of mourning.