A few weeks ago I wrote a post with some miscellaneous thoughts on torturing characters, which you can find here: On Tormenting Characters. I mostly talked in general terms about doing bad things to characters, but as I was thinking it through I wanted to go a little deeper into one specific aspect of torturous writing: killing off characters.
Some writers do lots of it. Some don’t do any. Some kill their characters only to have them revived again by magic or science later.
No matter what kind of writer you are, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering whether or not to kill off a character, and they’re things I’ve come to feel strongly about over my (almost) decades of reading and loving stories.
Don’t do it just because you can. This relates back to what I said in the other article. Don’t do something just for shock value. That doesn’t mean that can’t be part of the reason. But it needs to be more than just “yes, I get to be evil, mwahaha.” And the reason can be as simple as “I need this to show just how bad this character is, or how far they’ve fallen.” That’s still much deeper than “heehee, I get to kill.”
Let the other characters react. It doesn’t have to be immediately. If the characters are running for their lives, or caught up in the middle of other imminent danger of some sort, they may not be able to respond to the impact of the death right away. But don’t take that as a free pass for them to never deal with it. Once they get to a place of at least minimal rest, the reality of the death should start to, in the very least, begin creeping in. Each character will react differently, and should. Just how deeply they react depends a lot on how well they knew the character who died, how they died, and to an extent the character’s personality. But even witnessing the peaceful death of someone a person doesn’t know can effect them to some degree. We as humans don’t often like to be faced with our own mortality, and your characters just have been. Let them deal with that.
Show the impact. This goes along with the previous point, but it goes further, and usually regards more specifically characters that had a personal relationship with the dead character. Of course, each person is going to react differently to deaths, taking into account factors of personality, manner of death, closeness of relationship and so on. But there are some baselines of grief that all the characters who knew the one that died should pass through, and some will feel it even if they didn’t personally know the deceased character. And in most cases the death should inspire the character or characters toward something, usually a revitalized effort toward defeating the villain, or finishing the mission, or so on. But it can also cause the characters to reevaluate what they’re doing, and think through whether or not their goal is actually worth the cost. It might be, and it might not be, but either way, it doesn’t hurt to show the thought process.
Consider the reality of the situation. If you’re sending your heroes into an epic fantasy war that will last a long time, it’s highly unlikely the main characters will all escape without losing at least one person they knew on some surface level. I’m not saying you should kill a main character, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t. It should at least feel like a possibility, and there should be good reasons for all of them to have survived. If you send a completely incompetent character into a battle with no one watching their back, I’m not going to believe they escaped without at least a scratch. Of course, this doesn’t mean you always have to kill characters either, just try to be realistic about numbers, skills, and odds, and make it believable all your named characters could have escaped, if they all do.
Don’t overuse death fakeouts. It’s okay to have one. It does happen. But don’t use too many of them, and be aware that after you’ve done it once, it’s going to take even more work to convince readers that other characters are actually dead later.
Basically it all boils down to letting there be a reaction to the death. The more prominent the character, the more time you should give your other characters, and therefore the readers, time to grieve. They just lost someone important, and we did too. Give everyone some time to process what just happened, and show it being processed realistically, in keeping with the other characters’ way of dealing with things. Research grief and the grieving process, and don’t be afraid to show it. It will help us as readers believe that death meant something.
Parents don’t always have to die. Neither do mentor figures. It’s a common trope, especially in some genres in particular, and one that I am certainly guilty of. But I would love to see more stories with living parents and teacher figures. And not just living ones, but loving, caring, non-abusive parents who genuinely care about their children and want to be there for them. There are a multitude of different ways to force a main character away from home, or the parents away from them, without killing those parents off, and I think the world needs more stories like this.
What are some tips you can think of for making a character’s death mean the most in a story?