How to Kill Your Characters
- July 08, 2019
Death and a Funeral
Regardless of the story, play, or movie a writer tends to come to many different crossroads in his/her work. One crossroad, in particular, and likely the hardest to navigate, often leads to a singular question: Who do I kill?
You may ask, “What do you mean?”, but think about it. The question is more difficult to answer than we think. After all, we love our characters dearly, villains included, but are reluctant to let them go.
Death, even in fiction, is very sobering. I’m sure many of us have cried after reading a particularly difficult scene or watching a heart-wrenching movie. For some of us, it’s almost like losing a close friend. The emotions that this death invokes in the aftermath of the moment stay with us and at times, even challenge us.
The finality of death often brings to mind questions we don’t consider on a daily basis. Perhaps it forces us into a bit of reflection about our own mortality and life choices. Or maybe it’s because of the empathy it invokes in us, pulling on some part of our lives that borders on the familiar.
While I doubt anyone can argue against slaying the villain, most are always born to die, and in many ways, I think it’s something the audience has come to expect most of the time. Still, some villains can invoke deep emotions from within us. A handful–even when they die–can leave us with a sense of pity, or even sadness.
The fact remains, and while it may sound morbid, that some characters, no matter how much you love them, must have their final moment. The stories we write simply wouldn’t work any other way without such powerful events. We may even risk the impact the MC needs to push them on to become the hero or person they were meant to be.
So how do you arrive at this crossroad?
I think for me it’s a matter of letting my characters lead me to this juncture. As they lead me I have to ask some hard questions. Questions like:
What effect will this have one the MC and supporting cast?
Is it necessary?
Will it serve a purpose?
Will it make me cry?
What effect will this have on the reader?
There are others, but I think that these are the ones that come up the most. So let’s start with the first one.
What effect will this have one the MC and supporting cast?
I mentioned that we often as writers treat our characters like family. They hold a deep significance to us that enables us to connect with them in surprising ways. Often as this connection forms, we learn about them, grow with them and ultimately, understand what hurts them the most.
The bonds they form are no exception. Their friends are our friends and their family is our family. So when a circumstance arrives that forces a choice we often find ourselves torn or if you’re a little villainous at heart, delighted about the loss about to take place.
But as the words fill the page we begin to see the effects unfold and the story takes on a new life. We see the wounds the loss causes because in life, at some point we have all experienced and understand the depth of what loss does to a person.
Great writing often comes from these moments. When we recognize why this had to happen, we begin to see what effects of the loss has on the MC and those around him. We begin a new journey as they learn more about themselves, both good and bad, becoming changed by the experience.
Is this death necessary?
I believe this question is critical and should be asked often. Killing someone in literature for the sake of having the ability to do so, is unwise. To be honest, killing any character requires the proper amount of finesse.
If poorly executed, then your readers may simply put your novel down and move on to someone else. You should always remember your audience and I say that because you are carrying them on the journey with you. Now, that also doesn’t mean you have to cater to people and risk ruining the work, but just be mindful of who the person is and why you are killing them off.
In some ways, you’re like a surgeon. The scalpel in is your hand and you are steadily taking the blade to make an incision. It requires a steady hand.
Will this death serve a purpose?
I think in hindsight this question overlaps with the first two, but it should be asked as a means of a short pause. Give yourself a moment before the words race across the screen or page. Can you see what will follow in the wake of what you are about to etch in stone?
Asking if the death you are about to pen serves a purpose is a good way to reflect on how it will affect the story moving forward. Now, so far I’ve likely sounded overly dramatic, but even killing hundreds of people for literally no reason, is a bit senseless. I feel like in anything you write it should purposeful.
Analyzing the purpose behind what’s about to take place will often offer new insight that you hadn’t considered before. It may even reveal a facet about some of the characters you had yet to imagine.
In my own writing, I have had moments where I have realized that there needed to be a death. I began to see a trend where some of the characters seemed a bit too epic or much. There wasn’t a vulnerability in their lives and as a result, I began to understand that people might not be able to relate to them.
In essence, the purpose of writing a death was their lack of struggle. I mean in life, without struggle, there is no personal growth. If there is no growth, then we become stagnant.
Will it make me cry?
I tend to be a bit analytical when I look at things, especially when I’m writing. I mean I have gone as far as to look up how owls see to accurately represent a POV for one of my characters when they shapeshift. I even found a non-magical way to loosely explain why dragons have breath weapons.
My point being, that because I can be so analytical I am often emotionally disconnected. So when I come to a scene that invokes an emotion so powerful that it makes me cry, I take it as a sign I am on the right track. Because if it makes me cry, then it will hopefully have the same effect on the reader. I often use this as a litmus test for any of my scenes, both good and bad.
But, being able to invoke emotion in your readers is a good method of keeping your book in their hand. Having the ability to write a powerful and emotional death scene, will definitely keep them looking ahead to see what hold it has over your characters. If you make them cry, you most likely have them hooked.
What effect will the death have on the reader?
I think we have covered this question on all points, but maybe the better question to ask would be: What response will it create?
In high school, I had a friend who introduced me to a certain book series. While he was vague about the details in its ending, I remember the statement he made about it:
“After I finished the book, I stood up in the middle of my class and jumped up and down on it because of what they did to the main character.”
I didn’t understand why at first, but as my fingers slipped off the last page I understood why he had reacted so strongly. I was heartbroken. The MC had died. All the struggle, pain, and battles he had endured at that moment seemed so meaningless.
As I pondered it though and reviewed the last pages of the book for a second time, it was only then I understood. It had to be. If it had never happened, then the stage could have never been set for what was to come.
From that moment on I was a fan. Through one act, the authors had brilliantly set about creating the legacy he had left behind. So for this series, whenever I saw glimpses of that legacy, even hundreds of years later in the books, I felt a sense of wonder. In a strange way, I had been there with the Mc when it had happened.
So when the current characters, who were on their own journey, found references to his legacy or some other significant event, I fell deeper in love with these books. I was now experiencing the journey from perspective. I got to see how one death or sacrifice shaped everything moving forward.
In the end, writing a character toward death is as critical as writing how they lived. As you grow as a writer eventually you start to hear a little voice that says: It’s time.
It can be challenging, but when done properly brings its own reward. Death affects us all, both in fiction and life. I think what we draw from it and the struggles it brings to the table is what shows a true test of our character, again both in fiction and in reality.