How to Kill (Your Characters)

by | Feb 26, 2013 | Prose and Cons | 0 comments

The worlds we write can be dark and dangerous places. In many cases, these dangers are a key element of the plot. Sword fights, monster attacks, magical duels and harrowing escapes are all staples of the fantasy genre – and those are just the dangers that come at your characters head on! If your world involves political intrigues you also have to worry about assassinations, poisonings, conspiracies, kidnappings and executions…

…and somehow all the characters survive it all?

Surely there is a place for a happy ending in any sort of story but in a world where danger lurks in every passage and half the relatives at your breakfast table are plotting treason, the more characters you have, the harder it is to find them all surviving believable.

(Perceived Danger of Story) x (Number of Characters) = (Expected Character Deaths)
This isn’t really math, it just looks a bit like it

There are no hard and fast rules for this equation, but some manifestation of it is floating around in a reader’s head. They read about all these slaughters where there is only one survivor and lo and behold: a major character again! This is something that can develop into a real believability problem over time. Not every reader will object, but most will notice if the only people who die are villains and nameless background characters. What can you do about this?

Killing Characters

If only it were this simple...

If only it were this simple…

I’m going to start right off with this: just because a character has a name doesn’t mean he counts for this exercise. If killing a character is going to have an effect on the reader, it has to be someone they know. It can be someone they love or someone they hate, but the middle ground is less useful and unknowns are worthless. The character has to be someone that the reader has an opinion on or it won’t elicit a reaction.

The longer a character has been around, the more profound the loss of that character becomes. If the character was introduced and killed in the same chapter, it’s less of a blow than it would have been if the deceased was a character in a previous book or series or one from a much earlier portion of the same story.

Why? WHY?

This may all seem heartless but in fact it is the opposite. This is all about heart. How much are you really going to invest emotionally in a character whose safety is all but assured. If the only risks to anyone are heartbreak and disappointment, readers are going to get antsy to flip to the end to see how it all turns out. Hopefully you’ve got some mystery and intrigue, because without danger you’re at risk of boring them.

It doesn’t have to be your protagonist who dies. That’s a gusty call in any story and really puts a note of finality to the story you’re telling. The real message you want is the thought that it could happen. The death of a friend, a mentor, a lover, these are things that really bring the specter of danger over your hero’s (or heroine’s) head. If the killer is still alive, that gives yet another cause for concern over the hero’s fate.

Benefits of an “On-Screen” Death

  • It can give a character a powerful motivation
  • It can remove a vital safety net, especially if the character killed was a mentor or protector
  • It can alter the point of view of the protagonist, as the contend with the emotions resulting from witnessing the killing

Reasons to Move the Death “Off-Screen”

  • You can still generate all the same effects as an on-screen death, but with less of a visceral reaction by the reader
  • You can generate mystery if not all of the circumstances are revealed
  • You can tie up loose ends without bogging down the narrative, but still introduce the element of danger

Bad Reasons to Kill a Character

While there are reasons within a plot for anyone to die, given a bit of word-wrangling, there are times when you might be killing a character for the wrong reasons. Such as because…

  • … you don’t like the character (if this is really your reason, either edit the character out or make the reader hate them too before you finish him off )
  • … you didn’t have another plan for them
  • … the story was intended to be “gritty” and not enough characters had died for the “gritty” description
  • … you read about it in someone’s blog and wanted to try it out

The Ones That Got Away

Have you ever been reading along and found that there was someone else’s character that you just really wanted to see get killed off? Hats off to that writer. They made you care enough about a villain that the hatred came right through the pages to you. Of course they might also have made an otherwise innocuous character who you just find annoying enough to wish death on. I’m less certain of the level of kudos that should be involved here, but they should at least be given credit for evoking emotion.

What characters could have used a good clean death? A long, messy one? Share your thoughts in the comments


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