How (And When) To Kill A Character

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How and when you choose to kill off a character can make or break a novel. It’s also incredibly difficult for authors, being a little like purposefully breaking one of your own toys.

When done right, a character’s death can break a reader’s heart, but if done wrong it’ll just exhaust their patience.

In this article, I’ll get to the bottom of what makes a character’s death resonant, and will outline the situations in which authors should consider killing off a character.

When to kill off a character

This question can often be confusing, because the way it’s asked confuses form with function. Of course what authors want to know is where in their story characters should die, but ‘about four ninths in’ isn’t helpful.

The question that first has to be answered is: why should you kill a character?


There are a lot of reasons authors are driven to kill off a character. Sometimes it’s for emotional impact, sometimes it’s central to the plot, and sometimes it just feels natural.

Where you kill a character in your narrative depends on the purpose of their death. There’s no too early or too late, just appropriate times for different purposes. If the purpose is to cause an emotional reaction then it’s often more impactful for the reader to get to know a character first. On the other hand if the purpose is to establish a sense of danger then a character can die on the first page.

Characters should be killed off at the moment when the purpose of their demise will be most impactful. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men the heart breaking death occurs in the last few pages, once we know and perhaps love the victim, hammering home the idea of poverty leaving people helpless and hopeless. In Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead deaths frequently occur without warning, establishing the vital theme that the characters are never safe.

Pretty much any purpose can be valid, and can be written brilliantly, so long as it obeys one simple rule:

Write the death for the character, not the character for the death.

Character deaths ring untrue when it’s apparent to the reader that the character is only in the story to die. This most often happens when an author wants to justify a threat, including a character for the first quarter of the novel just so they can be killed by the primary antagonist.

Of course authors have to think about function (it’s not as if Steinbeck started writing George and Lenny’s adventures without knowing their tragic end) but you can’t stop there. If characters are solely around for their deaths then readers will never invest in them, and won’t care once they’re gone.

If a character is going to die then they need to be unique and well realized. A good rule of thumb is your own reluctance to kill them. If you consider a character’s death and hesitate because part of you wants to keep them around, then you’re onto a winner.

The best character deaths are heart wrenching for the author and the reader.

If your character begins as a vehicle for their own death it’s essential to move them past that point, so that their end feels like a genuine loss. After that point the question ‘when shall I kill off a character?’ can be answered by deciding what purpose the death serves and what moment will be most impactful in service of that purpose.

Write the death for the character, not the character for the deathClick To Tweet

Of course knowing when to kill a character influences how you kill them.

How to kill off a character

How you kill a character is strongly influenced by the purpose of their death. In Stephen King’s Desperation a father is killed out of nowhere, having survived most of the book and seemingly out of reach of the antagonist. The death is sudden and unexpected, and serves the theme of horror through powerlessness and injustice.

In Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version the main character is dying over the entire course of the book, leading the reader to focus on every moment of life he wasted as the story unfolds in flashback.

The duration and manner of your character’s death depends on the purpose of their death. Long deaths can be tedious or heart-rending, sudden deaths shocking or laughable. The difference between a successful character death and one lacking in impact is a single emotion.


Of German origin, ‘weltschmerz’ is the sadness caused by comparing how the world actually is against how we feel it should be.

In terms of character deaths, this emotion takes on a very specific form. The impact of a character’s death stems from the ability of the reader to imagine how things would be if they had survived.

This is one of the reasons why the demise of a character created just to die will have so little impact on the reader. Readers are canny, they understand the medium, and when a character’s sole existence is to prove the bad guy is an amazing swordsman, the reader knows there’s no possible future where they survived. The mechanics of writing bleed into the storytelling and the character may as well have been dead from the start.

Character deaths have impact when the reader feels a sense of loss, but for that sense to exist the reader has to have a subconscious sense of what they’ve lost. Whether it’s the character’s behavior, or the relevance of their relationships, something that was desirable must now be gone.

This is why less skilled writers often drop a love scene right before one of the lovers dies. The reader is meant to mourn the relationship that was cut short, never mind that they were too smart to buy into it in the first place.

Don't drop a love scene right before one of the lovers dies.Click To Tweet

In Darren Shan’s Killers of the Dawn the main character’s mentor is thrown to his certain death at the end of a chapter. The next chapter begins with a daring, last minute rescue. It then details how the enemies were defeated, how the relationships of all the characters progressed, and the idealistic scenarios that followed. Of course this chapter is a lie, the fervent wish of the narrator, but its purpose is to create a highly realized picture of the world that should be.

Once the reader snaps back to reality and is forced to confront the death of the mentor, they do so with an aching weltschmerz. They have seen the ideal world, and understand in every detail the loss they have just witnessed.

Of course not every book can or should include a fake-out chapter, so how can others novels tap into this powerful sense of regret?


Eulogies are speeches given in memorial of the deceased. By this I don’t mean having a character bemoan the loss of their friend (although that’s a valid option) but that you should reference what’s been lost through the death.

Of course eulogizing doesn’t have to happen after a death, it just needs to reference the loss. Readers are smart enough to think back to eulogies even when they occur before the death they’re mourning.

Eulogizing doesn’t have to happen after a death, it just needs to reference the loss.Click To Tweet

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby contains eulogizing passages before and after Gatsby’s death, but the part that invites the reader’s weltschmerz the best comes prior.

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.

In this short passage, Fitzgerald plants the devastating idea that Gatsby’s death comes from his dedication to those who don’t deserve it, and how alone he’s been throughout the story. When Gatsby is shot sometime later, and those who brought about his death easily shrug off their guilt, this passage recaptures the reader and draws their attention to the idea that almost any other outcome would have been preferable to Gatsby’s sacrifice.

Passages such as this don’t need to be only eulogies. In many cases every action of a fully realized and compelling character constitutes an implicit eulogy. By establishing interesting relationships and a unique voice foundations are laid for the reader’s regrets once they’re gone.

Dead and buried

Character deaths are a shaky currency and the less considered they are, the more likely the reader is to feel short-changed. The key to an impactful character death is to convince the reader that they’ve lost something and, annoying though it may be, it’s almost impossible to fake that.

Losing a character you like takes a lot of guts. Even more upsetting is consigning a character to death, building them up so that it matters and then not wanting to let them go. In such moments it helps to remember that what feels like a loss to you will be doubly so for your readers, and that the immediate sacrifice will lead to a more enthralling and engaging story in the long run.

For more on writing fully realized characters the reader will invest in, check out How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? Or for advice on turning characters of convenience into real narrative assets try Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story.

Do you struggle to kill off characters, or are you without mercy? What character deaths have most shaken you? Let me know in the comments.

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87 thoughts on “How (And When) To Kill A Character”

    1. Hi boostwriter,

      I just read it (in translated form) and loved the comparison to Llewelyn Moss. I try to stick to literary examples in my articles, but the Coen brothers exemplify so much about how I think writers (creators, in their case) should trust their audience. Have you seen ‘A Serious Man’? The final scene feels so outrageous the first time you see it, the degree to which you’re not handed a conclusion.


      1. Hi Rob, I’ve just seen your answer (after 2 months, sorry)! Is there a way to get notified? I swear I saw tha button but now I don’t see it anymore… I came here from another link in a recent article.

        Thanks for reading my article!

        Didn’t see “A serious man”, I am gonna see it soon!

        1. Hi boostwriter,

          I’m not sure about notification, I’ll look into it for you. I’m pretty sure there must be a way though.

          No problem, it was a good read.

          I hope you enjoy it. I hated it the first time I saw it, but it’s one of those things that sits in your head for weeks before you really get it (or it was for me, anyway.)


  1. The most shocking death was probably Johnny Cade from S.E Hinton’s, The Outsiders. It was both shocking and mesmerizing. You could tell he was going to eventually die from those injuries he got, but it was still shocking no matter what. The backstory Johnny had was just incredibly shocking, and it did make us readers feel bad for Johnny and care for him, so when he died, it made us really upset.

    Nice article! I’m going to look back at this later because I’m writng a book right now and one of my characters are going to die in a chapter or two, so thank you 🙂

    1. Cary D. Thacker (Pseudonym)

      I’m also writing a book. So far, the title is Casketless. I know I shouldn’t be focusing on the title before the book is even done, but it’s driving me crazy. What do you think of the title??

  2. Personally, I don’t have mercy on the characters I kill. I actually tend to kill off my favorites. You spend the first third of the book getting to know this sweet character who is so dear to the entire cast because he’s amiable and the only one who can keep a light heart despite the war they’re fighting. He’s genuinely part of the team. … Then he dies to save his friends. He was my favorite for sure.

    1. Hi Brittany,

      Sounds fantastic – that’s the kind of writing that will really draw a reader in.


  3. Killing characters is very difficult for me because once I have a character that’s developed enough to have an impactful death I feel like there’s too much potential for them later in the story. I read this article in order to help me further my decision along, and I think I know where to go now. Thanks!

    1. Hi Marina,

      No problem, glad it was useful. It can be really difficult killing off developed characters, but whatever impact it has on you, it will also have on the readers – lost potential is something they’ll find equally tragic.


  4. Hi Rob,

    In my story my main character dies at the end. He is a warroir that at that moment realises the only way to win is with his death. Do you have any reccomendations i could read to find the best way to do it.

    He fights hard but isnt quick enough to beat the stories villian. He’s on his knees and she goes on about he is going to watch as here army kills every last man, woman and child of his home and that his wife will be the last one. She wont kill him then he will be chained up and have to live with that as thats a worse punishment than death. The idea is the all the people he knows their faces flash and with his last ounce of strength dives on her blade and holding it so she cant get away.

    That also might be abit cliche aswell.

    1. Hi Aaron,

      Sounds like an epic conclusion to a warrior’s tale – the story that came to mind was actually The Lord of the Rings and Boromir’s death. The book and movie handle it slightly differently – with many thinking the latter has more emotional resonance – but I think both will contain some valuable pointers.


      1. Hi Rob,

        Thanks for that I will have to re-read Lord of the Rings again not that that’s a bad thing

    1. Hi Stacey,

      Thanks for commenting – a great example of an effective character death. It’s been a while since I read ‘The Hunger Games’, but I believe that death also serves to illustrate the brutality of the games to the reader, and the fact that children really are going to suffer and die.


  5. I came here trying to talk myself OUT of killing a character in my story and here you’ve talked me into it *sighs*. I had originally written the character basically to die but also one that’s central to event’s in the story and overtime grew attached to said character I had half thought of copping out and not killing her due to the varied potential I saw for her. (At best she would of been kidnapped and other’s THOUGHT she was dead due to wounds.) But after reading this seems now all my reasons for now wanting to kill her shows I should in the end. Well there goes my happy ending for the protagonist I had envisioned as a possibility heh.

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately, yes, it sounds like that’s the best way to go. Remember, though, that the reader is going to feel just as bad about losing her, so the sacrifice will be worth it in the end.


    2. Hello Russ,
      I sympathize with your comment so much as I also came to this article with the same intent and finished with the same realization. The sacrifice of the heroine isn’t immediate as her male partner dies first. But her demise from that point onwards is quick and harsh compared to how she fought a hard uphill battle to get to her current situation. I suppose her ending is more bittersweet as she herself does die happily but she still does not accomplish all she could have or be set up in the story to do. But then again….. I’m still considering if I can keep her alive as my story isn’t in a traditional medium so my internal struggle hasn’t yet ended.

  6. Hey, Rob.

    I am currently writing a story where I am considering killing off one of the main characters at the end. He is actually one of my favorite characters, and I am having many doubts over whether or not I should go through with it. Without his death, the outcome would obviously be very different, however (one of the main reasons I also have doubts concerning killing him).

    I am mostly worried that killing him would be considered fishing for shock value (something I utterly despise when I come across it in other works). I have a tendency to kill off characters for ironic purposes. In this case, he and the other characters have finally resolved the conflict. The past has been forgiven, and they are all about to move on with their lives.

    Is ironic fulfillment a bad reason to drive the point home? Granted, it adds a rather potent punch in the gut for the other characters with their actions and reactions leading down the road to his death; but I worry that it may end up being clichéd or over dramatic.

    Also, I have already killed off a lot of characters, both beloved and hated.

    1. Hi Amelia,

      Thanks for commenting with such a great question. I think there are really two layers to this. The first is something you identified yourself: part of you doesn’t want to kill this character. As mentioned in the article, this is something with which many authors struggle, but it’s also usually an indication that the character’s death will be a gut-punch for the reader. Liking our characters is an insidious feeling, as it can tint our judgement without us even knowing. I’d therefore suggest the first step is to ask yourself if you’re wondering whether to kill this character or subconsciously searching for reasons not to do it. If the latter, I’d suggest it’s well-worth going through with it. Your reader might feel anguish in the moment, but (done correctly) it will add depth and permanence to the story.

      The second layer is the unblinkered consideration of what the death means to the story. I think the type of irony you describe can be really effective – Stephen King does this kind of thing quite often, killing someone off once the reader believes the characters are safe, or are about to be. In his stories, it heightens the reader’s sense that the world is inherently dangerous, and breaks narrative tradition in a way that really works with horror.

      I suppose the key question here is how this character’s death would interact with your story. Does the sense of irony, and the context it would lend to earlier actions, convey a message, tone or theme that you’ve been consciously trying to impart, does it work against the same, or does it have little to do with what’s gone before? If the latter two, I’d reconsider what the death is doing for your story (and, if you want it to go ahead, how it can be couched in the world you’ve created). If the former, it sounds like that death would be appropriate. Whether it comes off as overly dramatic or cliché will be, I think, down to the execution more than any quality inherent to the narrative moment.

      Hope that’s the kind of thing you were looking for. To my mind, your description suggests the death would work well, but your own assessment will be far more dependable. If you really can’t decide, a ‘pros and cons’ list might help, or, if you’re willing to put the work in, you could try writing up a first draft of both versions and see which feels right.


  7. This was a very helpful article. I was most surprised when Chuck from the Maze Runner died. I remember very vividly throwing the book across the room. I’m currently writing a novel, where I want to kill off the protagonist’s brother for the second time. (It’s complicated) But, essentially he, along with other main characters were thought to be dead, but, after escaping, the protagonist and her group found out they really weren’t. I don’t want this to be a happy ending kind of story, but, I’m really hesitant to kill him off, again. Because she finds out that he’s her only living family member and I’m not sure what to do. (I also really don’t want him to die, which weakens my argument) What do you think?

    1. Hi Rae,

      It sounds like a very effective story moment. While I don’t know all the details, the reason you give for keeping him alive sounds like you want to protect your character. It’s an admirable urge, but the most effective moments tend to lie in the opposite direction.


  8. UARY 6, 2017 AT 10:48 AM
    I am writing futuristic sci-fi fanfiction with a very dark theme. I have multiple pov characters that die, but near the end of story the most important female character from my story dies in a very sad way. I lile to kill my characters in a very violent or sad way. She discovers a dark secret about (not really villain, the guy tries to protect Earth from invasion, his intentions are actually good, but his ways are bad), the main bad guy, a politician that massacred the family of her love interest when he was a child. She finds out, and she falsely gets accused of betrayal and having links with terroristic groups from other planets. The politicians promise to her that if she not speaks, he will not kill her family and will stop hunting her friends, the girl chose to keep the secret. In the end, she dies. I am afraid that her death is too clichee, or the reasons are too stupid to kill her off. The politician believes that if the girl dies, his secret is safe, but actually, her death will lead directly to his downfall. i am afraid that people will go like” it was really necessary to kill her? She has been trhgough so many bad things only to die? Couldn’t the writer to find another way to reveal the secret? And how about her love interest? She promised to him he will never be alone again because she will stay forever with him?” I really don’t want her death to look like is for shock value or another female character that died for a male character motivation.

    1. just like another anon said before, she is too developed, and is one of the central pilons of the story, but in the same time i kill a lot of important characters, just like GRRM. I kinda enjoy killing characters, but with this one i really have problems

      1. Hi Gebeleizis,

        You raise a lot of interesting issues, but I think they fall into two groups. In terms of the reader, the reactions you describe are far more likely to be emotional than logical. That is, ‘why did she have to die?’ will result in a feeling of loss or injustice, not a complaint about your choices, and will therefore be the desired response.

        Whether her death is cliche, or in service of a male character’s story, is a different matter, but both of these circumstances are likely to be expressed in the WAY you write the death, rather than the death itself. If you decide the death works for the story, the next job is writing her life in such a way that the death feels earned.


        1. thanks a lot, is really helpful your answer. I am also thinking to drop hints as the story is developing

  9. I’m a young writer and as a result, I don’t have many years of experience behind me. I hoped that perhaps I could throw an idea out (regarding killing off one of my characters) and receive some feedback on it. In one of the more recent stories I’m working on, one important character, a forensic scientist, is framed and later convicted of murder. He is sentenced to death, and after his execution, the public believes the real murderer has been executed and justice has been done. I planned to have the real killer choose to kill again and taunt the investigators for convicting the wrong man. I realize the possibilities of such a thing happening are slim, given the thoroughness of the trial system in cases where the death penalty is administered, and that the realism of the story needs improvement, but I suppose my main question is this: What effect(s) do you think this would have on readers? My intent is to have this character die either way, but is it cliche or odd to have the actual murderer kill again, and insult authorities?

    Oh, and of course, these articles and this website in general are very helpful– If I may say so, I’ve noticed some small improvements in my writing even within this day. Thank you for the help!

    1. Hi Skylar,

      This kind of detail will work if you craft a world where it seems believable. Because of this, internal consistency is more important than stark realism, something described in the article linked below.


      That said, a degree of realism is necessary to keep the reader in-world. Perhaps the scientist could be killed in prison, allowing you to have all the initial drama while side-stepping investigations or appeals that might otherwise come later.


  10. My most memorable character death was Sophie-Ann Leclerq. I remember hating her and wishing she would just die or leave and make the main and secondary characters’ lives easier. Then she died and I felt terrible about it. She was awful but so was the loss of her character. I think that was kind of clever of the author to make me feel that…

    1. Hi Becca,

      Thanks for sharing. It’s great that the author was able to use a death to change how you saw a character – definitely a skillful move.


  11. Hey Rob,

    I’m currently writing a horror/mystery story that is about a psychopath (cliché much?) named Lukas, who kills off his family members one by one because of his jealousy and hatred towards them. I have written all of the deaths out except for one (I write the deaths before the story, so that emotional attatchement doesn’t convince me to take out a death or five). Every murder that I have written so far highlights a defining characteristic of Lukas, yet the character I am struggling with, Tino, doesn’t really have a connection with anything that could potentially link with any certain one of Lukas’ traits. To give an example, Lukas snapped the neck of his cousin Erland while he was looking his other cousin, Petal (who just so happens to be Erland’s twin sister and best friend), directly in her eyes. Lukas did this because he has a very twisted sense of justice, and because he was the only child in his family and had parents that rarely gave him attention. He was jealous of the twins under the logic that because he could not have familiar love, that nobody else should be able to have it.

    I would really appreciate if you could help me try to combine something that is important to Tino to one of Lukas’ characteristics. We can talk over Google Hangouts if I wasn’t so clear. I don’t have Skype :/
    Thank you again!

  12. Hi Gleise,

    I’d suggest starting by listing the aspects of Lukas’ personality you’d like to stress to the reader. Hopefully, this will give you an area that isn’t prioritized in another murder, and you can start adapting Tino to embody it or facilitate a connection. If this doesn’t work, it may be worth considering excising Tino’s murder, since if it’s not ‘paying’ for itself thematically, it’s liable to drag the plot. Another method would be to involve Tino’s murder in the punishment of another character, as the twins are used to punish each other.

    If you’d like more personalized help with your story, please get in touch using the ‘Start’ button in the top right of your page, which will take you to our contact form. It sounds like a developmental edit or story consultation would be most useful.


  13. I’m sorry if my English is bad.
    I’m Egyptian and i still worked on my first Novel
    in my novel the protagonist is anti-hero (This is what appears through the narrator whom he does not know much about the protagonist but the protagonist is not Anti-hero) (i use the first point view)
    There are 3 characters that die without readers knowing anything about them. i’m writing a crime novel
    Is my kill to these characters, which will look like just names, that will damage my novel?

    1. The protagonist is not a detective.
      He is a Secondary student.
      The 3 dead characters also secondary student.
      The first character of the three dead The story begins with the presence of her body and the other two die without the readers knowing anything about who they are.

      1. The protagonist investigated the crimes without.
        He saw only the first corpse and the first scene of crime.
        He did not conduct the field investigation.

    1. Hi Nour,

      Thanks for commenting. It can be harmful to a story to kill off characters without establishing who they are – if they don’t have a presence then their absence doesn’t mean anything to the reader. This has a knock-on effect – death is set up as less of a threat in the world of the story, and the killer may not be as interesting because, in practical terms, the threat they pose is basically theoretical.

      That said, it all depends how you use the early deaths. If you want them to feel important, I’d suggest exploring the characters more. If you just want to get some deaths out of the way so the story can start, or the protagonist is at a deliberate remove, this could be made to work.


  14. It’s ironic. I came here with hesitation about killing a character off, only to be indirectly convinced that – maybe – doing so would be best. Such is life, haha.

    This is my dilemma: I’m writing a sci-fi. Most of the story has its ups and downs in terms of danger, but no one got fatally injured thus far, giving off a certain “comfort” of safety.
    However, this foe in particular I chose to be some sort of “turning point” for the plot’s pace. I’m hoping to break that comfortable safety that the story is riding on with this adversity.

    A character, previously a delinquent without an apparent good cause, has finally got some screen time and has been siding with the protagonist (who he unabashedly bonk heads frequently with) and demonstrating good traits that have been obscured by his old overbearing attitude. We get to see that despite his brash demeanor, he’s very dedicated and a comforting leader. He plans to become an engineer and to channel some of his stress through muay thai tournaments.

    We also get to see his involvement with the “caged bird” doctor-in-training and how he is helping her to be free from her family’s strict values. Romance is beginning to stir between them as time goes on.

    All in all, I was initially pondering whether he should die facing the aforementioned foe while protecting his values and dear one, or if I should keep him alive.
    If he dies: A major impact will be left in the close friends of his, including the protagonist. If I execute it right, I may also break that comforting safety that the story has been riding on up to this point to convey how life takes on twists.

    If he lives: He will fulfill his goals, break ties with his delinquent lackeys, form stronger and romantic ties with the aforementioned doctor-in-training and continue fighting to motivate people into taking more actions.

    So sorry for the novella of a comment! But I would humbly appreciate to receive some guidance in my doubts. Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Lukia,

      It sounds like you should kill him.

      Feeling hesitant to kill a character is a great sign they’ll be missed. There are exceptions to pretty much any rule, of course, but I’d suggest that if you didn’t feel that way, it wouldn’t be worth killing anyone off. The fact that this character could have a future, and has presumably been written as if his life will continue, will make the death as effective as possible.

      On top of that, dramatically speaking, few readers really want to see someone get their life together. The idea that he COULD have done is more romantic, and more heart-rending, than the drawn-out relief they’ll feel if he does.

      Hope that’s helpful.


  15. Happy holidays Rob!
    I’m currently working on the first draft of a fictional biopic/action feature script, specifically on the “reversal of fortune for the hero” beat and I have planned a massacre that kills several characters at once, a mix of 2nd act supporting and small characters. This event intention is not only to shock the audiences but to change the course of trajectory for the hero and survivors. Would like to know your opinion. Thank you in advance.

    Kind regards,

    1. Happy Holidays Francisco,

      It certainly sounds like something that could work – there’s always a certain thrill when a writer abruptly kills off a few characters. It’s narratively unusual, which a skillful writer can turn into a powerful moment and even one that feels particularly realistic.

      I’d suggest applying a simple cost-benefit analysis here – what do you gain by ‘spending’ all those deaths at once, and what does it cost you (for instance, not being able to use those deaths individually)? If you come out ahead, that’s a good sign that you’re onto a winner, though it should still cost something if it’s going to have impact.


  16. Hi Rob,
    I found everything you said on here very useful. In my story there is a character who has to die in order to portray the brutal and unforgiving world the characters live in but also to change the attitudes of one of the other characters, who happens to be infatuated with this character. Their death is essential to the plot but what I really want to know is, should I kill them? I don’t see any other way they could’ve contributed to the story but at the same time I’m unsure if their death is really justified. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Adam,

      Thanks for asking. It makes sense to kill the character, but what I’d suggest addressing is the fact that you say you can’t see any other way of them contributing to the story. If this is the case, the reader is likely to pick up on that and understand their death as unavoidable (and therefore far less emotional, seeing as they were ‘there’ to die in the first place). The character’s lost potential is part of what gives their death a kick, so I’d suggest killing them off, but also figuring out a way to make the reader (and other characters) wish they could have stayed. It doesn’t have to be much – maybe they were funny or had family waiting at home.


  17. I just finished a scene that’s sticking in my mind now because it feels a bit cruel, which is why I looked up this page. Though it adds plot relevance, I actually wrote it in a way that could make a reader feel sympathy for him.

    The character that’s killed is just a one-chapter antagonistic being. There’s several of these throughout the story and most of them end up destroyed anyway, but one actually turns good and tells the hero the hidden location of where they came from (a place I couldn’t see them stumbling upon on their own) before being immediately destroyed by the one who created him.

    1. Hi Mark,

      It’s not the be-all and end-all, but ‘cruel’ definitely implies reader investment. If the death hurts, they cared, which is often the best indication of what’s the right decision. Ultimately, it comes down to whether the scene makes the reader feel as they should – do you WANT the death to be upsetting or to feel triumphant? If the former, you’re nailing it, if the latter, something needs to change.


  18. Right, so I’m reading some of the other comments and I’m just constantly screaming; “fck maaaaan” “Do I really have tooooo??” I mean one of the things you said was “Your readers are going be as devestated as you are.” And that’s kinda why I started writing this story, and create this charachter. For the sole purpose of creating a bond, seperating that charachter from the main charachter and then returning them back together only to be killed by the maincharachters own hands. (un-knowingly)

    And unfortunately now while typing here basically rubberducking. I find out that there is no way to not killing her since it’s an event that unravells the entire plot. The charachter says some final words and gives a letter to the main charachter, adds some final words and dies of bloodloss.

    I was initially thinking about bringing her back in towards the end, as a: “Hey you left the scene in a hurry, and didn’t know I only felt unconscious, I was saved shortly after.”

    Do you think that would work? Or would that just be a slap across the readers face?

    Also something else I wanna add. I initially wrote the first couple of chapters 5 years ago, and now I wanna finish it completely as my first real story. Haven’t written a full story before, and I’m trying my best to learn a lot from anywhere I can. So is something like the above possible?

    1. Hi Dusan,

      What you describe is certainly possible, but I wouldn’t suggest it. The fake-out false death can feel like it’s mocking the reader for trusting you, which encourages them to doubt the stakes of every encounter that follows. I’d suggest letting the death stand, since it’ll have such impact and works for the story, but if you do bring the character back, you need to find a way to make the reader trust that you won’t do anything like that again, or you could lose them.


      1. Hey Rob,

        Thanks for the reply! I have been doing a lot of research and a LOT of writing, I’m 13 chapters further than where I was when I wrote the comment above. It’s been one hell of a ride so far and somewhere along the story I found a compromise. I managed to keep the character in the story, by making the main character follow the deceased characters footsteps. The MC is now also meeting other character who knew the character that died, basically learning the impact of what she had on other people’s life’s. And how her will and actions still linger on about the story even if she’s dead. Which I think works really well right now, and I’m able to build a lot on this concept.

        Story is actually heading towards it’s end now, I think another 6 chapters should do it. Thanks for the help and take care.

        Kinds and regards,


  19. Hi Rob,
    I am writing a dystopian novel in which there is a deadly illness (called the Plague in the book). The main character (Matt), his best friend/girlfriend (Christina), and ninety-three other teenagers are travelling across a barren land when Christina catches the plague.
    Here’s where I’m unsure. I don’t know whether I should kill Christina off after she forces Matt to leave and continue the journey.
    The other option is that Matt leaves before Christina dies, thinking her to be dead, and continues the journey. He has caught the Plague from Christina, but is able to make it to his destination. About a day after he reaches the place, he goes comatose and it is assumed he dies. However, he wakes up and has been administered a cure by some people (humans, not aliens) who have returned from Mars with the cure to the Plague. They found Christina and cured her and she is waiting next to him when he is cured.
    I know that if I am hesitant and reluctant to kill Christina, I probably should. However, I planned for a long time to keep Christina alive. I never even planned for her to catch the Plague. So my question to you is, would you kill Christina?

    P.S. The chapters are sometimes told from Christina’s perpective, if that makes a difference.

    1. Hi Writer1979,

      The main downside of reversing a seeming death is that the reader won’t trust the next one. If the reversal is at the end of the story, however, this is less of an issue. Personally, I’d kill Christina – it’ll underline the seriousness of the characters’ situation and show the reader you’re playing for keeps – but it depends how you want them to feel at the end of the story. Do you want the reader relieved that everything worked out or reflecting on the high cost of eventual survival?


  20. Hey Rob,

    Thank you so much for this article! I am working on a story myself (Named “Unfortunately: Wolf Moon”), and I’m thinking about killing a character, and it’s actually pretty much my only favorite character – I just don’t know how to kill him. I would like the death to definitely hit the reader, but again, I wouldn’t like for it to be an overdramatic death scene. There are thousands of millions of ways to kill off a character, which makes it hardest.
    A small group of inseparable friends, Raymond, Jefferson, Conor, and Alex are struggling to get through high school, Redwood High. Raymond (Main Character) fights to keep his secret: he is homosexual. At a younger age, he was always confused about bisexuality and homosexuality, not knowing which one he was. In 6th grade, he had a crush on a boy named Theo, who had moved away, causing him to switch schools, leaving Raymond heartbroken. He then wondered if he would ever fall in love with a girl, and desperately wanted this to happen so he would know if he was bisexual or homosexual.
    Anyways, Raymond, Jefferson, Conor, and Alex are all an ordinary group of friends – or so the reader would think. Later in the book, Raymond and Alex meet behind the school, which is usually where the group always met up to fool around. For some reason (I haven’t decided why yet), Jefferson and Conor end up not coming, and that leaves Raymond and Alex alone. The two decide to go for a walk on an uncommon path that few people know about, surrounded in nature. They stop at the end of the path, leaving them sitting awkwardly at the foot of a lake. The moon glittered above, which just so happened to be a Wolf Moon, which of course, didn’t happen often. Raymond then realizes he has been in love with Alex without even knowing, leaving him on a difficult choice. He could tell he was homosexual, or he could hold it in for the rest of his life. Raymond ends up confessing it to Alex, where Alex shyly admits he is bisexuel. This leads to more romance in the story, and later on, Jefferson and Conor both confess to Alex and Raymond that they too have been a couple even before Alex and Raymond.
    I don’t know if I should kill Conor and Alex, whereas I probably should at least kill Alex, because he’s my favorite character – that probably means I should kill him. This would cause Alex and Jefferson to both fall through deep depression. They would slowly recover and promise to never leave each other (they don’t couple up, their love still remains for their dead lovers). I am torn between killing one character, killing both, or not killing anyone. In the beginning, there will already be a short scene where Conor’s mother dies due to cancer. I’d love it if I got some advice/feedback!
    Thank you so much if you read the whole comment, I’m sorry it had to be so long – I am aiming for the story to be around 500 – 600 pages, so what do you expect? XD anyways, again, thank you so much if you read all of this. It would be helpful if someone gave me advice or feedback. Thank you so much!


      1. Hi Maali,

        Thanks for commenting! It sounds like you’ve got a grip on a lot of what you want this project to deliver. In terms of particularly effective deaths, it can be devastating to have a dangerous event occur, have the character escape, and then reveal they’ve actually been mortally injured. For instance, that an errant bullet hit them or that shrapnel from an explosion they ‘escaped’ has done too much damage to survive.


  21. Hey Rob!

    Thank you so much for the article and even for your responses to the comments ahead of me! They’ve been a great help in determining some things for a story that I have in the works. I think that the most shocking (and hurtful) character death for me was Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Of course, we KNOW he’s sick and dying throughout the entire course of the book/movie, but actually reading/seeing it really hurt. For people that grew up reading the books and watching the movies together, we’d invested about a decade of our lives into the story and the characters, especially Dumbledore, and to watch him fall off the Astronomy Tower still makes me sob to this day when I re-watch it. I think another character death that really messed me up was Newt in the final Maze Runner. They’d been through so much already and was FINALLY escaping WICKED with their friends, and he dies just before they make it out of the city. We know earlier in the movie that he’s been infected, but I think with situations like illnesses or infections, we all like to think that our favorite characters are immune or somehow the cure in the end. Same thing with *spoiler* in the most recent episode of The Walking Dead – I never thought they’d kill “him” of all people.
    Anyways, I’ve just started writing a sort of murder mystery story and the proper execution of character deaths seems a bit different in this genre. While I certainly want my readers to develop a sense of attachment and emotional involvement with my characters, I know that many of them will die throughout the story, probably fairly quickly. What advice would you give for writing character deaths when there’s a mystery serial killer on the loose?

  22. Hello, Mr. Robert!

    I’m currently having trouble writing a death scene for not one, not two, but FOUR characters. The basic setup is that one of the antagonists has a character kidnapped, and the other three characters go in to rescue them. Any idea how I could effectively pull this off?

    The most shocking death in any novel has to be Tarik from Spirit Animals. Throughout the series, he’s this powerful, elegant, wizened man, and yet ( I believe, since I haven’t read the books in some time… ) he was crushed by rocks. His death lasted two entire pages, even without others’ reactions. Quite a bit of time for some falling rocks, no? Just like Piggy from Lord of The Flies!

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your example and your question. I can’t give particularly precise advice since I don’t know much about the project, but my personal instinct would be to keep it as tight as possible. If you’re killing off four characters, the biggest struggle is going to be how you help the reader absorb that loss. With one character, you can use the moment of death to heighten their passing, but with so many characters dying, it’s likely that some will overshadow the others, so you won’t get as much payoff for dragging the moment out.

      Since that’s the case, I’d suggest instead making it as blunt and immediate as possible. Boom, all four of them dead, the reader in shock, wondering what happened. You can then underscore the loss of each character afterwards, eulogizing at length, but you make the most of the immediate situation by presenting the reader with something they weren’t expecting. This way, you turn the number of characters into a strength, binding them together rather than having them compete for the reader’s attention.

      Of course, that may not suit your story at all; it all depends on the details.


  23. Great article, thank you for your clear and concise writing. Algernon has to be the top character death for me and provides a heart wrenching vehicle for the weltschmerz surrounding the death of Charly’s intellect and collapse of the life he was just beginning to figure out. The fact that he keeps his life, empty shell that it has become, only serves to make the death more poignant.

    1. Hi Kate,

      Thanks for commenting and for a great example. You bring up a really good point – that a character can ‘die’, narratively speaking, without expiring.


  24. I am in the process of writing a crime novel which involves a man disappearing from his yacht when he stays on board overnight. The yacht is moored in the marina, and his wife arrives next morning to pick him up, but he’s not there. It is loosely based on a true story. My missing man will be murdered, but I want him to have a voice for readers to get to know something about him, without giving too much information away. His body won’t be discovered until almost the end of the novel, and I haven’t decided yet whether both antagonists die, or only one. I’d appreciate your comments, please.

    1. Hi Evelyn,

      Thanks for commenting. A device like a diary sounds like it would be useful, allowing the character to address the reader even as they’re missing. That’s not to say that the diary has to be the whole truth and nothing but – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl uses a diary to build the reader’s sympathy for a missing character and then inverts that sympathy to great effect.


    2. There is a “true Crime” channel on TV. Some of the shows have the “corpse” telling the story of how they died and his/her relationships with the various people show come under investigation. It’s kind of like the dead narrator knows pretty much everything except who killed him/her. You could do that with your story.

  25. I’m currently in the process of writing up my first rough draft plan for a story. The premise is three characters with conflicting personalities forced to work together to escape an inhumane laboratory. One of the characters in my story has a slow-burn character arc where they learn to not be selfish, and I’ve decided that finishing “scene” of his development is for him to die for the other two characters in a selfless act, with a difficult decision to make. The decision being to escape on his own and leave his friends’ fates up to uncertainty, or to die and guarantee their escape.

    I definitely did get some inspiration from Lee’s death in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, and Portal/Portal 2’s concept. If you have any extra bits of advice or criticism, it’d be greatly appreciated!!

  26. Hi! I’m currently in the process of writing a novel and I want to kill off a character, but I just don’t know. Very long and complicated story short, he’s the son of the main protagonist, and he’s killed by the main antagonist after trying to fight him to defend his mother. I’m really hesitant to kill him because I love him so much, which of course only makes for a better death, but also because he’s….eight. Is it immoral to kill a brave little kid for the emotional impact, to cement the antagonist as the awful person he is, and because the situation feels too unrealistic if all of them get out alive?

    1. Hi Cam,

      It can feel cheap to kill off a particularly vulnerable character, but it can also be really effective. As long as your resistance is based on how much you like them and your desire to kill them off is based on what would work for the story, I say wipe them out. The only caveat I’d add is to make sure that you’ll be able to find the middle ground between not having their death be brushed aside and not allowing it to swamp the rest of the book. A child’s death is a staggeringly major life event, so you don’t want to render any of the other characters unbelievable because of how quickly they recover OR useless to the plot because they’re paralyzed by grief.


  27. I’m writing a series of dramas. The first book has people reacting to the death of their friend. The second book was them adjusting at her funeral. The third is actullay a mystey of one of the people is murdered and one of the friends did it. I want his death to have lasting impact, i don’t want it to just gloss over the first two, but i don’t want it to be unrealistic. Can you help me with how i can do it?

    1. Hi Carson,

      I’d be more than happy to offer some individual editing advice – just hit the ‘START’ button in the top right of the screen to get started.

      For now, one device to consider is the use of flashbacks. Through this, you can have the character still be in the story, there to demonstrate to the reader what has been lost in their death. The article below should help with this.

      Writing Flashbacks: How To Make Them Work In Fiction


  28. Hi Rob.
    I just stumbled on your article by pure chance.
    I’m trying my luck at writing a novel, in a very.. organic way. I write the novel like i’d be rewriting a good book i red a couple years back. Simply put, i know where my characters are, and where they have to go. But i let the story interfere in the process, so that the journey becomes real, not just a re-telling of somehting i once thought of.

    I just killed off a character. I didn’t mean to do it, and not only did i hesitate, i had to force myself to do so. I actually had no idea i’d be killing him before 2 days prior to writing that chapter.

    Part of me didn’t want to kill him, because of his journey until this moment, for what he meant to the protagonist, and for every other possible future i had envisionned for that character.
    But somehow the writer part of me felt that it was right, no matter how wrong it felt to write it. Because that specific death would be a drive for the protagonist, add some depth and a new dynamic to the relationship between the main characters, and somehow, give the readers a more personnal sense of how much a danger the threat actually is.

    I stumbled on your article by luck, as i was looking for clues as to if i had made the right choice. And, after reading it, it feels like i did. Still, it feels strange to grieve so much for a fictionnal character I created. I just hope my readers will find I gave him a beautiful enough send off.
    I guess i just wanted to say thank you. Your article gave me some comfort, knowing it was the right choice.


    1. My pleasure, Greg, I’m glad it was useful. It certainly sounds like you’ve done the right thing; if you miss the character this much, so will your readers.

      – Rob

  29. Hi! I’m a very younger screenwriter and new to the writing. I am currently writing a story of a boy who’s mother is an addict and ultimately, she dies. The boy doesn’t get along with his mother much and knew she would die from the addiction eventually, he just didn’t know when. He spends a majority of the time taking care of her and making sure she’s safe, so he has clear love and care for her but he feels it’s difficult to love her. I am just wondering how I should go about writing the emotions and the actions he does when he discovers her death since it is predictable but he’s obviously hurt by it. Should I go about it with him crying or just being angry? Panicked? I really don’t know how to portray the emotions I wan’t to get at.

  30. Do you think that if I add a character that actively getting hunted down to the main character group, I can kill them off a few chapters later?

  31. Kelsier from Mistborn. His death was truly tragic, and you really could sense what the world lost when he died. May the Survivor rest in peace.

  32. Few authors get me to care about a character so much that I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I kinda hate when I have to kill off a (main) character but, when I do, it’s meaningful. One series that I’ve recently read had a really good character death: Young Elites by Marie Lu. It’s a young adult fantasy but I definitely recommend it. Great article. Thanks.

  33. I am writing a silmilar book- like I made this character so cute loveing and all out lovable! And Now I kill him. How did you make yours good so that it TOUCHED the reader?

  34. Robert,
    Thank you so much for this article! You’ve helped me make a tough sub-plot decision. I have a situation in my WIP where a primary secondary character (best friend to protagonist) could either survive or die. For days (okay, weeks), I’ve been dragging my feet on writing that scene even though I know deep down what needs to happen. Despite this character’s bad choices, I really like her and I so want to keep her around.. But her dying is the realistic outcome (even though I’m hesitating) and it creates conflict with protagonist reaching her goal. The example of “eulogizing” the character was excellent and helpful. My writing brain is now energized with ideas.

  35. This is such an important topic for writers. Once again, thank you for a great article and providing direction.
    I think this rang the biggest bell in my head – “Character deaths are a shaky currency and the less considered they are, the more likely the reader is to feel short-changed. ”

  36. I have a sort of complicated character death, where the character dies but comes back to life in the next chapter (it’s a fantasy story). His death really changes him and his perspective on life, and he becomes a completely different person. I’m just not sure whether I should kill him off completely or keep it the way it is. If I keep it the way it is, he still dies in a way, like with his personality. If I kill him completely, the entire plot will change.
    There are five main characters (I’m planning there to be multiple books, each one with a different perspective), and I also don’t know how to write the death scene from the main character’s perspective (it’s first person POV). They aren’t the one who dies, or a lover of the one that dies, but a close friend.
    Also, closer to the end, in the ‘final battle’ a kind of mentor character dies. She’s the kind of character who was given a job (to make sure the main characters succeed), but doesn’t really want to do it. She’s slightly snobby and is over-dramatic. She doesn’t go on the quest with the main characters, but helps them in the beginning and in the end, and is killed by the antagonist. I’m not really sure how to write her last words.
    Finally, there’s an antagonist, a minor one, but one I’m genuinely scared of, who is killed in revenge for something he did to a side character (not really a side character, but not a main character either). I want the readers to feel for his death, to be glad, but also to cry. I don’t really know how to do it, since there is not sympathy for the character, and he deserved his death. The antagonist has a mostly good cause, but is ruthless and would do anything necessary to win.
    Sorry for the long comment, and sorry if it’s confusing. But this article really helped my figure out some other death scenes and gave me a lot of new ideas.

  37. Thank you, this is food for thought. I’m in the middle of attempting my first novel and this was a recurring thought I had. I knew a character had to die, but I found myself exploring a background for that character, making him deeper, and I was beginning to grow fond of him. I guess that’s good, it should be more believable and engaging, just got to keep going no matter how attached I get to him as a character. I’m glad I had begun to deepen the characterization though, because I was precisely annoyed by the fact that the character didn’t seem to have a purpose other than dying (now that’s different, and he actually influences how my protagonist has a change of heart).

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