Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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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