Being a Better Writer: Killing Characters

This post was originally written and posted February 23rd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Woo boy, this topic has been a while in coming. I mean a while, I had this written down on the second list of topics I put together. Seeing as it’s one of the last on my third, it’s pretty clear I’ve been putting it off for a while. Granted, part of that was because every time I looked at getting around to it, I had a story coming out, and I really didn’t want to be that cruel, but since we’re looking at a month or so before Beyond the Borderlands is ready, I feel now I can safely tackle this topic without worrying a bunch of you. Well, except for the Beyond alpha readers, but that’s the price of being an alpha reader.

So, killing characters … Why do we do it? And how?

Well, let’s set some ground terms here. First of all, we’re not talking about red shirts, those well-meaning but ultimately diversionary characters whose only purpose for the story is to die a few scenes or minutes in just to emphasize that the situation is serious. Though these particular characters have their place (the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example) in establishing a scene or mood, that isn’t what this particular blog is about.

And we’re not talking about killing background or secondary characters either. You know, the kind that’s just one step above red shirt, like a main character’s parent? The one who, if they die, will actually conveniently set up the main character for their journey of discovery and adventure? Or the one who’s always been a friend to the character, but doesn’t really get much screen time past a few mentions or small scenes and a hug, but then dies during or near the finale in a manner startlingly similar to a red shirt, never to be mentioned again except maybe once in passing?

We’re not talking about those. And to be fair, maybe we should at some point, because each one of those scenarios does come with it’s own laundry list of little cliches and storytelling tools as well as drawbacks. But today we’re not talking about those. No, today we’re talking about the most influential kind of character death.

The main character death.

All right, so let’s take a calm step back and look at this objectively. Obviously killing a primary character is risky, dangerous even, for an author. You run the risk of alienating readers who enjoyed that character. You can lose the narrative components that the character brought to the story (further alienating the readers who relied on those components). Crud, killing the wrong character (or even the right one) can hamstring a story by putting the narrative weight on characters who can’t carry the remainder forward with the same momentum.

And yet authors still do it? Why? Because the benefits can outweigh the risks. A proper character death can increase the tension of a story dramatically. It can give a drying narrative a “jolt” of energy that brings it (ironically enough) new life. It can move and grow character development and story in new, unexpected directions, reinforcing or changing a story’s themes or perhaps shedding new light and viewpoints on ideas previously discussed.

In other words, authors still do it because it’s a powerful, evocative tool. For every drawback that killing a primary character can bring, there can be an equal, if not more powerful advantage that can be brought with it. Why do some stories end with the death of the main character? Because they’re making use of this narrative tool to provide a powerful final image, often reinforcing thematic elements of the story in the reader’s mind. Let’s face it, even when the character “gets better,” as heroes often do, the memory of their death will stick with a reader for a long time and flavor the rest of the work.

So, then, killing a main character is a tool. But how do we wield this tool in our stories? Better yet, how do we use it without running the risk of damaging our stories? As stated, killing off a primary character is a risky proposition, a writing tool that’s more akin to a cannon or a broadsword than a hammer or a knife. Making a small mistake with a hammer can leave a reader wincing at the pain in their metaphorical thumb, but misfiring a cannon can leave your reader with a gaping hole through their insides that makes them never pick up your book again to see what happens. In fact, you don’t even need to misfire it in order to leave this sort of impression on readers. Even if done well, the act of killing a character can be so divisive among fans that you might lose some anyway (for a great case of this, look at the reaction to the 3rd season finale of M.A.S.H., which was controversial enough that although the scene and episode was honored with several awards, reruns of the episode edited out the final, cutting scene after fans wrote to the producers in horror, some of them swearing to never watch the show again).

In my perspective, the first way we can avoid using such a powerful tool in the wrong way is to know exactly why we’re doing it. Earlier, I mentioned some of the uses, the “whys” of killing a primary character, some of the effects that they can (and should) bring to our story. But before we set out to pull that trigger or cut that tripwire to do in our character, one thing we should really ask ourselves is if our story really needs it. We need to look at the effects and determine if the advantages do outweigh the risks. So let’s look at some of these aforementioned advantages.

The first is the most obvious: A character’s death increases the tension in the story. By a lot. If you’ve killed a primary character and somehow not raised the level of tension in your story, you’re either writing a comic book or the kind of story where no one cares about your character. But for the sake of time, we’ll assume you’re not having that problem, which means that the tension of the story is going to wind up like nobody’s business.

This can be good and it can be bad. Remember back to one of various discussions we’ve had before on this blog about pacing? Too much tension, especially applied over a period of time with no relief, can burn out your readers. And killing a main character can take an otherwise calm, straightforward situation and balance the reader on a knife edge of pressure, which over time, can cut into their enjoyment of your work. This is one reason (of many) that works that do kill primary characters often wait until the climax to do so: It allows them to make one final, tense twist to the story before the inevitable wind down. For example, the penultimate final battle scene from Guardians of the Galaxy, which begins with the death of the character Groot. A good chunk of the city is demolished, Groot is dead … and then the villain walks onto the scene, ready to finish the job by killing the other characters. That’s a tense scene, and the character death serves to wind the tension to a fever pitch because suddenly, in the viewer’s mind, any of these characters might not make it to the end.

But that’s at the end of a story, right before all the tension is unwound by the finale. So what about killing a character partway through the story? The same rule applies—you’re generating narrative tension, tightening the “strings” that make up the story, and you need to be prepared to balance this much earlier in order to not burn out your reader.

That said? Again, killing a main character is a powerful tool for increasing the tension in your story. Characters stop being omnipotent, each danger and weakness becomes much more threatening, and as a whole, every scene of alarm becomes more tense. Which for some stories, is exactly what you need, and a pretty good why.

But killing a character can bring with it other advantages too. Killing a character usually marks a narrative “jolt,” a shift not just in the tension but in the tone and character of the work. There’s a reason that in most works that choose to kill a character (even a non-primary one), the death can usually be found to serve as a “turning point” for the rest of the story. A character’s death, in addition to increasing tension, will cast a shadow over everything that follows, changing the mood and style of the work.

More importantly, it will do this for your characters and your story. Death is, if you’ll pardon the pun, one of the most life-changing events there is, and just because you’re writing a story doesn’t mean that it should be treated any differently. A character’s death isn’t just going to affect your readers, it will and should affect the characters in your story. A death should bring about new questions or actions, maybe even views into previously unknown aspects of their personalities. How each person handles death is different, and the same goes for your characters. Will they become catatonic? Will they break down? Will they deal with it and move on, only to find themselves suddenly seeing the world through a new lens? The death of a primary character should resonate through everyone they associated with, and along the way allow your characters to develop in interesting ways. For example: In the film Alien, each successive death polarizes members of the crew. Ripley becomes more determined and more controlled, Parker becomes more and more aggressive and angry, and Lambert becomes increasingly panicky and catatonic—especially after the death of the Captain—to the point of locking up completely and breaking down in tears by the end of the film (and it totally gets her and Parker killed). Used in this manner, a character death becomes a focusing lens for the remaining characters, a way to bring certain traits, flaws, and strengths that otherwise wouldn’t have been as easily accessible.

The same can be said for the plot of your work as well. A primary character’s death is a major shifting point, one that can do everything from add or remove major subplots to change the overall course of the story itself. If not used carefully, this shift can be jarring, but used properly, it can move the story in a new direction, hopefully strengthening it. Killing a character can call the story’s own themes into question, subvert them or “call back” earlier themes to add new twists to them, or even reinforce them with additional weight. It can take a plot to an unexpected place, either as a side journey, or by calling into question the original intended destination in light of what’s happened.

Ultimately, and to be honest, there’s a lot of different ways it can have an affect on the plot of your story, too many to list here, but the ultimate thing to take away here is that it should have one, and if you’re going to kill a primary character, you’d better have one, or be aware that something should result from it more than simply the rest of the story lacking a cast member. Even if that something is just a reinforcement of the direction everything has already been heading towards for the remainder of the characters, that’s an effect, and something that should be echoed down the course of the work.

All right, so now, we’ve talked about some of the reasons why (and there are certainly others), but here’s the warning reminder and a note on why it’s not always the best option: Killing a character is hard to do properly. There’s a lot to juggle with it, both in terms of character, plot, and theme. The last thing you want is for the death of your character to be considered “cheap” or poorly extrapolated. Or worse yet, not taken seriously enough by the rest of the cast.

So, ways to avoid this? Well, if we’re killing a main character, first of all make sure that they are a main character. Develop them, make them a primary part of the cast (otherwise we’re back into that background territory again). Then, you need to make sure that your reasons for killing them off are good ones, ones that fit in with the rest of the work and also in with the character themselves. This can be tricky to do, because sometimes even a good death that is perfectly in character can weaken another area of the work, sometimes for reasons entirely outside of the story itself. For instance, I still find the death of Hiccup’s father in How to Train Your Dragon 2 jarring, not because it was out of character or didn’t work to portray the serious nature of the scene, but because it quite honestly felt to me like they’d done it solely to remove one parental figure in exchange for another in pursuit of simplicity. Maybe it was just the breakneck pace the movie was forced to follow at that point colliding against the recent reuniting with his mother, but despite the fact that Hiccup’s father’s death was a key element of the narrative forcing Hiccup to finally accept his position as chieftain of the village, and to shoulder that responsibility, the juxtaposition of his father’s death next to the reunification with his mother made the death feel cheap, like it had been done to cut down on the story’s character roster.

There are other ways to weaken a character’s death as well. Rushing the scene, for example. Even if you have a character for which all the reasons for their death line up, improperly pacing out the scene itself can weaken or damage the entire event. This isn’t to say that a death can’t be quick and brutal. I’ve read stories where a character’s death is brutal in it’s swiftness and serves to reinforce the theme that things can happen fast, with little control or time to react. And I’ve read stories where deaths are long, drawn out affairs full of pathos and meaning. But at the same time, I’ve read stories that both do the opposite of what they should have done—quick, rapid deaths that don’t mesh with the overall narrative of the story because the author wasn’t confident in their ability to write it, and long, drawn-out deaths that didn’t fit into either the world/narrative that had been shoehorned in by the author in an attempt to play for drama.

The point? Like I said, killing off a character is hard. It sends ripples through your entire work, and failure to properly account for those ripples can undermine everything you’re working for. That’s not to say that it’s something you must get absolutely perfect or your story is ruined, but rather that once again, when it comes to killing characters as a tool in the writer’s toolbox, you need to respect that tool for what it is: a large and powerful one that, if misused, carries a devastating amount of weight.

So. let’s summarize. You want to kill a character? Make sure you’ve got the why of killing them all figured out. What are you hoping to accomplish with this death? Do you want to increase tension? Give the plot a kick in a new direction? Introduce an element that will bring out new thoughts and actions from your characters?

Once you’ve got that down and know why you’re going to kill a character, you need to look at how you’re going to handle the weight that comes with it. Will there be increased tension? How will you handle it? What will the other characters do? How will you adapt the narrative and plot of your work? How are the characters going to change? Do you really need all of these elements in your story? And if you do, what about the character you plan to kill? How will you kill them? Will it be an act that plays into their character, into their personality? Into the fabric of the story? Or will it come off as an attempt to ply the audience’s emotions and make apparent other weaknesses in our story?

Even in summary, this looks daunting. But here’s the thing: Characters die. One way or another, if you’re planning on being a writer, you’ll want to tackle the concept at one point or another. In the same way that if you’re a woodworker, you’re going to have to learn how to use the tablesaw, eventually as an author there will likely come a time when you’re going to open up that writer’s toolbox, see the sword or cannon or AK-47 or whatever you want to call it of character death lying there and think to yourself “I think I might want to use that for this one.” But like all tools, as daunting as they might appear, they are still just tools. Used properly and with care, character deaths can be a powerful tool for getting the most out of your narrative. With this tool. like any other, careful use and maybe even a little practice will let you get the most out of it.

That’s all for this week. Good luck, and go kill someone (fictional).

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