crucial reason not to kill a character

How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist

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This post was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.

I love killing people.

Or, rather, I love killing characters. I love it when a noble character—or perhaps an ignoble one on his way to redemption—gets his grit on and sacrifices himself for someone he loves or for the larger cause. I love pulling on my own heartstrings, never mind my readers’. I love the epicness a well-placed death can bring to an otherwise mundane story.

Authors are always being advised to be mean to their characters. Often, that meanness involves killing them off. And even as we may bawl over our beloved characters’ deaths, most of us get a strange sort of fulfillment out of it. We gotta play tough and do whatever best serves the story, right?

But that, of course, begs the question: Is killing off a character really the best way to serve your story?

Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at some reasons that may justify our decision to end a character’s life—along with some not-so-good reasons.

How to Kill a Character: The Checklist Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

Good Reasons to Kill a Character

We can find many good reasons for snuffing even important characters, including:

  • Its advances the plot. (Melanie in Gone With the Wind.)
  • It fulfills the doomed character’s personal goal. (Obi-Wan in A New Hope.)
  • It motivates other characters. (Uncle Ben in Spider-Man.)
  • It’s a fitting recompense for the character’s actions up to this point. (Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.)
  • It emphasizes the theme. (Everybody in Flowers of War.)
  • It creates realism within the story world. (Everybody in Great Escape.)
  • It removes an extraneous character. (Danny in Pearl Harbor.)

Bad Reasons to Kill a Character

Some less worthy reasons for doing our characters dirty include:

  • Shocking readers just for the sake of shocking them. (Shock value isn’t without its, well, value, but not every author is Alfred Hitchcock and not every story is Psycho.)
  • Making readers sad just for the sake of making them sad. (An old saw says, “If they cry, they buy.” But readers never appreciate being tortured without good reason.)
  • Removing an extraneous character. (I know, I know. I just said that was a good reason. But you have to double-check this one. If the character is extraneous, then you better verify he really belongs in this story in the first place.)

A Final Consideration Before You Kill a Character

Now that we have a grip on what makes a character’s death work within a story—and what’s sure to make it fail—we next have to consider what could end up being a crucial reason not to kill your character.

Every character in a story should be there for a specific reason. He’s there to enact a specific function (as we discussed in recent posts about archetypes and roles). If he doesn’t enact that function, then you have to question his purpose in the story. And if he does fill a role within your story, well, then ask yourself this: Who’s gonna fill that role if you kill him off?

Dramatica authors Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley explain:

Unless the functions represented by the discontinued player reappear in another player, however, part of the story’s argument will disappear at the point the original drops out. In the attempt to surprise an audience by killing off a major player, many an author has doomed an otherwise functional storyform.

How to Kill a Character: A Checklist

Lucky for our sadistic little souls, roles and archetypes can shift from character to character or be shared by several characters. In short: when a character dies off, his death doesn’t have to mean his role will be left vacant for the rest of the story.

With all this knowledge in mind, here’s a quickie checklist for figuring out if you can get away with murder:

  • You have scrutinized the list of good reasons to kill off a character.
  • You have identified one of the reasons as being present in your plot (or come up with a new good reason).
  • You have identified what role and archetype your character fills in your story.
  • You have created and positioned another character(s) to fill the hole left in your story by the doomed character’s death.

–or–

  • Your story ends in a thematically satisfying way that doesn’t require the character’s role to be perpetuated.

Sometimes the death of a character can raise an ordinary story into something special. If you can justify a character’s death, then go for it! Special may be just around the corner.

Tell me your opinion: What good reason did you have for killing off your most recent doomed character?

how to successfully kill a character the checklist

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. There was a character I absolutely loved. She functioned as the “mentor” to the main character. Her death allowed him to eventually become what he fully needed to be and served as continued inspiration for him. Did NOT want to kill her off and TRIED TRIED TRIED to make the story work without killing her but it always felt contrived.

    • Mentors often work best when they get knocked off. Obi-Wan? Gandolf? It’s a long list.

    • Phil, you are pointing towards the only reliable guide that I know of with story telling or anything else for that matter: Feelings of authenticity.

      A story has its own life doesn’t it? It might seem like a good idea to kill somebody off here or keep somebody else alive over there but is this the story? Is this the story that is aching to be told?

      I am finishing my memoir at the moment and even though it is my story its amazing how contrived it can become if I am not watching myself.

    • I killed of one of my MC’s good friends. The friend is killed because an assasin mistakes her for the MC. It motivates the MC to find the assasin, so that none of her other friends (who’ve already been put in harm’s way because of her) get killed for her. The death also brings up new evidence that leads the MC to the killer and the organization they represent.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Sounds like a good example of moving the plot forward. If the friend filled a sidekick/supportive role, just make sure there’s someone else to step into those shoes once she’s gone.

    • I’m experiencing a minor crisis with killing off a few characters in one of my other stories. In the beginning of the story, the reader is supposed to believe that the MC is unfeeling and antisocial. She acts as if she is selfish and thinks only about herself; to put it simply, she’s a jerk. As the story progresses, though, you learn that she shuts herself off from others because she believes that she killed over twenty people when she was much younger, after she began having memory blackouts that perfectly coincided with several brutal murders. She can’t control her magical powers (she lives in a fantasy world where wizards are common) so she pulls away from other people, thinking that if she teaches herself not to care about others, she’ll be less affected if she kills again. My problem is that I can’t figure out a good way to bring up the murders; the one “flashback” that I have so far makes it seem like she killed her family. Would it be better for me to start the book with the murders, which happened a long time before the plot starts, or to just rework the flashbacks?

      • Aaron S. (@ashurtl96) says:

        In my own, unprofessional opinion, I think you should have some sort of horrific event that triggers a flashback bringing the memories back up or something. But, that’s just me from a reader standpoint. to me, that would make a lot more sense than just having a random flashback. But don’t take my advice blindly, I am here on this blog for a reason lol. I am definitely interested in this story now too. I would love to read it if that is possible.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I’m going to back Aaron up on this one and say that your best choice is probably to sow the dramatization of the murders later in the story (perhaps via flashback), so that you can tease readers with the questions about them for as long as possible.

      • It might take some significant revising to do, but what if you wove her memories of the deaths/murders into her arc? She can see and experience events that remind her of the moments when the people die rather than having flashbacks, which I do think will lend the sense that she IS responsible, leaving you with the unpleasant task of digging her out of that hole for the reader later on.

        If you instead have her just remember the instances, the deaths will appears as ‘events from her past’ but the reader won’t be led into believing SHE was the guilty party. You can have her see the deaths through events in her current life, or as memories inspired by those events. She can question her own sanity (a believable reaction) or worry about being accused every time a certain authority figure/s interact with her. Build the sense of persecution around her, which will mirror what she feels about herself (very much a part of a YA story, which is what it sounds like you’re writing). The ultimate reveal about her innocence will then feel more powerful (and authentic).

  2. I had a character who occupied the role the main character resisted. His death finally forced the main character accept his role and propelled the plot forward.

  3. Major character death has always been a factor in my stories and I’m not above killing off the main character if the story dictates it. In my sci-fi novel Sorrow’s Fall (spoilers in case you care ^_~) Sorrow’s death is foreshadowed from the first chapter. His death fulfills three of the stated requirements; it fulfills the doomed character’s personal goal, it’s a fitting consequence of his actions up to that point and it emphasizes one of the themes.

  4. These comments contain spoilers so proceed at your own risk if you haven’t read any of these books.

    In my latest novel, On Unicorn Wish, the main character is recovering from a horrific accident that could have killed her, and she had setbacks, while at the same time reliving in memory (or is it real?) a magical time when she was ten. She was invited to Evernow, a place between time and no time where only those with a pure heart go when they die. On her return to her grannie after her adventure , as the child, she is having trouble remembering it. She is to meet someone from there she already knows who will help her forget, and it has been set up he visits her in that world as an adult to help her with her memory. At that point she, as the adult dies, because she was doomed from the beginning, but she returns to Evernow where she is a very special person, so her life goes on a little differently. Reviewers, so far, think the story okay for their children. I have recommended it only for older readers through adult, so the physical death of the main character doesn’t seem to be a big issue since she continues to live in the alternate reality
    .
    In the first novella of Painted Tree: Two Novellas, one of the character’s dies. He has to in order to show his remorse – lack of will to live – from what he has done because of the vengeance he felt. His death affects all other characters since he was a charismatic character, and had his own story line. In the second story about the victim recovering she dies in the end, but as a old lady who found a way to fulfill her life in spite of her handicap from what happened to her.

    In Ariel’s Cottage/A Price for Love the main character was a victim of a horrible crime, and is dealing with the psychological demons resulting. But physical problems are hinted at, and another important character returns after many years to see her, only to find she has died from an injury created during her horrific experience. The character who cared for her during those years found he could not live without her and commits suicide. A reviewer remarked of the emotional roller coaster ride, but that it felt in the end like she’d read the story of a real person’s life.

    In my trilogy, Where the Horses Run, I have a character in Book I, connected to the main character and who plays a very small role, get murdered. The crime investigation, though mostly done by others out of scene in Book II, helps the main character and her companions make some discoveries. Also her grandparents deaths are spoken of and information left behind also helps. A major character dies in a car accident in Book III. It was a shock to me when I realized I’d have to kill him. I thought about it for a long time. But it’s his death that helps them learn some things they need to know, and spurs them on along their path of discovery even though a lot of time is spent learning to deal with his loss. His memory and what he had to offer is ever-present, so he’s not really out of the story.

    In one of the stories in TREE & SKY: The Secrets of Meshyah’s World the grandfather is remembered at one point, having died, though the death is never spoken of, only what the main character, being a child, feels for her grandfather and his memory. They had been very close and interactive in the prior stories. This is a children’s book and there have been no comments about how awful it might have been to read it. He was very old, and it happens.

    I have an anthology of short stories and poems where characters die, mostly when they are old. One is a story with a child as the main character, so I also published it separately as Miracle Belle, A Horse with a Secret. The main character grows up when, later on she and her horse go to a special place without dying. It’s a spin-off of my trilogy.

    My two children’s picture books are the only ones where no one dies. In fact, in both, someone/something is saved.

    I have a middle grade story, only as an ebook for the first part of a series that will become a book, where only one is expected to be killed, but eventually someone else will die. Even in Harry Potter, a children’s book, many good characters die.

    Of all the stories I have in the works I can think of only one where there is no death of an important character (so far), but rather a major life change, as is also the case in another middle grade children’s story. In another there are serial murders and a suicide; another with sword battles, and another adult spin-off of my trilogy where I don’t know yet if anyone dies. In that series it the “other place” they are seeking to go to for safety from an expected earthy catastrophe. It’s not a heaven, they don’t die, though those who you think of as having died are there. I just can’t tell more without spoiling it all entirely.

    I had someone say they couldn’t read any more of my books because they were tired of dealing with death. I find that it’s a rare book where a death isn’t at least mentioned, maybe one where the story only takes place within a few hours of a day and the character is focused on an issue that doesn’t involve death. But death is part of life and it does happen so it makes since to kill off characters, even if they are favored. It was a natural progression of the story and I didn’t worry about doing it so much as how to do it properly for the story.

    Unless I write the story spoken of in Ariel’s Cottage/A Price for Love (Murderous Intent) that involves her horrific experiences, I haven’t had a lot of mayhem involving the main character physically suffering. It’s mostly psychological, and dealing with memories of the pain and suffering that’s already happened.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, I can’t think of any of my stories either than haven’t killed off several important characters. Sometimes high body counts are just plain necessary.

      • Steve Mathisen says:

        High body counts remind me of Italian opera. :)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like Italian opera. ;)

          • I had no idea I’d written an Italian opera ;-)

            Lots of bodies pile up in my first novel. Going through the list here, and somewhat off the top of my head, most fit into the “moves the plot” category. I’ve got a mystery, and the guys behind the bad business aim to keep their business secret – so if you’ve seen what they’re up to, you’re marked for it.

            A couple fit into “motivates other characters” as well. The protagonist in particular gets pushed into action by two deaths, but the two other POV characters have their motivation affected by loss as well.

            Then there are the two BIG deaths, which I can’t talk about because spoilers! :) But they both feel necessary and fit the “good reasons”.

            Great post, Kim. Linked over from Elizabeth’s blog.

  5. I killed off a character I had half-leaning towards the right side of the book. He was young, impetuous and trying to prove himself to his adopted father (who had actually stolen himself and his ‘twin’ sister, but told them that he was ‘rescuing’ them from their mother.) I killed him because his sister is the vital one, but the death will create ripples…as will the injuries suffered by one of his mother’s ‘pack’ (think…super intelligent wolves, in the future, which can climb and run through trees). The humans will be impacted by it as well…as does the adopted father who, despite being dark, twisted and murderous…truly loved the pups.

  6. I love killing off characters too, but not in a George RR Martin ‘for kicks’ kind of way. I honestly think he gets bored/runs out of ideas and HAS to kill them off, but that’s just him I guess!

    I killed off every main character in one of my books. But the story took place AFTER they died, so it was 100% necessary, haha.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you’re slaughtering characters left and right, it’s probably a sign you should stop and evaluate whether your cast was too big to start with.

  7. Am I the only writer in the world who doesn’t like killing characters? Am I even a writer?
    I hate killing people off! And if I do, then they somehow didn’t die after all (which can be interesting and necessary for the plot too, but still). I hate it, I hate it, I hate. It’s too sad. I’m too soft – anyone else?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At least, you’ll never have to worry about killing them off for the wrong reasons! (P.S. This probably just means you’re a nicer person than the rest of us. ;) )

    • Don’t worry. I don’t kill characters off either.

      I’m not saying that I might not someday, but so far I have found that there are plenty of themes to cover in stories before you even get around to death.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Absolutely true. There was an interesting graph floating around a while back showing the percentage of bestselling books that dealt with death. It was a staggeringly high number. So blaze some new trails!

    • I have the hardest time too. Can’t kill anyone. :)
      I keep telling myself that “HE DOESN’T DIE IN VAIN!” but he almost does. All I have his death do is make my character GROW UP! She is so immature before then! She also then has a better attraction to one of the future characters (who happens to be the one who dies father) who is a mentoring figure to her.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        If that’s the only way she can conceivably grow up in the amount of time necessary for the story, then his death isn’t vain in the least.

    • I can’t stand the thought of killing characters either. I get (over) attached to fictional characters in general. Good luck with your writing:)

  8. how you kill a character can be as poignant as anything else. also, which character does the killing matters. still, your article is great, as always

  9. I like how you look at this subject from this angle. I haven’t written enough stories to get the hang of killing off characters. Don’t get me wrong: I like to kill characters, but when I kill characters, they’re my main characters and they turn into ghosts. :)

  10. Although it’s very upsetting when authors kill characters off for no good reason (or just kill them poorly) for the most part I tend to admire authors that are willing to kill off characters for a purpose even if they are ones that I love. Sometimes I’ll like a character but feel the story would be better if that character was killed off. I realize that’s kind of strange, but here are some examples.

    SPOILERS: I read and enjoyed The Hobbit and liked all of the dwarves, but I thought it was rather strange that none of them died (at least I don’t think any did). I thought at least a few should since there were so many of them and the main theme of the story was Bilbo getting caught up in a dangerous adventure that was much bigger and more troublesome than he could imagine, therefor making the dwarves contribute as consequences of things going wrong.

    I was proud of Ray Bradbury to kill off Clarisse McClellan in Fahrenheit 451 even though she was my favorite character in the book and was annoyed to find out that she was kept alive in the film/play/other versions just to satisfy some complainers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always liked Brian Jacques anthropomorphic medieval animal tales for kids. The first book I read in the Redwall series, The Long Patrol, totally won me over with its fearless sacrificing of two important characters. But as I read more of the series, I grew less impressed: turns out Jacques *always* killed exactly two (count ‘em two) lovable characters. The emotion loses some of its punch when it turns out to be formulaic.

      This is something I’m aware of in my own fiction. I don’t want readers to look at a character and say, “Yup, he’s doomed.”

      • Know exactly what you mean. It’s probably the main reason I don’t want to read/watch Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones since I’ve read that it’s notorious for senseless deaths.

      • I read the Redwall series too, and I know what you mean. The first few books that I read, the deaths were very sad for me, but after a while it just got boring. It got to the point where I felt as if he was killing them just to show the reader that he could.

    • Actually, in the Hobbit (SPOILER) 3 dwarves die. 1 because of his own greed, 2 in a wonderfully sacrificial way.

  11. I don’t take character death lightly in my stories. I usually know from the start who isn’t going to make it to the end, so it’s rarely a surprise to me when it happens. When they die, it’s usually as a sacrifice to protect others, or a way to further other character/plot development. It has to be a really, really important reason, though!

    In fact, I have more trouble killing off characters, even when I plan it. Several times, in the course of writing, I get attached to a doomed character and end up finding better reasons to keep them alive! :)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You sound like me! I’ve never killed off a character without knowing, almost from the beginning, that that’s what I wanted to have happen. But I *have* salvaged a character or two from certain doom!

  12. Responding to an earlier comment (and spoiler here): but actually, in The Hobbit three of the dwarves do die: Thorin, Fili, and Kili. *sniff, sniff* :-)

  13. I killed off the mother of my young protag toward the end of my story. Her mother was her ally, and in the next story, that role is filled by someone else. But killing off her mother served to throw her out of her childhood and innocence and make her more vulnerable to the influence of the antag–something needed for the next book. At least… that was my intention. I’ve just only finished the first draft and as many first drafts are, it needs a lot of work. :)

  14. Great tips, Katie! I’ve been mulling over whether to kill off my character’s bff. The tips here will help with that decision. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s never a decision to be made lightly, but a well-placed death can open up a lot of story possibilities.

  15. Gil Gordon says:

    The story climaxes with the antagonist about to shoot the protagonist. It comes down to it’s him or me..

  16. My most recent doomed character was doomed from the beginning. He’s my main secondary character.
    My protagonist has attachment issues. In the beginning, she could never let go of him–he was the only thing that had remained steadfast through her entire unstable, foster-care life–even though certain circumstances called her to. In the end of the second book, though, he sacrifices himself for a cause and she has grown enough to be alright with that. It doesn’t help much that I love him to pieces. I cried when I wrote the scene.

  17. Kay Anderson says:

    One of my character Wesley Jackson (Irene’s only son) commits suicide to get out of being arrested by police. So sad. :( Police find him dead in his apartment. However, his death turns the tables on the whole situation between Robyn and Irene’s sister relationship as Robyn realizes that it’s better to have your son alive in the hospital than dead and gone.

  18. Since my novel employs ghosts, killing someone was required. Three right off the bat. But then another ended up moving on to help the protagonists new love (future) move in the right direction.

    Death in novels serves many purposes and our society is still engrossed/amazed/curious/fear dying. Which, I think, helps explain why it is so functional in literature.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as the character remains functional in the story (as he would if he’s a ghost), then his death takes on a different significance. He may be technically dead, but he’s not dead to the readers.

  19. Dawn Rodgers says:

    In my first draft of ‘Everybodies’, I killed off the wrong character because her role was lost in it and the remaining characters had no idea what she was persuing through the first part of the novel. I allowed her to live, but took her out of the story for a while, left her figureatively hanging in limbo, until someone could find her. The poor lass fell, and it was a long fall, and it took a long time because there were things in the way. I found another character to kill off, and his suicide was more of a push than a fall, because something inside his head that had been programmed there, made him do it. Now all I have to do, is clear up all the mess of plots from the changes I have made.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes the only way to figure out where a story needs to go is to write on through the snarls. It makes for some tricky rewrites, but at least you know you’re on the right track!

  20. In my story I have plans to kill off one of the major characters because it actually advances both their own character development and the effect it has on the other characters.

  21. How would you define Wash’s death in Serenity? I hate that it happened, but watching the Directory Commentary (yes, I am a nerd) he cited that he killed the character for dramatic tension of…hey, I can kill off the characters. I think that is good because Hollywood often times kills everyone minus two characters who end up being lovers (The Core is a good example) or no one dies.

    I suppose this could be ‘emphasizes the theme’. Or even ‘removes an extraneous character’ since Wash wouldn’t have contributed much to the next scene. But I think that it was to shock the viewers. Not for the sake of, I can shock you, but to build tension that you don’t know what can happen from here. I would see that as a positive.

    However, there is the ‘motivates other characters’. But that there seeing Zoe injured because she was reckless was to still add dramatic tension that she could die as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I think you could possibly make several arguments for why Wash’s death works, I have to admit that his death is way up there at the top of character deaths that *don’t* work for me personally. Shepherd Book’s death works to advance the plot, but Wash’s really doesn’t. One of Whedon’s few missteps, IMO.

      • I have very mixed feelings about Wash’s death myself. Even if there was purpose to kill him, I wonder if the execution could have been better. Even though I admire the subtlety and realism Joss was trying to go for, I still can’t help but feel it’s a little cold when I watch it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It seems “stuck in” instead of a natural progression. But I agree that Whedon was probably trying to mimic the way violent death is almost always without foreshadowing in real life.

          • I do agree that Book’s death was necessary for the plot. Wash’s death I would agree wasn’t crucial for the plot and it could have been written out and the movie still worked. Whedon did say that in the original script that Wash lived, but he felt himself that it was important.

  22. I feel like I’m in the minority here. I haven’t written any books yet, but from what I do have written (and in mind), some of my characters tend to die in order to finish off their respective arcs. And when they do die, it’s often done as a culmination to the everything that brought them to said point, whether they were self-inflicted or not. So, I figure I would fit more into the camp of

    “It’s a fitting recompense for the character’s actions up to this point.”

    and

    “It emphasizes the theme.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sad stories or those with tragic arcs (or those in which a “bad” character is redeemed only at the end) usually have good reason to kill characters for just those reasons.

      • Well in that case, most of my characters are indeed tragic. xD

        I feel like that’s a bad thing and indicative of my not being able to write much else but I can.

        I… just… don’t always feel like it most of the time.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s not a bad thing at all. Many of the most powerful stories are those with tragic arcs.

  23. just a girl says:

    I have a second major character and his also a sidekick of another major character. I don’t know why I killed him. There’s this one minor character that I easily killed off and there’s another two minor characters whom I never thought I would kill them too. I really don’t want to kill the second major character but even if I tried to change the scene, revise and rewrite again not to kill him, I really did killed him at the end. :(

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Try to identify which of the above reasons might qualify in the instances of your characters’ death. If none of them seem to apply, you might want to consider resurrecting the characters – or cutting them from the story to begin with.

      • just a girl says:

        The minor character died because he protected the President before the President get shot. The second major character died from protecting his best friend’s fiance. The other two minor characters they just got hit from a sudden explosion.

      • just a girl says:

        The second major character’s death is – Its advances the plot and It fulfills the doomed character’s personal goal.

        The minor character who protected the President might be – It removes an extraneous character.

        The other two minor characters – It emphasizes the theme. The theme of my story is about war and terrorism, It motivates other characters & It creates realism within the story world.

        • Along those lines… Would it also be considered “advancing the plot” to kill a somewhat minor character in order for other (currently) minor characters to escape a villain? My story currently has three separate arcs going and I decided to bring two together whole also introducing one of the main antagonists.

          Obviously, so early in the story, they wouldn’t be able to defeat her, so I decided to kill a character that I hadn’t planned very much development for. Would this be a *good* or *bad* time to kill him?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Strictly from a technical perspective, I don’t see a problem with that (so long as the character’s storyform function is carried on by another character). However, an early death does present its own problems, namely that readers may not be invested enough in him for it to carry any significant weight.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Sounds like you’ve got your answer then!

  24. I’ve gotten pretty good at killing of characters in my stories but this has brought it to a new level. I will definitely use these techniques in the future.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honing your assassination techniques, eh? ;)

      • Yup. In a lot of my early writing, I’d kill em of to often and I could never figure out why the story got to the point where it wasn’t any fun to write anymore. Nice to finally know why. Also a good tip for writers. If it’s gotten to the point where it isn’t fun to write the story after a character dies, it probably want time for him/her to die yet.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, if we’re not getting a sustained emotional resonance out of our character’s death, then it’s probably a pretty good bet that our readers won’t either.

  25. L. O. Fencer /simply Lora says:

    Killing some of my characters are simply inevitable. Starting from the fact that usually my main has lost one or both parents, there is always someone who dies; for his principles, because of personality or for others… I could not do without it. But it always serves the plot, I’m not fond of killing them just for the fact they are dead, there must be some hidden or obvious reason. For example, one of my stories starts by the statement that the father of my main character died. It is a must to reveal unknown facts about the main character’s past and through the father’s diary, it explains a lot of things.

    By the way, it just happens that every time I feel inspired or simply know I should sit down and write, I come across your site and get strenght to do so. Your topics are awesome!

    And as I am starting a blog, can I add your site to the useful links??

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog! Congrats on starting up your own, and please feel free to link to whatever you’d like. And thank you!

  26. So… I’ve had a question for a while now. If there’s going to be a death early in the story (Like, practically the beginning,) is it better to tell it as background info, or is it better to put the death at the beginning of the story, even though there’s no time for the readers to become attached to that character? I’d think it’d be best as some sort of back story, but I don’t really know for sure. Does it depends on the writer or story?

    • Depends how integral the death is to the plot (versus just background motivation for the protagonist). If the death is the protag’s mother and it just sets up the protagonist’s orphaned state, it may not be necessary to dramatize the death. But if you’re writing a mystery, in which the death is the result of the central murder, you’re probably going to want to include it, in some form, in the story.

      • Aaron S. (@Ashurtl96) says:

        Thanks! This blog has improved my writing, and knowledge of how to write more effectively, quite significantly. I appreciate the help, and will definitely return should I have more questions!

  27. It is a hard decision, but sometimes, it is the only way out :O

    M.

  28. The characters in my story just celebrated a minor victory against the “bad guys”. During the middle of it (Its like a celebration/reunion sort of thing.) one of the “good guys” gets shot. She wasn’t very important and I want to kill her off but I can’t bring myself to. I always want to bring them back one way or another, but I feel like it’s a typical “good guys beat the bad guys and everyone is happy” sorta thing. I really see a bleak future for all of her friends. Any ideas? I’m kinda new at writing and I’m just trying to make it good.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It really depends on the story. In the recent Red Dawn remake, most viewers are going to have seen Chris Hemsworth’s character’s death after the final battle coming from a mile off. It *does* set the tone, but it ultimately seems a bit manipulative, as if the filmmakers were just flexing their muscles to show viewers they were still in charge. If your character is minor enough, you can probably “casually” kill her without readers revolting. But if she’s an important character, her death is going to need to be properly set up, so it doesn’t feel like just an afterthought.

      • “Jade and Apryl walked over, saw Felix, and practically attacked him. Jade released him, all smiles. There was a small pop. Her smile slowly faded to distress. She clutched her stomach. Crimson blood seeped through her hands. She began breathing heavily. Luke ran forward and caught her. He yelled something. I couldn’t make out what he said. My mind was dull, my heart was tearing itself apart.
        Blood ran out the corner of her mouth. Tears were streaming down her face as her skin began to turn a ghostly white. She reached up and Felix grabbed onto her hand. Apryl screamed. It wasn’t a half-hearted scream. It was a full-hearted lament. “

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s a good passage! But it’s hard for me to comment on the actual effectiveness of the death without the overall context of the story. If you can, get a couple of beta readers to go over it and report on their feelings about it.

  29. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    @Jon: You might find this post helpful: Is Your Story About to Be Stolen?.

  30. Anonymous Writer says:

    My character dies at the end of my story to begin a revolution. Throughout the story, all he wants to do is save his sickly sister and when she passes away his motivation is sealed. At seventeen, he wasn’t ready to die but when the moment came, he knew it was meant to be. It also set the end of the story for the book to be ended with his best friend to fight for him, to get a group of fighters and overthrow the government that has tied them down. But the book ends a chapter after he dies, leaving the reader to decide whether or not, the rebellion succeeded or not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is the formula for many great stories. If the protagonist dies in the end, then the only measuring rod for whether or not it’s a success is whether the final emotional note strikes a chord with readers.

  31. I actually killed off my main character in the very first novel I tried to write… It was for NaNoWriMo at the time. It really did pain my heart but she died, thinking that it was the only way to save everyone but in truth it was the opposite. Once the other character realize that, they try to make sure that her death was not in vain. Not sure if that was the right way to go about it but I didn’t have any writing experience at that time…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Many great stories end by featuring the death of the protagonist. Gladiator is one of my favorite examples.

  32. So far into my story, the main characters, as of right now, are Vada and Rani. They’re children, 12 and 14 years old. The story is set into the future and from the outside of the world, looks and sounds Utopian. However, from the inside and characters who will experience, realize they’re living in a Dystopian world. My entire story deals with death, children used for manipulation from adults and how children view death from their experiences. In a scene, Vada (deaf), Rani and a bunch of kids (7-16 years of age) are lined up in a line and they are forced to kill one another. The adults in the scene are soldiers who work for the Voice (you never see the face or the physical body of this voice). Since this scene is the view from Rani’s perspective he sees the kids kill one another, one by one. The killings are to brutal for him to watch as he’ll turn his head away for a bit and then sees the horror on a kid’s face who killed. Vada closes and plugs her ears, she can’t handle it and frightening for her to watch. As for the rest of the kids, some cried, looked away, body shakes and just something they never really seen before. The killings are new to them. This is just the beginning of how Vada and Rani view and feel about death. As well starting the loss of their childhood and their innocence. I know not everyone kid will become cold blooded killers in my story. It’s the matter of how death effected them and how they’ll handle death within their grasp. During the scene, a 19-year old kid who is a Sargent and he’s the one who pressures and taunts all the kids to kill. Sooner or later, Rani might become similarly like him, (if my character wants to go that way) a cycle I see further into the story. Vada i believe will probably be tempted to kill people, but yet have remorse in her. Meaning she might have some of the child innocence in her. I’m not sure yet, but I feel like this is the direction my characters want to go towards. There are other character in my story, but so far, the focus is mostly on the children. What is this called when a scene seems to have a lot of extra characters, a senseless act and kids being traumatize (kid soldiers is what these adults want the kids to become)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s no specific term for the kind of scene you’re describing. It’s a device to advance the plot and establish the story world and the stakes. It’s possible this scene could end up becoming your characters’ Ghost, which will define their backstory and drive their character arcs.

    • I have a similar scene in one of my books, well, actually, a set of scenes. One of the scenes happens before the book actually starts, but the MC (Xenia) often has flash-backs to it and cites it as one of the reasons why she became cold-hearted and has bad opinions of people in general (her mother, a ruthless tyrant, rounded up a group of rebellious people and forced them to watch as their children, from the youngest to the oldest, were brutally tortured then burned to death) Near the end of the book, the scene is brought up again when the descendents of the victims take revenge on Xenia’s family/people for the killings, even though the victims of the second killing are totally innocent. The second killing causes Xenia’s brother, who’d before been a kind, easy-going person, to become violently angry and burn down 3/4 of the city, ending the book. They’re really important scenes, but they’re absolutely no fun to write, chiefly because writing a whole scene about blood and gore and murder is frankly disgusting work.

  33. In my story, the antagonist’s sister is going to be killed off by the antagonist himself. It hurts me a lot, and even more when the MC and her were starting to bond. I really thought all of this through before making the final decision, but the more I analyzed the repercussions of the bad things that had happened before, the more unrealistic it seemed to salvage her. It hurt me more than I expected.

    Well, I think this death moves the plot forward, or better yet, motivates the character to move the plot forward. The MC was a very nice person, but the sudden sorrow, anger and thirst of revenge for all the horrible things the antagonist had done up to that point really drove the MC to a dark corner of himself that he never even knew was there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” If a character death affects us deeply, we’re probably on the right track to affecting our readers as well.

  34. I have a character that I killed off. She was a six year old child, created by genetic engineering, who was killed after managing to escape slave traders. She had died of blood loss and the fact that her godmother thought she had been one of the slave hunters, which are alien shapeshifting beings. I used it as a plot twist showing not only the cunning of the alien races, but also as part of the beginning of war. How’s that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Death is often an excellent catalyst for major events in the story – especially if you’ve got it placed at one of the major turning points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks.

  35. Isaiah Huxley says:

    I have two protagonists who share much of the story together, Jude, and his younger brother, Daniel. Part of the conflict of the story is Jude’s abrupt-yet-heroic death, and Daniel’s coping with the sudden loss, and the void he leaves behind. (another character takes over narrative though) I usually don’t like killing off characters because it causes me pain! But I knew that this is where his story had to end, where he had to step off the stage and wait in the wings. Through out the rest of the story, after his death, Jude’s journal surfaces, and some parts of the next few chapters are entries from it, detailing his traumatic past, his struggle with addiction, and his rebellious streak (which got him killed and saved his family in the process)
    Is it contrived to have him die in order to save a group of people when the death isn’t in a war setting, or other high-stress, death-likely setting?
    Your blog is great! I’m book marking this post for later :)

  36. Hi, Ms. Weiland,
    Thanks for the great article!
    I’m really stuck on the death of this character… It’s thematically important to the story that he dies (I checked on your checklists, too, it is relevant) but I’m really unsure of how to do it! In all of my drafts he has gone after a friend and ended up dying but I never liked it, it feels cliched, not to mention the fact that his friend then would have to live with his death on her hands. I tried exploring other options for the death of a teen, but I didn’t like the idea of suicide (it won’t work thematically) or a car crash (because then it becomes very Looking For Alaska-esque. Given the story is mildly similar in plot to Looking for Alaska, I’m trying very hard to steer clear from it). I really don’t know what to do! It’s not a fantasy or anything and it is YA fiction so I really can’t think of a logical way for him to die…
    Thank you!
    -Erin

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best deaths happen *because* of the plot, not even so much in the sense that they’re relevant for thematic reasons, but because the plot causes them. Ask yourself why the plot needs this death in order for the subsequent scenes to move forward? If you’ve got a solid answer to that question, then start looking within the scenes in which the deaths need to happen and those just previous to the death. What plot devices are available in those scenes? Character illness? A rickety building just waiting to go up in flames? A dangerous hobby?

      You’re also going to want to look for modes of death that will resonant within the overall story. A book about cops should confine most of its deaths to dangers on the job. A book about a mountain climber will probably find its best resonance in deaths that happen from the elements or from falls.

      • Thanks so much!
        The plot does need it to be pushed forward.
        So far it has been in a fire (the story is set in a particularly bush-fire prone area in Australia) but it seems a little too ‘convenient’. I like the idea of the dangerous hobby… and also the fact that he goes back in after her all seems a bit too romantic in my opinion. I’m just not sure… Am I over thinking it? Also, how could the friend live with herself? I’m struggling with the idea that she is the cause of her friend’s death and although she is never ‘ok’ with it, I’m just not sure of how she should act.
        She leaves the school, and stops talking to her friends…. but that’s so depressing! I’m sorry for my rant, I’m really stuck, do you have any ideas?
        Thanks so much!
        :)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The fire or something related seems like the obvious choice, but honestly it’s hard for me to say with any certainty without being more familiar with the story. I would recommending running it by a couple trusted beta readers and seeing what they’re opinions are.

        • Zelda Smith says:

          Erin, this is just a suggestion from someone who recently read a book that dealt with the idea of blaming oneself for a loved one’s death. You mentioned that your MC blames herself for the boy’s death because she thinks it’s her fault. Having a character blame himself for a major event can either be really sad, or it can be really annoying, if an author forgets to actually make the character guilty in some way. If the character is in no way to blame for the death and he spends the whole book hating himself for it, it can get both old and boring. Your example of having the boy go back to save your MC, however, is good because there actually is a reason for her to blame herself: she did technically contribute to his death. Just my opinion; hope it’s helpful!

  37. I have a four book series I’m almost at the end of where I killed my heroine in the first book because the hero couldn’t evolve without her demise. Killed a dear friend….stillborn baby….even a beloved horse after three books …..makes me feel sorta serial….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes having to kill an animal in a story is the hardest death of all. Go figure. :p

  38. I’m considering killing a character to serve the purposes of villainizing the antagonists mostly, but also to turn one of them to the good side. The event of the death also gives another reason why this particular character is not so bad after all. And, although this is not super important, his actions at this point give a certain protagonist (who doesn’t show much emotion) a reason to show appreciation for him. Are these good reasons to kill an innocent character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The most important measuring stick for a character’s death is always: Does it move the plot forward? It sounds as if the death you’re describing does that, particularly in respect to the antagonist who is then motivated to turn good.

  39. I’ve killed a main character…okay she did come back but i’ve killed two other main characters and never looked back…oh and a beloved horse. Take that Moffatt! You must be willing to kill your darlings for the sake of the plot.

  40. My mother too, she has a soft spot for animals. I think because they don’t have a voice and can’t always defend themselves from the cruelty of people. The highest compliment I got from my daughter is when she told me I made her cry at the end of two of my novels. To make someone feel enough for your character to affect them that strongly is one of the greatest pleasures of writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree! I always feel a little gleeful when someone tells me they’ve cried over my story.

  41. Zelda Smith says:

    If you’re worse than Moffat, that might be a wee bit of a problem.

  42. C.E.Dillon says:

    am i the only writer out there who knows a character is doomed right from the very start? And who knows they die for a noble reason, but still have trouble writing them beacause YOU KNOW THAT THEY WILL DIE. Sometimes its hard playing God. and is the following a good reason; my side characters best friend dies to protect him, and to tell this guy, (luka) to get off his arse and tell his little brother (the villan) to stop.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” If a character’s death is affecting you, then you know you’re the right track.

  43. I pride myself on having made my readers cry over my character deaths. It’s not that I don’t love my characters….I’ve shed a tear myself…but for the sake of the plot we all make sacrifices…

  44. I made my friend cry just by telling her the plot synopsis of my short story. I felt a bit cruel, but I loved it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Yes, every writer needs to be adept at the evil chuckle in such circumstances. ;)

      • Ashurtl96 says:

        >:) Sometimes I have to restrain myself from killing people just for the shock factor. It does make for some intense and emotional settings though. A character ALMOST dying has more of an impact than actually killing them in most cases that I’ve found.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Very true – as long we’re not unnecessarily fooling readers into thinking a character has died when he hasn’t.

  45. I’m in the process of writing a story, and I’m not too far in, so maybe this is a bit premature? But I already know which character needs to die at the near-end, but certain events will have to take place in the story in order for the death to make sense. I feel like if I plan the death so far ahead of time, and write the story to cater to that, but then change my mind, I would have written a LOT of pointless scenes! Should I go ahead and plan for it so far ahead?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a huge proponent of outlining. I always plan the entirety of my story, in detail, before writing it. So, yes, I definitely think that’s a valid approach.

    • It’s been a while since I was last here, but I love reading all the comments of the writers here. I just want to say to you Ellie that there is no such thing as a pointless scene unless it drawls on and has no tie into the story. Get fun with it! Have those scenes that lead up to a death you no longer want turn into another plot point moving forward. If you have everything outlined, then let the story take the reins for a while to see what happens, then take it back on track with a little nudge. My point is, remove pieces you’ve already written, because if they came forward already, you are only going to hurt your story in the long run.

      Well… That’s my two cents. Hope you have luck in your writing endeavors.

  46. In my latest novel, I give my character sort of an heroic death. After suffering so much bullying, he kills himself but not before taking 17 others with him and wounding many more. After his death, questions of who to blame arise with everyone trying to blame someone else while at the same time, trying to absolve themselves of any, especially the town.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d hesitate to call that heroic, but the important thing in any story is just making sure the death is necessary–which this one definitely seems to be.

  47. Thanks and that’s the other question. His death might have been heroic in his own eyes but does the reader think so?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, and that’s actually really great aspect of theme: there are always two sides to any story.

  48. I plan to kill off my main character and her love interest in an explosion at the end of the novel. However, some days I waver between letting them live and killing them off like originally planned. This checklist has really helped me think harder about the decision of why they should/should not be killed off! The deaths help motivate the other characters remaining, as well as fit in with the theme of the novel about fate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes it’s tempting to kill off a character just because it seems like it might add drama (or even be a fun scene to write). But we always have to come back to the affect it will have on the story.

  49. To abbreviate my story, it starts having the protagonist’s bestfriend has just died but we are told nothing about it. She is constantly having flashbacks about her death but tries to move on in her life. However, her company insists on her having an accomplice and when the mysterious Green comes to take her place, her first actions towards her are closed off and angry. Later on they soon bond and the protagonist realises Green’s motives are nothing but friendly. A new, cool sidekick joins and steals the attention of the protagonist, effectively later breaking off the friendship, knowing all too well that Green secretly knows that she is not what she seems…
    Anyway, does this sound like a ‘sutible death’ for the best friend? Later, when Green’s knowlege places her in danger, the protagonist has another flashback leading to the death of the best friend. I am also thinking of doing a prequel after to reveal their friendship and circumstances ect. Also, does this idea seem too basic? Thank you if you read this and also thank you for your posts that have been very helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like the friend’s death is the basis for the entire plot, so it’s definitely suitable to the story.

  50. I’m stuck.

    I have a MC who has led several past life’s, with the ability to unknowingly pull memory’s from these past selves to the fore when in a stressful situation. Such as how to waltz when summoned to a Ball, or she would suddenly know how to use a Martial Arts move when shes never studied Martial Arts in her (present) life.

    Anyway, that is enough back story. My MC was told of a prophecy where (she thought) she or her (not really younger but the babyish one) cousin/sister would have to die in an epic battle to protect part of the world.

    Now, I know how she dies, and (most) of what happens after, I just need help on how she come back to her friends and family. She didn’t really die. Just was sent back in time to train with her past self. (A famous Queen.) Now i just need to know how to bring her “back to life” to her cousin/sister, her boyfriend(who is still in love with her) her three friends, (one who hates her because she turned him down) and a new team mate the just happens to be her cousin/sister’s boyfriend.

    Anyway, I’m lost. Any help would be nice. Thank you.

    -Rose

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great premise!

      Whenever I’m stuck on something like this, I always pull out the almighty “what if” question. Sit down with a notebook and pen and start asking yourself questions. What if this happened? What if that happened? Be wild. Write down any idea that comes to mind and see where that takes you.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Authors are always being advised to be mean to their characters. Often, that meanness involves killing them off. And even as we may bawl over our beloved characters’ deaths, most of us get a strange sort of fulfillment out of it. We gotta play tough and do whatever best serves the story, right? But that, of course, begs the question: Is killing off a character really the best way to serve your story?  […]

  2. […] on January 13, 2014 by Judith After reading How to Kill off a Character on this site – http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2014/01/kill-a-character.html – I had this to say: These comments contain spoilers so proceed at your own risk if you haven’t […]

  3. […] How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist, from Helping Writers Become Authors: How do you know if the character you want to kill off is […]

  4. […] Dell Smith advises how to write outside your generation, and if in the end you absolutely MUST kill off a character, use K.M. Weiland’s checklist to kill your character successfully. […]

  5. […] How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist […]

  6. […] on that topic.  So we’ve got “400+ Ways to Kill a Character” from Clever Girl Helps,  “How to Successfully Kill a Character—the Checklist” from K.M. Weiland,  “How to Kill Your Main Character” from Rhiannon Paille, and “Murder […]

  7. […] Killing Characters? Do It Successfully with Tips by K. M. Weiland  @KMWeiland […]

  8. […] questo articolo di K.M. Weiland — il cui blog ho scoperto da poco ed è subito entrato tra i miei preferiti, […]

  9. […] utili all’articolo: How to successfully kill a character: the checklist How to kill off fictional characters How to kill off a main character in […]

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