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.
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.
- 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?
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