How to Kill a Character—And Avoid Hate Mail

How to Kill a Character—And Avoid Hate Mail

Some of the most powerful stories in literature and cinema have a surprising common element: The death of a main character. At first glance, this would seem to be an instant turnoff. Why hang with a character for 300+ pages only to watch him get knocked off in the end? But the truth is, when handled properly, understanding how to kill a character can add untold power and pathos to your tale. It can lift your story from ordinary to extraordinary.

It can also result in a slew of hate mail from formerly loyal readers.

The death of a popular character has caused more than one book to be hurled across the living room. So when you find your story demands you figure out how to kill a character, how do you tap into the power and pathos without infuriating your readers?

How to Kill a Character: The 3 Keys

After analyzing a number of books and movies in which the main characters bit the dust, I discovered three keys to playing the assassin and living to tell another tale.

Key #1: Make the Death Matter

Nothing kills a reader’s trust faster than characters who die for no good reason—or purely for shock value. If you’ve built a character into a three-dimensional human being worth caring about, then he’s someone who deserves to die for a purpose (unless your intention is to illustrate purposelessness—such as is occasionally accomplished with success in war stories).

For Example:

When Maximus dies in Gladiator, we know he’s sacrificed his life to free Rome from the tyranny and corruption of Emperor Commodus. Instead of angering us, we accept his death as the only logical conclusion. He gave his life to gain something worth more than his life. We resonate with that, we admire him for his nobility, and we cheer his victory, even as we mourn his death.

Gladiator Russell Crowe Ridley Scott Maximus's Death

Key #2: Foreshadow the Character’s Demise

If you kill a prominent character without warning, readers are likely to react with anger and frustration. They expected to remain in this character’s company for chapters to come, or, at the very least, they expected a happy ending. Jerking the rug out from under them at the last minute means sacrificing the resonance of foreshadowing. A story’s outcome should be unpredictable, but it should also make sense in the context. Readers should be surprised by a character’s death, but when they stop to consider it, they should also be able to realize, Ah, yes, that makes sense.

For Example:

In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the reader knows almost from the beginning that Owen is going to die. The narrator, who is looking back on events, tells us so, and Owen’s own dreams of his demise hint at the manner of his death. When tragedy actually strikes, we’re prepared for the worst. And, surprisingly, this foreknowledge only heightens the suspense and the poignancy.

prayer for owen meany simon birch

Key #3: End on an Affirming Note

Generally speaking, readers want happy endings. Even in the midst of the worst of catastrophes, it’s important we find a ribbon of light. In some instances, this is just a matter of highlighting the good accomplished by the character’s death (as in both Maximus’s and Owen Meany’s stories), but sometimes a little artistic finagling can give you an unexpected happy ending.

For Example:

Audrey Niffenegger’s wildly popular The Time Traveler’s Wife uses its time-traveling premise to allow the main characters one last reunion, far in the future, after the husband’s death. This ray of love and joy pierces through the otherwise tragic ending to allow the reader a wistful smile as he closes the book’s cover.

Time Traveler's Wife Eric Bana Rachel McAdams Audrey Niffenegger

Killing a character is never a decision you should make lightly. But if you’re certain a death is what your story demands, then you can use these three keys to satisfy your readers even in the midst of tragedy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever killed a character? What do you think is the key to figuring out how to kill a character–while still keeping readers happy? Tell me in the comments!

How to Kill a Character—And Avoid Hate Mail

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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. Excellent post – and as you say, the death of a main character has to be handled well or it looks like it’s been done for shallow reasons.

    I sympathise with Earwen. I killed a main character, for completely good reasons. But I would literally wake in the middle of the night and fret about it, because to me he felt like a real person.

  2. When you’re spending that much emotional commotion over the death of a character, I think you can be pretty sure you’re not doing it for shallow reasons!

  3. Great post! I had to stop by and let you know I am just finishing up your book and should be done tomorrow if I am not interrupted. 🙂

  4. Thanks for stopping by! Hope you’re enjoying Behold the Dawn. 🙂

  5. I jumped here after seeing the title “how to kill a character–and avoid hate mail” beneath the Foreshadowing post.
    In my WIP, I kill *counts* five MC’s, but part of that is due to the fact that it started life as a NaNo novel, as well as being set near the end times in a fantasy realm. My friend who’s helping me edit hasn’t reached that point yet…hopefully she won’t attempt to strangle me. On the other hand, she can’t do so physically.

  6. Your body counts sound higher than mine. 😉

  7. This was an amazing post and very useful too!

    I might say a death is worth when it can elicit an emotional reaction too. Like in Gladiator. I´ve seen it eight times and eight times I did cry when he died!

    But yes, it is important we find a logical reason, even when the dead serve to puposelessness as you said.

    Thanks for this wonderful tips!

  8. I love Gladiator. It works so perfectly on so many levels, not least in its heart-wrenching – and yet completely satisfying – ending.

  9. True. IT is a perfect movie and one of my very faves!

  10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame book has a tragic death (or two) of the main characters at the end, but it was done so beautifully that I like the book anyway. In my opinion, in the Hunger Games, Katniss should have died at the end of the first book along with everyone else. It would have made it a story that readers would actually get a lesson from.

  11. @Writer4Christ: The majority of my favorite stories end with prominent character deaths. Done wrong, of course, it’s irritating in the extreme. But done right, it hits the reader’s emotions and cements the story in his mind.

  12. I completely agree with these points, especially #1 and #2. In my novel “Embassy,” the character I kill off is probably the most developed character in the whole story, mirrors someone who was very important to MC’s life, and helps my MC discover his true desires. I planted several clues as to where, when, and how the character will die, mostly in the form of parallelism, imagery, behavior, and seemingly-random clues.

    I haven’t edited the death scene/climax of “Embassy,” but every time I read that scene, I tear up a bit. One of my Alpha Readers read all the way through the first draft and told me she cried at that part. To me, it honestly feels like a best friend died.

  13. Tears in the author are a good indication there will be tears in the reader. Any bit of writing that can summon that much honest emotion is always a good thing.

  14. What are your feelings on killing off a character, but finding that they’re not really dead? Is this Taboo???

    Also, great website! I’m addicted now…. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Not taboo at all (I’ve done it myself). But we have to do it carefully, or else readers will feel cheated. The original “death” has to be for just as good a reason, and set up just as well, as if the character really had died. It can’t be in the book just for cheap thrills to try to milk the readers’ emotions. Same goes for the character’s “resurrection”: it has to matter to the plot, beyond being just a plot twist.

  15. This is a kind of tool if use correctly can add enormous depth in a work, but if misused, can make it disaster. And twist for the sake of twist are the worst of it.

  16. Great article! I also think that the death of a character can provide an unrivalled means of ramping up tension in certain genres. Quite often I read something where characters are facing some kind of terrifying threat, yet you never really believe they’re in any genuine danger. Kill off someone I’m invested in, and suddenly I’ve got real reason to fear for the rest. The opposite is true of George Martin, who sort of overdid this to the point of ridicule with Game of Thrones. But if handled right, it can be an awesome narrative tool to keep your readers totally on edge and rooting for your protagonist(s).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, there comes a point where readers grow numb to the whole “shock and awe” approach. Character deaths are a valuable tool–both within the plot and in accessing reader emotions. But if we don’t use them sparingly and with good judgment, they can quickly lose their power.

  17. thanks for this, more great advice! unfortunately my novels demand a sacrifice (sometimes multiple sacrifices) & while the deaths aren’t purely for shock value & do have a purpose, at least in the long run, i still worry that obeying these cold hearted writing gods will alienate fans (or break my own heart since i love my characters so much) & i’m especially worried about killing off a certain beloved minor(ish) character. i know readers will love this character, probably more than the MC, & i already feel guilty for killing this person off. but, the writing gods demand it. lol. anyway hopefully these tips will help! thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most readers secretly love a good character death. We *love* having our heartstrings jerked. What readers *don’t* like is death for no purpose. As long as the death makes sense, drives the plot, and has thematic resonance, they won’t hate you (although they may hate the bad guy even more).

  18. robert easterbrook says:

    To Kill Off a Character or Two

    I write a form a Greek tragedy, so there are generally no happy endings. Well, depends on what you mean by a happy ending, I guess – a thief is caught and punished? The introduction of pain, contending with pain, and then freedom from pain? I’m not really a fan of stories with happy endings (e.g. Sleeping Beauty) because I’m a realist, in a sense; there are no real happy endings in real life so why offer them in my stories? It’s probably more that I like drama. 😉

    How many characters have I killed off now? Several. But the poor sods who’ve died in my stories have mostly been secondary characters (like the Red Coats in Star Trek) and not the main characters – the main characters suffer because the others have died, sure, e.g. because of war, so they never come out unscathed, undamaged. I’ve written two stories now in which a main character dies.

    For the type of stories I write, I think it’s inevitable that someone is scarred, maimed or deaded. My characters are fighting the forces of nature, actual nature if not the nature of people, and so they cannot be unmoved or unchanged or unharmed by their interaction with it. That would be odd and quite frankly, unbelievable. I’ve said it before, without Katies’ approval: You can’t have a character fight a Balrog (Lord of the Rings) and come out of it without a scratch on them, smelling like roses unless there are mitigating circumstances, like Gandolf’s relationship to the magical realm. Is this the key ingredient in fantasy?

    A story I recently finished (Do Robots Dream of Love?), though still needs some feathering, the main characters die. I thought, at first, that killing off one character would suffice, but the more I thought about the message in the story the more I realised the emotional impact would be greater if both characters met a tragic demise. For me, it intensified the meaning of their deaths, answering that ‘Why?’ question: Why did they both have to die? At least, I attempted too. Maybe I just made the muddy water murkier? 😉

    But I do think the intention to kill off a character should be foreshadowed in some way, covertly or overtly. In Do Robots Dream of Love? the main characters die because everything is against them from the start [covertly], so the risk of death to both of them is foreshadowed early. As Katie has pointed out with Maximus and Owen Meany, I think. But, personally, I think Katie’s ‘ribbon of light’ theory is way too fanciful for me. 😛 Gui-Gonn Jin to Ja Ja Binks during their risky journey through the centre of Naboo: ‘There’s always a bigger fish.’ 😉 But I have to admit, even this idea becomes nonsensical after a while. It wouldn’t make sense if there was an endless line of bigger fish…

    No, ‘living happy ever after’ stories tend not to make any sense to me. ‘Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a damn,’ always comes to mind. 😉 Especially when characters meet tragic events like death, injustice, cruelty, tyranny, oppression, sadism, hate, disease, and natural disasters like storms, crop failure, radiation and comets, just to name a few. Such events pose great risk to humans, and are indiscriminate; they don’t care who they inflict themselves on – nature is amoral. And though experienced once or twice, if you’re unlucky, never go away. They simply relocate and inflict themselves on some other poor sod, who must experience it, fight or defend against it, and ponder its meaning and purpose because this is the life of humans.

    Ok, enough of that… I suppose what I mean to say is that I don’t get much pleasure from reading stories with happy endings, if the ‘ribbon of light’ is that everything from the end is always and forever going to be fabulous; I feel cheated by them; don’t get my money’s worth. And now… Gone with the Wind. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love bittersweet endings. But for me, there’s got to be a point. I don’t believe life is hopeless, so I don’t resonate with stories that end in total darkness without some kind of affirming truth. Life is certainly rife with tragedy, but it’s in the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, light and dark that I feel the greatest truths are found.

  19. Just wanted to mention that, interestingly enough, on the date of this post – 22 November, in the year 1718, a certain historical character, Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard the pirate), met his demise at the hands of the British. I don’t think the Royal Navy got too much hate mail for killing him off though. 😉

  20. robert easterbrook says:

    See, I think your comebacks are very interesting. Dodged another kick in the shins. 😉

    By the way, I think you make good points. I hope you didn’t think I meant that life was pointless. And I certainly didn’t mean my writing conveys the idea that everything is pointless. Now that would be pointless. 😉

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