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:

  • It 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. Please tell me what you think about this death-
    A teen girl is walking through the shortcut through the forest to her house from being at a party.
    A couple of days after a search began for the missing girl, she is found hung high in a tree. Her stomach ripped open and her insides laying on the ground in the form of an X.

    Please let me know what you think lol hope it isn’t too much! My sister Emily said I should try this site out and so here I am!

  2. I am deciding whether or not to kill my protagonist. The idea is that with his death, he will pass the protagonist torch to his mentor who is older (and offers more opportunities for future adventures). While my protagonist is interesting, I’m not sure he has the legs.

    Ultimately this will be the prologue to a series that will feature the mentor as the protagonist. So rather than offering this story as a future prequel, I am starting the series with it.

    Not sure how readers will react to this. Will they see it as a legitimate death or will they feel ripped off because they think the whole boot was a set up?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In general, I wouldn’t recommend starting a series with a protagonist different from the one you will follow throughout. There are exceptions to this, such as when you’re writing a deliberate prequel to the main series or when you’re planning each book to feature a different protagonist. Otherwise, you risk frustrating readers when they invest themselves in the first protagonist only to realize he wasn’t really the guy.

  3. So I had this extremely weird dream where I was kidnapped, then fall in love with one of them, I kick some ass (lol), and turns out the guy I love is good and was forced to do that or die slowly and painfully… after we kick some more ass (as in kill the actual bad guys, while losing a few good), I convince him to go home to my house with me. We become boyfriend and girlfriend. We share a special moment outside before we went to my home and many after that.
    The moment was on the porch of the house I had been taken to (btw they treated me normal, kinda- I was locked in a normal teen girl bedroom), but anyways…… on the porch, I was convincing him to go home with me and he agreed…

    Then my mom woke me up 🙁

    Could I turn this into a good story, do you think?

  4. Paige Fedenko says:

    Weiland~
    I am a new author writing my first novel called Ashes to Ashes. it’s sort of like Cujo, with the good dog that eventually goes rabid, but with 2 other characters in the storyline that are somewhat important.
    One of these characters, however, is later killed off. Umbra, (the main characters friend who helped to save her life) would have fallen in love with the main character later in the story, but due to the lack of plot twists and the just plain boringness of the novel, I decided to have the mentor in the story kill him off, because she is the antagonist.
    Still not sure if that was the right decisio, so I would appreciate feedback.
    Thank You!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whether or not a character’s death was the right choice always comes down to whether or not it advances the plot. If the story doesn’t change after this character’s death, then either the death itself is extraneous or the character is.

      • Nice article! So, I’m having murderous thoughts. . . thinking of killing my main character. In fact, I already did. He’s just not buried yet.
        I’m working on a follow-on novel to a standalone I just published this month. My main character from the first novel is a deputy who is wanted by the law for something he did as a kid. The first book has a happy ending, though it’s a rough time getting there, and he survives the impossible and essentially cheats death twice.

        This new novel is about his best friend and fellow deputy, who more or less saved Jesse once in the first novel. The best friend became a reader’s favorite in the first novel- and the only reason I’m writing this follow-on book is for that reason.

        So, spoiler, I just wrote the ending and killed Jesse. Dang. In the end of this book, he takes a bullet for his best friend. He tells him he feels that he’s always lived on borrowed time, and has been grateful for every day of it since he should have died ten years ago.
        Then the book ends on a short note looking another 10 years forward, to his wife and sister admiring his kids out back. His son, born after his death, was given Jesse’s name, and of course, acts and looks just like him. There’s my passing the character torch, I guess.
        I guess my only reason for killing him is for my sense of realism. It was the wild west – it was tough, people died a lot. I feel he can’t cheat death yet again and have me keep a shred of credibility. And it’s a little to do with things coming full-circle and him making the ultimate sacrifice for a friend who’s done so much for him in the past. However, I hesitate, because it won’t really show much for what it did for the other character’s arcs, because it’s so near the end. Everyone else comes together and take care of each other, his wife and sister’s kids grow up together. But, how can I argue that’s advancing the plot, when the book ends that way? There’s a bit of bittersweetness to it so that it’s not all just reader torture, in that he comes back to his wife with a little sign – one right after he died, and another one that mirrors it ten years later.

        But then, I fear how pissed readers will become that I killed someone who came so far in the first book and who they came to love.
        So, I hesitate. Maybe I should find a happier way to end it. But then I can’t imagine that things will feel as well-rounded. At least, to me.
        Has anyone else killed off a main character, just to have their readers come back to make them regret it? I guess I fear their wrath a little, haha.

  5. I’m trying to decide whether killing Tawney(a character of mine) is a good idea. Here are some details:
    – Tawney is a main character, but is NOT a good guy at first.
    – She is a technician and ‘interrogator'(read: torture person).
    – She’s actually not that bad of a person, though – Tawney feels bad for physically and psychologically hurting people while doing her job, but it’s the only position she could get with her skills. Plus she’s loyal to her trusted companions and pretty funny.
    – She begins to take a bit of a roundabout turn to the protagonist’s side, but up until her death is still pretty conflicted.
    – Her death opens up Aggie(my main) to the reality of just what she is opposing and pushes her to step up her game. It also hardens her on the inside a bit(“I can’t let this keep me down, or I’ll never get anything done”).
    -She dies in a sort of sacrificial fashion, by helping Aggie(and, though not exactly her intention, Aggie’s side of the war).

    I mean, her death probably fits the checklist well enough – Her death speeds up the development of Aggie, and has deeper ties to the overall plot. So, should I pull the trigger?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Based on the list, I see no reason *not* to kill her. But I’d still question *why* you’re wondering about it in the first place. Obviously, there’s something you feel doesn’t quite fit.

      • Because I like her. I don’t really like killing people, even if they are fictional people(Wow I really am a psychopath). I guess one thing I’m wondering about is, is it okay to create a character solely for the purpose of killing them off to motivate other characters? It feels weird, for some reason.

  6. The Science Fiction novel that I am writing has a character death from cancer.

  7. gebeleizis says:

    I am writing futuristic sci-fi fanfiction with a very dark theme. I have multiple pov characters that die, but near the end of story the most important female character from my story dies in a very sad way. I love to kill my characters in a very violent or sad way. She discovers a dark secret about (not really villain, the guy tries to protect Earth from invasion, his intentions are actually good, but his ways are bad), the main bad guy, a politician that massacred the family of her love interest when he was a child. She finds out, and she falsely gets accused of betrayal and having links with terroristic groups from other planets. The politicians promise to her that if she not speaks, he will not kill her family and will stop hunting her friends, the girl chose to keep the secret. In the end, she dies. I am afraid that her death is too clichee, or the reasons are too stupid to kill her off. The politician believes that if the girl dies, his secret is safe, but actually, her death will lead directly to his downfall

    • gebeleizis says:

      i am afraid that people will go like” it was really necessary to kill her? She has been trhgough so many bad things only to die? Couldn’t the writer to find another way to reveal the secret? And how about her love interest? She promised to him he will never be alone again because she will stay forever with him?” I really don’t want her death to look like is for shock value or another female character that died for a male character motivation.

  8. This was just what I was looking for. My current work has a war so naturally people are going to die. So far it’s been characters who are really secondary. You meet them and a little while later they die. The only reason you might care is because the main characters care. The one I’ve been struggling with though is one of my main characters although not a POV character. I purposely avoided making her a POV character because somehow I’ve always known she was going to die. But I don’t want her to die, crazy right, and still she has to. She already survived once when she should have died, I can’t very well give her another miracle. So now I can see it even if I still don’t accept it.

  9. Madison Cunningham says:

    I killed off a character because I wanted the main one his best friend, but six months later the main character ends up with a kid on his doorstep. His late best friend’s daughter. I used that moment to emphasize that the bad things happen because good things are coming. There’s a reason it happened. You just have to give it time. It killed me killing off that character but it made for such a great storyline.

  10. I have killed off the brother of one of the two main characters in the book, and I’m wondering how I could make his death more emotional for the reader. His death motivates his brother to “defeat” the villain in the end, but the other main character has only known him for a few days (albeit she met him after he saved her from being frozen to death in a snow drift). I’m thinking of something along the lines of discreet positive connotations used on him throughout the novel, but I need some more ideas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of the best ways to emotionally affect readers is to make sure their favorite character is affected. If the brother is mourning the loss, then you can use that to help readers empathize with him.

  11. Sara Baptista says:

    Thank God! You showed me a good reason to kill a character! :3

  12. Hannah Killian says:

    Is there a checklist for near-death experiences?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, if anyone has a resource like that it would be WritersHelpingWriters.net.

  13. Tyler Smith says:

    Hey, I’m writing a story for my history class. It’s supposed to be a historical fiction story that takes place in the Roaring 20’s (1920’s). The current title right now though I may change it is “Ventures of John McJames,” and there’s a supporting character that I’m planning to kill off, but I want to make his death honorable, noble, touching, but I’m currently in a writers block on what to do next with it. I’m willing to send a copy via a PDF if you need that, but keep in mind I’m only 14 so the story might be bad or good, it’s your opinion, I just want to have some advice on how to advance it further. Current and basic plot summary of it is:

    18 year old John McJames is a mercenary in the 1920’s trying to fix the mess that’s his life while in the meanwhile trying to keep his friends safe while also trying to maintain his relationship with them. As he questions his morality he runs into trouble with a vengeful Mobster who will stop at nothing to avenge the death of his men for their families. The one who is to blame for their deaths? John McJames.

    PS
    Don’t mind my email, it was made when I was like 12.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t allow me to read or critique manuscripts—although I’m always happy to answer any specific writing questions you may have.

  14. Need help with an idea on how to kill this person in my story:
    The girl was killed by (A) near a river, boy finds her (dying), says sorry, promises to be with her till the end. She dies. He carries her to the river bank and jumps in. Hugs her and sinks to the bottom.

    How to describe that part where he falls in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s something you have to decide for yourself. 🙂 Focus on the sensory details.

  15. Jo Meyer says:

    Hello, I’m currently working on my first novel and well, I don’t know if I should kill my main characters (the story is told in 3rd person with insight on the emotions of one of them)
    The story is a post apocalypse story and in a nutshell, two young girls meet and decide to go and try to find the safe haven that one of them knows about.
    On their way, a lot of sh*t happens: they get captured by a religious cult, have to deal with a virus and general survival. One important part is, that my main Character is not a hero. She just wants herself to survive and later she also cares a lot for the other girl. But later it happens, that they find some Information that could save the people in the safe haven but that’s not their Main goal. They just want to live

    So at the end, either both survive, one of them or no one

    Basically, at the end they find the safe haven and some people come out to rescue them, but they notice that the one girl has the virus and so she can’t come in. They force the other girl to come so she can save the safe haven but not the girl (the opposite of what she wanted would happen and being the Hero doesn’t matter to her)
    That’s one version

    In the other one, she would just give them the information and stays with the sick girl. (Did i mention that everything that’s outside the safe haven dies after a certain point in the story, so being outside at the end means you’re doomed)
    That would lead to a very emotional dialog between the two
    Of course both could just survive but everybody else they meet on the way dies so it’s a little unrealistic, i think.

    I’m sorry, my english is very bad and i can’t explain very well
    Thank you if anyone read this anyway and i would be happy if someone could answer… i’m really stuck on this bit

  16. Thanks for the article and the checklist. Here I thought a character ought to die because I felt he ought to die. I had a number of people question why I killed off a perfectly good (in a despicable way) villain named Big Ed when he could go on to greater gory.
    I killed him off because I hated him. My youngest daughter hated him. My friends hated him. He became too real and too threatening to go on breathing.
    And there was that little particle of me that remembered Stephen King’s The Dark Half and wanted the character’s demise to happen in Book 1 rather than give him any opportunity to stage a George Stark defence.

  17. Evie Alistair says:

    so i am a young writer and i’m starting the second book of a series (it’s on Wattpad not published) and i have this perfect ending to lead into the third book but it includes killing one of my favourite characters.

    i write a fantasy story. so the male lead has a younger brother who is part of the reason he is still sane (he is good but he has an evil magic fire curse that turns him very dark and sadistic sometimes).
    well in the climax of book three the male lead watches his brother get killed and loses it basically turning very, very evil.

    i have a question that is not exactly related to this blog but i hoping you can help.
    throughout that book Darrien’s (male lead) personality starts to become more aggressive and dark because of the curse and i’m not sure if its a good idea to do that.
    what do you think?
    thank you for the blog also do you think killing this character as i mentioned is a good idea?

  18. One of my favorite tropes is totally unexpected ways to die. For example, in my book, I set up the last great fight between the antagonist and the “love interest” aka the protagonist’s partner who believes he is there to rescue her. Everything was in place for this Boss Fight, if you will, then the fight commenced and shit got real. About at the point where our hero should be losing and desperate enough to call on the help of the gods or something, the antagonist gets extremely disoriented, stumbles around for a bit, and trips and falls down a ridiculously long stone staircase, which, of course, killed him.

    Besides him being my favorite character, I thought that end was particularly hilarious and unexpected. EVERYTHING up until that point (including an ominous prophecy) made it sound like he’d die in some epic showdown, but no lol. He tripped.

    Homeboy didn’t even really do anything and got called a hero 🙂

  19. I want to kill off a character because it will progress the story line and motivate the MC, but I really don’t want to. But i also feel it makes the book more relatable.

Trackbacks

  1. […] infographic comes from the K.M. Weiland article “How to Successfully Kill a Character,” and opens with the utterly provcative statement, “I love killing […]

  2. […] can also check out this article that includes the complete checklist for killing off characters (good reasons vs. the bad reasons). […]

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

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