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. Yamika Tosaki says:

    Hey! I have a character for my story called Jay. He was introduced in Chapter 4 and I am currently on Chapter 7. I’m planning on eventually having him be killed as his way of trying to redeem himself after his attitude toward the reader. Of course, this isn’t the only reason. His death will also be used to motivate the main character to kill the man who killed Jay. In the Chapters up to his death I’m planning on making him more and more distant and he ends up sacrificing himself for her. The theme in itself in that they got on the wrong side of a bunch of murderers and I feel like his death would also remind the reader of that after a few calm chapters as they book starts of pretty heated with her being kidnapped but then having her memory wiped (Kinda sci-fi I suppose). Would this be a good idea? And, if so, how long should I wait?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t see any reason not to proceed with this. As for when, the plot should dictate the best time. When in doubt, look at the “low moment” at the Third Plot Point at the beginning of the Third Act.

  2. DeArron Hamilton says:

    “I love killing people.”
    Best way to start an article LMAO XD

  3. Ryan Gonzalez says:

    I’m writing a ten minute play for my elective class and I’m thinking of having a 6th grader character who commits suicide because of the abuse he was getting from his peers and father Then I plan of having the rest of the story being the other students reflecting on that moment. Do you think I should continue?

  4. I am not very good at writing the actual fight part of it, I use a lot of detail and I have been told I am good at arguments. I am not sure where to go with my battle though. I am at the climax of my story and the antagonist is supposed to die. Both of my characters in the fight have magical powers. The Protagonist can use shadows to give her energy to fight things and can shape the shadows to do certain tasks like lift her up into the air or burn out torches. My antagonist uses light for energy and counters the shadows but I am not sure how to write it.
    This is what I have so far:
    Earthen rock arises from the floor spiraling out into the heart of the ruins of Quintea in the heart of the mountain of Arkala. The rocks crash into the chasm where the single orb of light dwindles flickering as rocks pass through it. Shadows tread across the walls pacing behind me as I shroud myself against the dark desolate houses as I move closer to the center of town so I can see the spherical orb.
    Staring at the sphere a tall man stands in a dark cloak. His head shakes seemingly involuntarily as he stands there. He, a lengthy man is skeletal and uncanny. “It’s only a matter of time before the Raine’s Tune is lost forever, my child,” Someone shrieks into the dark, “I know you’re there, pretty bird, but where I cannot see. Meliri taught you well, my child.”

    “Who are you?” I whisper back into the darkness

    “I am your father, your king. Do you not recognize my voice, child?”

    “You could not be my father was an honorable man who ran his kingdom and loved his people. He was lost in a raid many years ago and died.”

    “Died, you say. People thought I had died. I was forgotten and now they will pay for what they had done. I had fought beasts and they overtook my fighters. The ones who survived took me for dead. They left me there.”

    “There was a search party that looked for you for days. You were nowhere to be found. You could have come back, but instead, you left my mother to continue hold of our kingdom and look after my sister and I with no help but from the castle’s miserable maids.” I cry out and in anger, I stand up, “If you are indeed my father show yourself so I can see you for what you are,” My hands shift to my pockets where my little mouse sleeps and I stroke her head gently. The mouse stirs, realizing soon there may be trouble. With her beady eyes appear peaking over the pocket of my coat she watches.

    “Of course, dear,” My father strides down steps at the center of town, his black long cloak dragging behind him. His face is as white as the snow on the tops mountains south in Ariden. His piercing green eyes seem to gaze off distantly as his thin lips turn ever so slightly upward in a smirk.

    “Father, Minima Stella is dying; the magic in the air is withering; the homes, temples, and shops are turning to rubble. Will you not come home? Will you let our people die?” I ask my body feels cold, the father I thought I knew would have never been like this. He was tall and handsome with a hearty laugh and a gentle smile, but instead, he is dark; cold-hearted. Chi sulks down back into the safety of my pocket, warning me to be careful. I stand still my feet planted on the shaking ground, a rock falls in the distance, the Raine’s Tune pulses through my mind.

    “My dear daughter if you only knew there was no hope for your beloved people in your miserable, forsaken kingdom that you hold so close in your heart,” He whispers grately as he stands several yards away crouched over and old looking.

    “You are wrong father, there is hope. They are your people as well you cannot just throw them away as if they are rubbish, you wouldn’t. Would you?” My hands start to tingle, as the shadows in the darkness throw voices into my sub-conscience mind luring me to give them excitement.

    “They are peasants, just mere peasants. That is what they are you have said it yourself; rubbish. They are garbage.”

    “No father, Minima Stella needs their king.”

    “Of course they do, but I am not going to risk my life for the safety of good-for-nothings.”

    “They were never good-for-nothings. I should have never thought of you as my father nor as my king. Have you seen what you have become? How could have my mother ever loved a dastardly swine such as yourself?”

    “How dare you to speak to me in such a manner. I am your father, you are to obey me. Come to me, maybe then your worthless kingdom will not perish,” He replies the words rolling off his tongue, like lightning striking a tree.

    “You do not see my intentions, I will never come to you just as you had never come to the aid of my people or your own family,”

    “If you do not, you and Minima Stella will fall to ash forever buried in the earth,” My father screams from the light of a torch that he stands by.

    “I will not follow you,” I call out into the light that my disgraceful father stands in, and as I do so the walls start to dance with darkness once again. The silhouettes of the crumbling stone walls around us sway in the light of torches that can never burn out. And as my eyes begin to follow the shaded figures my mind whispers and the shadows lie still. With the palms of my hands to the cavern’s top, I chant the words to bind shadows so that they will do my bidding, “In this dire time, this darkest hour, I call upon the tune of Raine, as light flames shadow be binding to me, shadows bid my wishes.” As the words form in my mouth black sparks flutter out of my hands and my shaded familiars squirm across the floor filling me with their energy. “I will not follow you nor will anybody else,” I scream, my words echoing off the wreckage of deserted Quintea streets.

    “My dear daughter, what do you suppose mere shadows could do to me?” He croaks laughing, but his eyes dart back and forth.

    “They do as I bid, father. If you are not willing to rule, I will make sure that you do not.” I say as my fingers twirl as a puppeteer’s do and my shadows flow through me until I am drenched in darkness. Unsheathing my father’s bastard sword a column of black smoke lifts me into the cold air.

    From there I am not sure where to go. The father is supposed to die, I am thinking that somehow he needs to be absorbed by the orb of light so that the protagonist’s town doesn’t crumble, but I do not know how to get there does anybody have any suggestions?

    I really could use some ideas, I would ask the people reading my story but it is an important part of the book and I do not want to spoil it for others… Thank you.

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