Consider This Before Killing a Character

[From KMW: I’m taking a quick sabbatical this week. I’ll be back next Monday with a video/post/podcast about “Scene Structure and Transitions in Big Scenes.” Until then, I hope you enjoy this short post on an important topic!]

I have a little game I play when reading a book or watching a movie, especially a violent one. I try to predict if the author will be killing a character. More often than not, I’m right on the money, and it isn’t because I’m prescient or because I cheated and peeked ahead. It’s because character deaths are often formulaic.

Half the time, authors seem to axe characters for no other reason than the characters are likable and the authors want to wring a few honest tears from their readers. However, this isn’t really honest storytelling. Aside from the fact that readers may be righteously indignant over the unnecessary death of a favorite character, they’ll also resent being manipulated should they figure out what’s going on.

Of course, we could argue all of storytelling is manipulation since as authors we purposefully craft words and themes to guide our readers’ thoughts and emotions in the direction we want them to go. Readers accept and even embrace this. What they ask in return is that we manipulate them with style—and subtlety.

That means killing a character, like every other part of your story, must be organic. Character deaths must make sense within the context of the story, and they must move the plot forward.

Snuffing everybody’s favorite sidekick just because somebody’s gotta get hit by a random bullet and because he’s the character readers are most likely to sniffle over is a bad methodology. For a character’s death to work in a story—for it to resonate—it has to mean something. Unless your whole point is to illustrate random violence, make certain there’s a good reason this particular character has to die.

You have to compensate readers for the loss of a beloved personality. Not only will this make it more difficult for them to suspect the death beforehand, it will also allow the death to carry more emotional and thematic weight.

How to Kill a Character: The Checklist Infographic

>>For more on how to do this, read “How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist” (as featured on NPR)

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are you killing a character in your story? What made you choose this character? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I killed a character because I needed to have her husband want revenge for her death, and so would be able to kill a child inhabited by the soul of the antagonist. The rest of the group could not bring themselves to do it even though the child’s soul no longer inhabited the body.
    This event happens in a later book, though.

    • My protagonist dropped that ball. The little girl she was rescuing was possessed by an escaped soul and her spirit was in the slug demon’s body (think Jabba).
      Unfortunately the body swap became permanent once Sigrun removed the possessed body from the cursed site… and now, due to her bargain to ‘save’ the girl, Sigrun was unable to tell which spirits were demonic hallucinations and which were angelic visions.
      The bargaining devil got the escaped souls back and made deep inroads with Sigrun’s account. A terrible day for the heroes… When divine messengers tell you not to interfere, I recommend lisetening.

  2. “It motivates a character” can also be a poor reason when it’s egregious or cheap, e.g. “fridging.”

    TVTropes describes it this way:

    > When a loved one is hurt, killed, maimed, assaulted, or otherwise traumatized in order to motivate another character or move their plot forward.
    > The term (sometimes referred to as “fridging”) was popularized by comic book writer Gail Simone through her website “Women in Refrigerators.” On that site, Simone compiled a list of instances of female comic book characters who were killed off as a plot device. It is named for a storyline in Green Lantern: A New Dawn, in which the villain Major Force leaves the corpse of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find. Years later, Major Force repeated the gimmick with Kyle’s mother in an oven. (It was just a trick with a mannequin that time, though.)

    Although personally, I’d say fridging becomes egregious when it’s primarily used just to staple “depth” onto a character, and make them tragic or tortured without earning it.

  3. I went into the story knowing I was killing one of the major characters late in the book. The genre I am writing in (action/adventure/survival) typically has generic female characters who do nothing more than food prep, wring their hands, and provide a vehicle for the main male hero to explain things to the reader via her dumb questions. Oh, and the main characters have severe plot armor or die in a big self-sacrificing way. I flipped it in my series and have the women just as knowledgeable and capable as the men, and in this volume, I had a character die not from enemy action, nor in a grand event. It was to provide transformation in others in the group and in many ways necessary for the plot of the next several books, but my beta readers? They loved it from a storytelling standpoint and didn’t see it coming, but they still bust my chops for killing one of their favorites just before a time when they would be supremely useful.
    Some authors kill off prime characters like eating popcorn (Game of Thrones, anyone). I try to make it organic to the situation and not blatant audience manipulation. My current endeavor takes place concurrently with an earlier one and my readers get to see more of what was a minor character in an earlier book, where he got killed. I don’t like to spend a character’s death casually. I want it to serve the greater story sooner or later.

  4. Killing a character was not on my radar when i began writing this book But in this family saga, the need to find common ground and mutual agreement between my two main characters- a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law -was to kill the beloved family member who worked to broker peace between the two women. It forces them to acknowledge their pettiness, division, and jealousy and moves them forward to become real family together.

  5. Sionnach says

    I actually decided not to kill the ‘other man’ in my current romance novel. I wanted to kill him because I didn’t like him and his death would add a touch of realism. I decided against it because there was really no great reason for it—the book already probably has too many realistic touches as it is.

    I did kill a sidekick once to add realism and to shock the MCs out of a stupid argument. The murder was seen through an MC’s POV, and I used my own feelings from when one of my friends was murdered. It hit readers pretty hard, but it’s my highest rated book. I think it and its sequel scene were some of the most powerful things I’ve ever written.

  6. Douglas E Phillips says

    I write sci-fi (8 books so far) designed to be scientific and a pleasure to read. I have never killed a main character. However, I structured my WIP from the beginning to kill the sidekick. Her death transforms the MC and the plot, so I’m fine against your checklist. The thing about sci-fi is that “killing” someone important gets readers wondering if that person is really dead, and in my case the sidekick’s consciousness is indeed rescued (though readers aren’t supposed to know). It’s this secondary life-after-death aspect I’m trying to sell without giving it away when the death occurs. Obi-wan is a good example. When Obi-wan is cut down, Luke (and viewers) really believe he’s dead, and he IS dead. Only later do we learn his spirit still exists within the Force.

  7. Rod Schmidt says

    See also the stage play vs. Frank Oz movie version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” In the stage play, the two main characters are killed by the plant, which then goes on to conquer the world. It’s a logical part of a “failure/bad” horror ending.

    Frank Oz followed that script, but then the test screenings revealed that audiences were horrified. They had fallen in love with the two main characters, and a death in a stage play turns out not to have the same emotional impact as a death in a movie. (And that particular death scene was quite drawn-out.) At great expense, he wrote and shot an alternate, happy ending.

  8. After months of my thinking about the concept of a new story, I start by writing the beginning few chapters (to create the inciting incident) and then the final pages. This may not be a standard approach, but I find that knowing where I am going to end up helps me to develop both the story arc and the character arcs. In my current project, a happily married older MC with kids has a chance encounter that leads to his falling in love with a younger MC. The whole story is about the development of the relationship between these two characters and how their childhood experiences (traumas) have contributed to their being the perfect match for each other. (The older MC’s wife is a minor character who barely appears in the story.) I wanted to avoid ending with the trope of the older MC getting a divorce and the two new lovers living happily ever after. Rather, I tried out having the younger MC die tragically. In the midst of my writing the final two chapters, it took me several tissues to get through the story that poured out onto the page. I thought that if I reacted so deeply, a reader probably would, too. Now I am worried that readers will hate this ending. I am nowhere near to finishing a first draft (i.e., too early for beta readers to review), but should I just bag this ending? I thought I had a perfect ending until I read KM’s post.

  9. I think this statement:
    “character deaths need to be handled with purposefulness and understanding. Otherwise, they can feel both manipulative and even predictable.”
    deserves more thought.
    If you have time I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to avoid those story telling flaws.

  10. I wonder what you would make of my story, where the climax is a school shooting where the protagonist kills 17 people, (wounds 28) before ending his own life.

  11. Larry Keith says

    Death is a natural part of our existence. If a character’s death advanes the plot, I kill him/her. But killing for show is literary terrorism…

  12. I killed a character in my 2nd book. I knew going int that she had to die to further the plot, but what I hadn’t reckoned on was enjoying writing her. The end result, albeit by happy accident, was the death of a “beloved” character. I caught a lot of flak over that, and occasionally still get an upset-reader email/comment, but in the end, my readers get it and still enjoy the book. In fact, I’d wager they remember that character and her death quite well. Tears have a way of doing that.

  13. This is such great advice. I had intended killing off an important character (rather brutally, putting it squarely in the Shocking Readers for the Sake of Shocking Them category). When I went through to restructure the whole story (based on Weiland’s fantastic advice columns on story structure), the death scene didn’t quite work. So I asked myself, “What if I let him live?”

    I ended up finding a whole new use for the character in the story, and found more dimensions to him to explore that I otherwise would have missed out on.

  14. Love a good infographic! And I TOTALLY did a double take at the extraneous character removal (LOL)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.