Character death is a common event in a myriad of fiction. Whether it’s a main or minor character, characters often die. Character death is a very powerful writing tool, but it’s not the only one. As with anything in writing, you need to consider the reasons behind the event and figure out if they’re good or bad reasons.
It’s not bad to have characters die in your story, but it has to be done well. It has to make sense. Death is a reality in real life as well. Most of us will probably experience a death of someone close to us at some point in our lifetimes. In our world, it’s pretty random, and depending on your personal beliefs, without reason or meaning. In storytelling it’s different, a character death can be tragic as it is in real life, but it has to happen for a reason and have bearing on the story.
In this post, I’ll try and cover the dos and don’ts of killing characters.
There will be some spoilers here for: Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and Titanic.
Do not kill a character unless you absolutely have to for the narrative.
Character deaths can have a huge emotional impact, but don’t put it in or the sake of putting it in. Character death should not solely be used to make your story more “sad” and “tragic”. It should be the logical conclusion to the events that happened before. Don’t make it random, and only do it if you have to. Do not do it just to shock readers for the sake of shocking them. Have it make sense.
- Has this character finished their arc? If they didn’t do anything to advance the plot to begin with, they may not belong in the story at all.
- Why does this character have to die? Is it the only way for the plot to move forward?
- Does the death make sense in the story? Does it tie into the overall theme? Did the character make a fatal mistake (whether they knew it or not) that ultimately led to their downfall?
Sacrifice does not have to equal dying.
It’s a common theme that a character might sacrifice themselves to save someone else. While this can be powerful and is executed well very often, keep in mind that it has to be in line with the character’s development. Remember, death is final. It’s likely that any rational person will try to get out of sacrificing themselves by attempting to find another way out before resorting to sacrificing themselves. Even Jesus, in the Bible, begged God for another way out that didn’t mean he’d have to be tortured and die. Jack only stayed in the water in Titanic because there was no room for him on the wooden platform, and nowhere else for him to go.
- Is this character the type of person who would willingly sacrifice themselves for a character or cause? A soldier in your story who has willingly volunteered to put their life on the line for a person or cause is going to be more likely to “accept” this end, so to speak, than a character who has spent their entire arc trying to stay safe or protect themselves. If the character moves from a coward to someone who will put their life on the line in this way, there should be a progression to that.
- There are plenty of ways people can sacrifice for a person or cause that aren’t dying. This ties in with the “only if you absolutely have to” point. A friend of mine is married to a woman in the military, and he put his career on hold for hers. (That’s not a judgement, he’s very happy and made his choice willingly.) My point is that before killing a character, think of what else they can sacrifice that isn’t their life: A career, a passion, family, friends, love, etc. Something very close to them and is difficult to part with.
- Why does this character make the sacrifice? Is it to save the world? A person? To keep a secret safe? A necessity to solve a greater problem? Duty? To save the people they love? It needs to be something deeply personal to them, something they hold very dear.
Death needs to have an impact on the characters.
I’m not talking about “[Character name] was so brave, I’ll always remember him/her.” I’m talking grief, guilt, rage, sorrow, helplessness. Someone who was close to the dead character shouldn’t just accept what happened to them, unless it’s been stated that they are that type of person. It should have a deep impact on them. When Sirius died in Harry Potter, Harry struggled for an entire book (and beyond) over it.
- How do the other characters change? Is a once optimistic character now pessimistic? Is a character consumed with thoughts of vengeance and bloodlust? Are they even more protective of their other loved ones? Do they never speak of that person again because it’s too painful? Is all their hope gone? Do they give up their cause or mission? Rose in Titanic changed her name and spent her life doing everything that Jack wanted her to do (adventure, get married, die an old lady, etc.)
- Did the other characters witness the death? Did they see the body? Or did they just hear about it? As a result, do they have nightmares? Are they in a location that means they’re powerless to do anything about it?
- What direction do the characters take moving forward? In Lord of the Rings, Boromir loses faith in the mission after Gandalf dies. The entire group has to rework a plan to go forward. What do the characters have to do now that the dead character is gone?
What led to the death?
So your character has to die. As a reader, I want to know how it got that way. Like I said before, it should be a “no other way out” situation.
- Did your character make a series of mistakes that led to this end? Was it a risk they knowingly took or not? Robb Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire is a good example. He crossed the wrong people at the wrong time.
- Did another character make a choice that led to this end? A risk they knew or not?
- Did another character lead them to a location or ask them to a task? Did they know there was a significant risk in doing so? Do they carry guilt for it after the fact?
- Was this character explicitly targeted? Why? Did they know too much? Did they betray someone? Did they do this knowing the risks? What did they do to try and hide or avoid it?
Some deaths are senseless. They happen out of nowhere because of accidents or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this fits your theme, then it can work.
- Characters we aren’t emotionally invested in. If one of your themes is to show the horrors of war, you can show that by showing what happens to others that aren’t necessarily important to the narrative. For example, one of your characters is passing through a town that has been burned to the ground and there are bodies everywhere. Even though I wasn’t emotionally attached to the people, I can still see the horror in that and how it impacts your character.
- Emotional impact, again. If a character’s death is “senseless” in that it was perhaps avoidable or an accident, I should still care. How does this impact the living characters going forward? How do they react?
- Make it fit your narrative. If senseless death is in line with your theme or part of your story, you can use a character’s death to show that. Make sure that is the reason you’re doing it, not to just shock or make people sad.
- Upping the stakes. Perhaps this was, at first, a story of happy wanderers adventuring about the land, but the big bad kills a friend of another character. This ups the stakes and makes the story much more “serious” or “dark” than the reader or the characters previously realized. The death can serve as a catalyst for the story.
Resurrections or “Surprise! I didn’t die!”
This is another common theme and it can be done really well. They key is execution.
For resurrections consider:
- Make it possible. Establish that it’s possible in this world. Maybe there are legends or folk tales of it being possible. Maybe there’s an “insane” character who is obsessed with the idea. Maybe a minor character gets resurrected by some unknown mysterious power. Otherwise, it feels like a cheap cop out. There was no point in killing the character and having them come back unless you’ve already established that it’s possible.
- Make them change. Do they lose their memories? Are they more powerful or angelic than ever? Do they lose some touch with reality? Do they lose some parts of themselves (personality, values, morality, empathy, etc.)? Death is very final, and there should be some consequence or change that occurs with coming back.
- Make it difficult. Make it rare. It should not be common, because, again it becomes cheap. Use it on for a major character, and only if you have to. It should not be so easy as “bippity-boppity-boo you’re back!” it should be difficult. Tie it to a specific place, time (a comet flying over every 1000 years or something), or ancient ritual that is almost forgotten. It should not be easy or convenient.
- Only bring them back if it serves the story. Again “only if you have to”. If you’re bringing back a character just to bring back a character you like, don’t do it. If it serves the story/plot/characters, then execute it well.
- Aftermath. Does the general populace know about this resurrection? Is the character considered a deity because of this? Are they considered a freak or unnatural? How do their loved ones feel? Do they follow them more because of the miracle? Or are they freaked out by it? How is the story impacted by the event?
For “I’m not dead yet.” consider:
- How has the character changed? Are they traumatized or disabled because of their almost death? Have their goals changed because of their near death experience? Have they lost memories? What do they want now that they happened to survive? Did they try to get back to the other characters or did they want to stay out of it?
- How long have they been away? Bring them back into the fold too soon, and the memory is too fresh. Too late, and I no longer care or get confused. Make them come in at a moment that fits and genuinely surprises the reader. Not too quick, but not at the last minute.
- What were they doing while gone? Were they working undercover? Were they on some other missions? Did they fake their death on purpose? Are they somehow unable to get back to the other characters until a specific time and place? Don’t have them just aimlessly wandering around, unless one of your characters happens to find them and they’re nothing like they were before.
Good reasons and impact.
- Getting rid of a character who has completed their arc. Don’t add characters just to kill them. Robb Stark played a very important role in the story before he was killed off, make sure the character who is dying has the same. Flesh them out and develop them.
- Make me care. I’m going to care less if the protagonist’s best friend dies on the first page. I’ll care more if I get to know this character and then they’re gone. Unless the death at the beginning is what motivates the character (or part of what motivates them), make me care about them before killing them.
- Showing me the greater threat. In the A Song of Ice and Fire prologue in A Game of Thrones. We meet 3 characters that we do not know. Two out of three die in that prologue at the hands of ice demons (“The Others” or “White Walkers” to be exact). Even though I knew very little of these characters, I am intrigued because their killers are shown as a greater threat in the scheme of the larger story.
- Slapping the characters with reality. Good guys die. A bunch of the characters might have invested in this character, and that character lost. This forces the other characters to rework or give up.
- Kill characters I care about. Don’t just kill off the side characters. Kill off important characters, good characters, the ones I love. This keeps me turning the pages.
Character deaths are an incredibly useful tool, but make sure you do them for good reasons. For more, here are some resources on how to do them well and help you know when to do it and when not to: