How to kill off a character

I posted this several years ago on a forum I used to frequent and have now updated it for your viewing pleasure.

Killing a character can make or break some stories. While subjective to different kinds of writing, it’s a good idea to have the death mean something and the death to match the character. If the death doesn’t match the character then the reader should be able to see why. I’ll touch on this later.

While I’m not going to go much into character development at this time, it’s important to recognize how much this affects killing a character. Some questions to ask yourself: How important is this character? How will their death affect the other characters? Does this character’s death further the plot in any way? What does it say about the protagonist/antagonist when they kill someone? Is this the right time to kill this character?

Your character cast is extremely important and more and more books, movies, and TV shows are becoming more character driven than plot driven, Breaking Bad for example. It is important to remember the death of a certain character shouldn’t be expected, but not too unexpected it doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s look at the Walking Dead for a moment. It’s pretty obvious these characters are going to be facing death on a near day-to-day basis trying to survive a zombie apocalypse (expected), but many of the major players are killed, to the surprise of the audience (unexpected). Once a major character is removed, the group dynamic changes more and more.

Consider this:

Your group setup consists of three characters that excel in everything they do and few experiences that differentiate them from each other. These are your group leaders. Next you have two characters that are pretty average in their skills. They teeter between dominant and submissive personalities. Finally you have a few characters that don’t pull their weight, have nothing constructive to say, not very well liked, and you don’t expect much from them in the story.

It’s totally okay if one leader dies because you have two other people exactly the same. Nobody is going to miss the lower-tier characters because they are useless or their skills don’t measure up to the others.

Let’s try something different:

Joe: Has book and street smarts, ex-military, a skilled fighter, and usually only does things for himself.
Nathan: A gentle giant, he likes everything simple and wants everyone to get along. Has a hard time understanding why people don’t care about each other.
Kate: More educated in academics than Joe, but lacking in knowledge of the world and its cultures. Kate fights for the better of everyone even though some innocent people may get hurt.
Nina: A skilled chemist with a desire for revenge on the criminals who killed her family.
Oscar: Once a top leader in the criminal world, he seeks to atone for his mistakes. He has a thorough understanding of the black market and corrupt members of society.

With this group it’s a bit harder to see which one may be more likely to die than the others, because each brings a unique trait or skill to the group.

Maybe Oscar will die. I mean he was after all a bad guy once. Err, wait, his knowledge on the criminal world is really important to everyone else. If Oscar were to die Joe might be able to pick up the slack, but he wouldn’t have Oscar’s connections.

Let’s say Oscar and Kate have a thing for each other and Kate dies. Will Oscar change somewhat and follow Kate’s dream of a better tomorrow for her? Or will her death turn him back to the dark side? What if Oscar finds out he’s responsible for the death of Nina’s family and feels he must protect her, but she ends up dying? Nathan’s love for everyone might help Joe be more compassionate and willing to help others, how would Joe react if Nathan died? Would he harden his heart again? Think about it.

Killing a minor character:

This goes back to the death matching the character. Don’t take several sentences to describe his death, he’s not important, nobody cares about him. A nice, “Piercing his skull like a miniature bomb, the photon bullet caused it to explode” usually works. It doesn’t need to be uber detailed; the reader shouldn’t focus on a random person that only gets a sentence or two telling he’s there.

Killing a major character:

These are without a doubt the most important characters, whether good or evil, antagonist or protagonist, these are the ones your readers have grown to love or hate. A memorable death is expected and you need to deliver.

Let’s say a main character is killed in a battle and remember their comrades do not have time to mourn for them at the moment. It would be really dumb if the scene was like:

“Noooooooo!” Sparky ran toward his dad, “Dad! NOOOOOOO—-” Sparky got his head cut off LOL!

People need to keep fighting! So while the actual death might only be a few moments the entire scene must last long enough for the other characters to mourn. None of this, “and he died, then his friends were sad but kept fighting.”

An example that might work for this type of situation: It seemed to take an age for him to fall . . . all eyes of those who loved him were upon his body; once it hit the ground that sound thereof shattered even the harshest cries of the battlefield. Those who loved him knew they could not mourn now as their duty was to keep fighting till the battle was over. And if they won, oh how they would remember him! Should they fall before their mission was over, happy day, for they would be with him again!

Using your environment:

I have a special fondness for lyrical and otherworldly scenes. I use them both quite a bit and they are probably one of the best ways to describe someone dying in an eerie environment.

Example one: The cold breeze swept up the fog toward the girl when she fell as if to grab her body and soul. The crows cawed and flew overhead only to rest in the dead branches of trees, jeering as the spirit of death enveloped the child.

Example two: With arms outstretched she sunk into the black water below; the tears of her friends above striking the water as a rainstorm. Their wails added to the wind’s howling aria, which grew louder as the pale face below them started to vanish. The black hair of the deceased seemed to dance in the movement of the water as the monster pulled her downward.

Bringing back a character that has died:

If you kill off a character and you plan on bringing them back, without the use of magic or divine powers, keep their death mysterious, where the characters in the story and the reader do not know if that character actually died or not. This will help avoid plot inconsistencies or “WHAT?!” moments for the reader.

Let’s say you aren’t using anything supernatural to restore a character’s life and the deceased had been ripped apart and eaten in front of his friends. Suddenly, this dead guy shows up and he’s all, “Hey guys, just needed a good night’s sleep, lol.” As a reader, I’d be offended. You can’t just throw people back into the land of the living without a seriously good reason and one that is consistent with the kind of world you have established.

One of my biggest frustrations with storytelling, whether it is in a show or a book, is when a dead character is continually brought back.

You don’t want the reader to think, “All right, this guy has died before, came back, died again, and then came back. So if he does die again he’ll come back!” This causes the reader to lose emotion for the character and the death will not mean as much to them anymore.

My advice: If you kill someone and bring them back, let them live or if you kill them again let them stay dead.

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2 thoughts on “How to kill off a character

  1. Very well-thought out! It kind of annoys me in media like LoTR or PoTC where there’s a thin explanation as to why main characters return from the grave, other than that they’re relevant to the plot. If anything, some foreshadowing would help (i.e. “you can get ankhs of reincarnation for 30 Dogecoins on ebay, bro!”).

  2. Pingback: How to make Your Reader Care About Your Character #3 | Jennifer M Eaton

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