Have you ever read a book where an important character died, and you felt completely crushed by that death, as though you had lost someone real? Now, have you ever read the death of a character and felt…nothing? The big build-up led to that moment, and you just couldn’t muster anything but indifference?
Killing characters is in vogue these days, but there are good reasons and bad reasons to do it. When characters die in service to the story, the impact can be huge. It can be a moment that your readers will remember forever. When characters die for the wrong reasons, you’ll be lucky if your reader only feels indifference and not outright irritation.
The Wrong Reasons
There are plenty of questionable justifications for charactericide. Let’s start with a few reasons to not kill your characters.
First — to “spice up” the story, or make it more edgy. Some authors assume that adding more sex or violence automatically makes their story more mature. But just because it contains “mature content” doesn’t automatically make it better. In fact gratuitous mature content that’s not integral to the story can easily come off as juvenile.
Second — to show that your villain is evil. Don’t get me wrong, a villain killing key characters as they advance their agenda can be important story beats. The problem is more when murder is used as a substitute for characterization. Does the villain kill for a reason? Do they have a personality beyond “that crazy guy who’s always indiscriminately killing?” If not, you may end up with a dangerous character who still manages to be flat and uninteresting.
Finally — to make your life, as the author, easier. You may find yourself deep in the slog of the second act, absolutely despising one of your characters. Maybe their personality developed in a really annoying way. Maybe they just want to do things that push the story in a direction you don’t want to go. It’s tempting to just “get rid” of them. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. Chances are, that character didn’t get a nice, meaningful arc.
What you really have to do is decide if you want to keep that character at all. Maybe they don’t belong in this particular book. They might need a big personality adjustment. Fix the character, adjust the plot, or pull them out of the story. It’s a bad idea to just knock a character dead in a random spot, even if it might be cathartic for the author.
With those out of the way, let’s talk about some good reasons to kill a character.
An Inciting Incident
At the root of each story is an inciting incident. This is the moment when the protagonist’s world changes. It’s the moment that introduces the major conflict or tension that will drive the story. You can be sure that your protagonist losing someone close to them will turn their world upside down and throw them into conflict.
As a well-worn example, look at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker’s old life is over when his aunt and uncle are killed and his home is burned down by the Empire. He has nothing left to tie him to his former home, and he has a whole new reason to want to fight the Empire, something he was already considering.
This kind of character death isn’t without dangers. To be an effective inciting incident, it has to happen early. That means the reader is still getting to know your protagonist, and they’re very unlikely to have any strong feelings toward the character(s) you’re killing off. They need to see how those deaths hurt your protagonist, but their empathy is naturally going to be limited. Even among crazed Star Wars fans, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who really loves Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Developing a Character
The middle of a story may be the most interesting time to kill off a character. The reader has had a good amount of time to learn about your characters, to understand them, and to empathize with them. The middle of the story is also when you’re deep into the conflicts and tension that drive the story. That dead character is going to leave others behind, and their death can and should influence how the remaining characters move forward.
The death of one character may reveal more about another character who lives. In Ender’s Game, we discover two-thirds of the way through the book that the protagonist has killed two people. We watched him fight those people, but never knew the outcomes. Ender himself isn’t told that he has killed, because the people manipulating him know that the knowledge might destroy him. As readers, we understand that he doesn’t want to be a killer. He hates the very idea. But people around him have learned how to manipulate him into killing, for their own purposes.
Sometimes, death reveals more about a why a character is the way they are. Sometimes, it shows just what they’re willing to do. In the Hellblazer comics, John Constantine watches the people close to him die. People he trusts and loves. He learns that letting people get close is dangerous. It leads to pain. That’s why he does his best to be a sarcastic asshole: so he can hold everyone important at a safe distance — for them, and for himself. But, of course, he doesn’t always succeed. People get close, and suffer the consequences.
John Constantine is a complicated character though. He’s far from the typical goody-two-shoes superhero. In fact, he’s often the anti-hero, and perhaps occasionally the villain. He kills. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for his own selfish reasons. Sometimes because he just doesn’t care. He can be cruel and manipulative as much as he can be soft-hearted.
Sometimes, death can reveal secrets. Perhaps the dead character has been hiding things, and those secrets can only come out once that character is no longer there to protect them. One character killing another may also reveal an animosity that was kept under wraps. In The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, we believe that the protagonist is seeking treasure and riches. It is only when he ends up in a fight to the death with the other major character that his true intentions are revealed. Little bits of carefully parceled back-story take on entirely new meaning as the twist unfolds.
Resolving an Arc
If the middle of the story is the most complicated time to kill a character, the end of the story is probably the simplest, although it’s not without its challenges. The end of the story is when the reader knows the most about your characters. They ‘ve been with them, through thick and thin. They empathize with the good guys, and they’re hoping against hope that the bad guys will lose.
In a traditional tragedy, the hero dies at the end. Their mistakes or failures catch up with them. They may go down swinging, or they may realize the error of their ways. In a more modern take, the hero may save the day, but sacrifice themselves in the process. No matter what leads to their death, it should mean something. Back in our Star-Wars example, Darth Vader is an exemplar of this. He is an important villain throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and only at the very end does he realize his true feelings, saving the day and his son.
Of course, many villains think they’re in the right all the way to the end. They go down swinging. But their death typically ends the main conflict, and often resolves one or more characters’ arcs. These other characters probably have strong feelings about this, to be explored before bringing the story to a close.
When you feel tempted to kill a character, ask what it accomplishes. How does it affect the characters who are left behind? Does it move the story forward?
Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Will they be excited? Heartbroken? Or bored and irritated? It’s surprisingly easy to kill a character. What’s hard is killing them the right way.