How to Kill Off a Character


I just finished reading Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Brilliant book; light reading and highly entertaining. The story follows a modern day novelist who travels across the globe with each new book she writes, living in each location until the story is done. At the start of this newest book, she finds herself in Scotland to tell the tale of an invasion. At first, she’s intent on writing from the perspective of one colonel, but finds he won’t work with her. <Spoilers to end of paragraph> So she invents a female character—or at least she thinks she does. As the story goes on, she quickly realizes she’s not telling a fictional story, but one her ancestor actually lived, and the facts she’s pulling from her “collective memory” are being proven after the fact by books and records. The novelist is walking through the same buildings her ancestor did, albeit they’re in ruin now. She’s looking at the same coast line, the waves washing in and out on the warm sands. But I digress. The book earned 5 stars from me because in the end, I was satisfied. But long about 90%, I was in tears. Why? Because she killed off the hero, Moray.

Killing off a character is an art in and of itself. When done wrong, it looks lazy and cheesy. It drives readers up the wall and trashes the rest of the story, no matter how brilliant it was.

  • Let the death be what the character deserves

If the character was well liked and had a strong moral compass, then let him die nobly in a fashion that reflects his life. On the other hand, there are characters you and I will never like, and we’re relieved when they’re gone.

  • Do not write in an extra character with the sole intent of killing him/her off

Readers will recognize it from a mile away, usually because the writer fails to develop the character the same way as the others.

  • Don’t underestimate the character’s importance within the story

If your readers are going to develop an emotional or personal connection to a character, even one who doesn’t serve much purpose plot-wise, you’re going to lose readers by killing her off. There’s nothing worse than writing the death scene and twenty pages later realizing you still need her to maintain reader interest.

  • Remember the genre

Newly created vampires might have found new life, but other characters shouldn’t be so lucky. You wouldn’t want to kill off the hero in a romance novel, would you? Unless resurrection is a plot point, avoid writing it in just for the sake of it.

  • Decide the level of emotional impact

Foreshadowing is a great tool if you know—and you want your readers to know—a death is coming. But if you want his final moment to pack a punch, keep the details to yourself until the last minute. Keep in mind though, that while you might be tempted to swing toward strong emotional response, that you don’t want to traumatize your readers too much. You want them to continue the story.

  • Continue the story

Don’t end with the death, unless it is an intended cliffy for another story. Offer a kind of closure through continuing for both the characters and the readers.

  • Avoid cliché deaths

Like getting shot or stabbed in the back. Those are straightforward and unimaginative. Give the character an uphill fight, and see how well she reacts. Some will be noble and fight to their dying breath; others might try to run.

  • Don’t kill off the character because you don’t know what happens next

Like writing in an extra character with the sole purpose of killing him off, don’t off someone for no reason. Just because your hero is stuck between a rock and a hard place and you’re having writer’s block doesn’t mean it’s the end.

  • People die in real life, so why not in stories too?

Because we read novels for escape from real life, that’s why. There’s a fine line between grounding your story in real life concepts and ensuring your readers know they’re still journeying through a fictional world.

  • The s/he-didn’t-really-die plot is overworked

Period. Do not use it.

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8 Comments

  1. In my earliest writings, I had a hard-and-fast “nobody gets to die!” rule. Such grim proceedings made me sad and, as you pointed out, books aren’t real life, so death ought to be pretty easily avoided.
    Since then, the rules have changed, and I’ve killed a goodly number of characters. Some get to come back. (It is fantasy, after all.) Some are gone for good. (Which, for one thing, is good for an author’s overall death cred. Readers will stop taking your fatalities seriously if nobody ever stays dead.) It’s always done with care as to my motivation for killing them (do I have at least two decent reasons for wanting them dead?) and how the death is portrayed (your “the death your character deserves” and “level of emotional impact” points are key).
    Death in fiction can be devastatingly effective, if the author puts in the work to make it so.

    1. You make an excellent point, about death being devastatingly effective when done well, and I would also add sparsely. You do want to maintain your “death cred” as you called it (brilliant term, BTW!). Thanks for sharing how your writing has changed. It’s always fascinating for me to see how others progress in their own styles and understandings.

  2. This was a great post and I’m glad I came across it. I currently wrote a death into my story, and though I do honestly believe it deserves to be in where is and for the reasons that it is there, your post reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do to set the death up properly.

    Thank you very much for putting this together. I will need to come back during my revision process.

    1. Glad the post help. 🙂 It’s good that you know the death needs to be there, because many times such a drastic turn of events is hard to nail down. Be careful, but run with it.

  3. I’d add don’t kill off a character because he’s taken over your plot. Rewrite and push him to the background instead, or give him his own book.I hate it when an author kills a loveable secondary character just because she couldn’t control him any other way.

  4. Cool post, Whitney. I killed off a major character in the book I wrote and I had to think about it while I went through each of these points. I’m not sure I can honestly say that I followed these. Was I wrong to do it? I’ll have to think about it now. Thanks for the post!

    1. Killing off a main character is gutsy Dan! I certainly don’t think I have the skill to pull it off at this point, though I have tried in the past. I’ll just have to read the story and let you know if that death was a mistake or not. :p

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