As a writer, you bring life to all sorts of characters. You create entire worlds from scratch. You are the god of the universe you create. While exercising god-like powers can feel amazing, it’s tough when you have to kill off a character.
That said, I challenge you to shift your perspective. You’re not killing the character. Instead, your character is subjected to the rules of the universe you’ve created. A character’s death, when done right, makes sense if viewed in light of the rest of the world you’ve created, even if the initial jolt of surprise and grief is hard to deal with for the reader.
Spoiler alert. In the masterful novel A Fine Balance, author Rohinton Mistry presents in his world the two ever-present forces of hope and hopelessness that vie for dominance. As the title suggests, the reader must find a balance between the two forces. Mistry uses the death of a beloved character to convey the brutality and despair that exists in his world. While the death was shocking, it was, in retrospect, an inevitable response. And without that death, the reader would not have felt on a visceral level the depth of despair that the author wanted to communicate. It’s at that moment that the reader must find their own sense of balance. End of spoiler.
While death is never fun (except for superhero villains), death can have meaning. In fact, death should always have meaning in your storytelling. Killing off characters as you would in a video game won’t earn the respect of your readers. Each death should not only have a purpose but it should move the story forward. It should also cause the reader to pause and consider how the death will impact the surviving characters and the story at large.
Just like in real life, characters will die. And they’ll die in natural response to the world you’ve created. However, the way that you frame their death will make a significant impact on how the reader understands your story as a whole.
Check out these tips on building a thought-provoking theme for your story.
So how do you kill off your character in the right way, for maximum impact? And how do you do it in a way that makes sense within the context of the world you’ve created?
How Character Deaths Happen
While there may be times when you plan a death, the death might also happen as you write the story.
Writing a novel is a unique experience because sometimes it feels like you're not driving the story, but rather the characters you've created are making their own moves and you’re simply recording what they’re doing. And sometimes, the moves your characters make lead to death. When death happens, it can be shocking—even for you. Although it’s tempting, resist the urge to prevent the death of your characters unless it plays into your overall storytelling. Here’s why:
The Benefits of Killing a Character
Killing characters is never easy, but it's often necessary. A character's death can jumpstart a story, force the protagonist into action, and create new consequences that drive the plot forward.
Some deaths may not be difficult to write. For example, the natural death of an aging grandmother may be sad but understandable. However, the murder or accidental death of a major character may cause you to pause. Here are the reasons why you should not interfere if your story is naturally moving towards the death of a character.
Note that killing off your character is synonymous with letting them die and not reviving them.
Explore the Theme - If despair, hopelessness, or the like is a theme in your novel, you can use the death of a character to echo your story's main philosophy.
Push the Characters to Act - Death demands a response. When well-developed, the characters cannot see death and have no response. You can use death to force your characters to make a choice.
Engage the Reader - We've all grieved the death of a fictional character, and sometimes that grief never goes away. That is often a testament to how well the story is written. Imagine writing a death that haunts your readers for the rest of their lives. That's darn good storytelling.
Inject Reality - Death is a part of life, and sometimes, to tell the whole picture, you must discuss death. The story will become more relatable because your readers have all experienced death in some way.
Raise the Stakes - Death makes everything more serious. It raises the level of tension. It removes the comfort. It forces a response.
On the flip side, there’s also a reason why you shouldn't kill a character.
Don't kill a character just because you want them to die. Yes, you may be the god of your created universe, but that doesn't mean that you should impose your will capriciously. It's always better for the reader if there's a sense of fairness and predictability to the world you've created, even if they can only recognize the death's inevitability in retrospect. Tie any death back to your theme, as artificially killing characters could annoy your readers.
Also, don't kill off characters just because you can't figure out what to do with them. That's not a satisfying conclusion to their arc. Instead of killing them off, figure out if the character belongs in your story at all or if their core functions can be merged into another character in your story.
Finally, don't kill off a character simply because you think that's what the reader wants. The reader may, in fact, wish death upon that character. But, when it comes, the character’s death is hollow because it doesn't feel true to the story or the world you've created. Not all villains die. If they do die, it should serve the greater good of your story.
How to Kill Off Your Characters
Let’s explore how to kill off characters the right way.
Assign Meaning to the Death
If you want the death to be meaningful to the reader, you must first give the death a meaning. Even so-called senseless deaths point to a larger theme, such as human depravity or the desperation of hopelessness. Consider what you want the reader to take from the character's death.
Even though you may understand the character's death in context to your theme, don't point it out to the reader. Allow the reader to discover it as a treasure.
Foreshadow the Death
Even if the character’s death surprises you when you first write it, there’s always an opportunity to add foreshadowing to the death in a future draft.
Foreshadowing creates tension in your story. But foreshadowing the death is not a spoiler because, until it happens, the character’s demise was not inevitable. It only becomes inevitable once the character dies and the reader has a chance to reflect on how the death was possible. The reader can then see how the character's death was the natural conclusion to their arc.
Explore the Aftermath
Once a character dies, it will inevitably affect the rest of the characters. Don't shy away from this opportunity to develop your protagonist and highlight their internal conflict(s).
The reader becomes invested when you focus on character development. Any death will impact the reader, especially as they view the character's death from the perspective of the other characters. Allow the other characters to mourn or in some way react to the death of a character.
Death happens as a natural course of life, and it will in your story, too. Killing off your characters means allowing your story to unfold organically and not preventing the demise of any character, even your darlings. It takes courage to write an uncomfortable story. But when you do, you create a stronger impression on your readers.