How to kill your character – the right way #amwriting #writing

If you are thinking about killing a character, it’s important to get it right.

I will talk in a moment about the rules for killing a character, but to put this in context I am going to talk about my current WIP. I have killed a few people in my book, not a lot, but I have killed a few.

I was pretty happy with my first deaths (hmm…maybe happy isn’t the word I’m looking for?) and felt I had ticked the ‘can I kill them’ check box. But when it came to a later death, I knew they had to go, keeping them alive would have been, to be honest, not very believable. So, I had ticked the ‘can I kill them’ check box, but this time it just did not feel right.

I knew they had to go…

I wrote the chapter, and I moved on…

But I felt something was wrong…

I realised I had missed a vital step…

I had not completed the after killing step. I had not dedicated book time for my other characters to react…

In my defence a) it was the first cut of my draft and everything was pretty scrappy b) it was the busy part of the book where everything is going crazy and the characters barely get time to breathe, let alone grieve. They had to pick themselves up and get back on with saving the world…but even here…and even when the sh*t is going down…you still feel.

The post killing character step is the most obvious, but least talked about part. We often focus on whether it is right to kill a character, but neglect to mention how important it is to dedicate time in the story to show how their death impacts everyone else.

For my earlier character deaths, I dedicated time, and in one instance much of the next chapter, to the characters reaction to the death. In these cases the death was part of the plot and set up the rest of the book. When it came to the later character death though, the book was close to the end. In this case it wasn’t so much about moving the plot, although it did impact the plot in some way, it was more about keeping the story realistic. There also wasn’t time, nor would it be right, to dedicate a large block for reflection–it would have slowed the pace right down. Once I realised what was missing, it was surprisingly easy to address the missing piece, and after it was done the whole chapter felt right.

There is a lot to be said for ‘gut feelings’ when it comes to writing, and it applies to many situations, not just killing a character off. If a section of the book feels wrong it probably is wrong, and you need to explore how to make it right.

This post-death reflection time applies equally to killing any character, whether they are loved, loathed or supporting. If you are going to kill them, it has to be for a reason, and it has to be acknowledged by our other characters if we are to make our story realistic. Not every character will react to death in the same way, nor in a stereotypical way, and it is important that their reaction compliments their profile.

How our characters handle death can even define them.

So, let’s finish off with the – how to kill your character right check list.

  • It drives an essential change in another character
  • It advances the plot
  • It adds realism to the story
  • It is a fitting punishment for their crime

Bonus check list

  • You are writing a murder mystery
  • Your name is George R. R. Martin

When not to kill a character

  • If it does not meet at least one of the above
  • To get a reaction from your reader (sadness or shock)

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on killing a character.

Happy writing 🙂

14 thoughts on “How to kill your character – the right way #amwriting #writing

  1. I reached a point in my blog story where there were various characters that were causing complications in the long run.

    So, I ended up dedicating an entire Arc or so to these characters meeting gruesome ends at the hands of the antagonist. (I suppose the realism part can be pardoned, given who (or what) the antagonist is.)

    Basically, I had fallen victim to the dreaded Plot Reaper. Some characters would cause problems later on if left alone, and therefore had to die.

    I try to excuse each time a death happens with ‘they were bad people, anyway’ (as disproportionate as said deaths may be), because, well, they were bad people.

    And the first death more or less starts a domino effect that ends with a tragic downer. (there’s a death, but not in the traditional ‘it was a person’ way. It’s more symbolic)

    So I’d say the deaths had a definite effect on the characters left alive, and on the plot itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good points, Georgina. I’m popped out of the reality of a story if the characters’ reactions to a death are missing. (As an ex-grief counselor, I’m particularly sensitive to this oversight). The good news is that there are tons of different reactions, and they don’t need to take pages and pages of text. They only have to be there and feel real.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First off, I really agree with the “gut feeling” test. If a section feels wrong, you’ve got to figure out why.

    You do have to be careful with the “It drives an essential change in another character” idea, though. There’s quite a tradition in comic books, for example, of female characters being killed (or raped or something else) mostly to make the male main characters feel and react in certain ways.

    Each incident can be perfectly defensible, but the overall pattern can get to be really creepy.

    And, yes, the death has to affect the other characters — in the appropriate ways and at the appropriate time. This was handled very well in the movie Serenity, for example. The grieving had to wait — because of the imminent threat of more death — but the effect was obvious right away.

    Another place it was handled well — though nobody ever mentions this — was the TV show Twin Peaks. David Lynch is far from a warm and empathetic director, but Laura Palmer’s death, in the first episode, affected characters in unexpected ways for weeks afterwards. It was very well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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