By now I hope you know I’m talking about fictional people. If not, go turn yourself in, you sociopath.
Writers are a disturbing group of people, especially from an outsider’s perspective. Imagine if you will what murder looks like from the viewpoint of a non-writer. The writer stares deadpan at the screen as the keys clack to a rhythm coinciding with the thoughts in their head. With the same face one might write a casual email, the writer is gruesomely disemboweling her character. She pauses, not in remorse, but to take a sip of coffee. Not that some authors don’t cry all the tears as they kill off a character. Others laugh even.
Almost every book has a death scene. I can’t think of the last book I’ve read where no one died, unless you count the books I read to my kid.
So while you’re planning how you’re going to do it, you should probably decide if you should. For those of you sharpening your proverbial knives, here’s Murder 101.
To Kill or Not to Kill?
The death of a character should be premeditated and not a random decision. I believe it should be the result of the character’s actions or because of their fatal flaw or greatest attribute, not because you think it would be cool to kill them.
Consider Ned Stark. His death is one of the least random and best planned deaths in A Game of Thrones. I’m not finished with the series yet, but sometimes I think people just die to be dead. He just offs them because they became inconvenient to the plot or because he doesn’t know how to finish their arcs or because he just wants to prove to his readers he’s a stone-hearted bad-ass. I don’t know.
So how do you know whether or not to kill your character?
Do it for the epicness. OK, that’s not a word, but that is the word that comes to my mind when I read a story where a character has a well-planned death.
How do you achieve epicness? Consider the why and why nots of Murder 101.
To Advance the Plot: Does the death serve the plot. Did a character grow from it? Did events occur as a result of it? Did it affect the other characters? e.g., Ned Stark. Yes, characters were affected. Yes, plot happened as a result. Yes, characters grew from it. Look at Arya. Look at Robb? (speaking of a death that may or may not have a purpose)
Not for Shock Value: This is never a good reason to kill a character. I mean NEVER. Any desired emotional effect will wear off once the reader realizes what you’ve done. Picking on George again, I believe the Red Wedding was all for shock value. I could think of a hundred ways to kill Robb better than that. And did he need to die? Was he just becoming too powerful? Too boring? Why, George? I’ll give him credit for this much, Robb’s death was the result of his own actions, not random. But that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
To Fulfill a Character’s Goal or Purpose: The character performs a function in the story. Sometimes closing off the character’s arc with death invalidates his or her purpose. Ask yourself, did they exact their purpose because of or in despite of their death? e.g., Shane from The Walking Dead. While the love triangle served little purpose other than for drama sake, Shane’s death was pivitol to the plot. The character Shane had to have a purpose other than to create rifts and tension in the group. His purpose was to test Rick. Note his character always disagreed with Rick. If Rick said fly, he’d say swim. In season two, Rick is facing a moral dilemma: Kill or not kill a living person. Naturally Shane is for it, while Rick has some reservations. The decision is made for him when Shane ambushes Rick in the woods, forcing Rick to make the decision, not on the gang member, but on Shane.
Probably the greatest example of this, however, has to be from “A Tale of Two Cities.” What was the purpose of Syndey Carton, the man who dies for Charles Darnay? Why, to find purpose of course. The character detest and sacrifices himself for Charles because Charles has the life he could have had and a purpose. He realizes he has no purpose other than to save a man who does. As a result, Sydney has a purpose. Still my fav literary death.
Not for Sadistic Pleasure: I’m pretty sure some writers get a disturbing pleasure from killing their characters. I’ve heard the term pain perve used in fanfiction before. Probably not a good reason to kill your character.
To Create Realism: I’ve read so many books where a trio or small group goes on an adventure where they fight against insurmountable odds . . . and no one dies. This kills suspense. At what point do you worry about the characters? You might want to invent some redshirts.
Not Because you Don’t Know What to Do Next: Filling in the gaps between your plot wth senseless death will be just that: senseless. Likewise, if you have a character you don’t know what to do with, chances are they should not be in your story
For Symbolism: This works best when the death is an animal. Animal deaths often symbolize something. The death of a bird can symbolize hopelessness, loss of freedom, or loss of innocence. In one semester of college, I read three books in a row where the authors killed cats. Killing cats seems to be a popular tool with writers (sadistic bastards). The plot device was always lost on me. The result: My class rebelled against our teacher, refusing to read any more books containing cat death. I also threw “Kafka on the Shore” against a wall,and refused to read one more page.
When to Kill
I’m not referring to the time of day. Night or day, it doesn’t matter. I’m referring to the beginning, middle, or end of your book.
Beginning: this usually works best if the character who dies is NOT a main character but a character whose death motivates the protagonist (therefore moving the plot). e.g., Uncle Ben in Spiderman.
Middle: This works best with a side character. Perhaps their death is the consequence of the protagonist’s actions or their own. Maybe they die just as the character was losing hope and refuel their will to carry out their purpose.
End: Main character death. I caution against killing off a main character unless you have to. This can also be a side character. e.g., Boromir in The Lord of the RIngs. His death proves the power and the danger of the one ring.
I don’t mean whips or chains, I mean how. Don’t be sadistic. be realistic. Has your character survived everything just to be taken down by a fly, a stumble, or a tiny net?
Some of you might point out, Drogo died of an infection. Does this cheat the reader? Arguably no, it’s payoff for foreshadowing. He has a long braid because he has never been defeated by any warrior. Technically he is and isn’t killed in a fight. He defeats his opponent, only to die of infection.
You want your character’s death to be a result of their actions, not a random flu. Using Ned Stark again. He is brought down by his greatest flaw/greatest attribute: his honor. It doesn’t matter that he was beheaded. He could have been poisoned and the result would be the same.
There really isn’t a set number. Just ask yourself the why/why not questions. Does the death help/hurt the plot?
George R.R. Martin is obviously building quite the body pile, but can he beat Shakespeare?
How to Create the Feels
The best death scene in the world won’t elicit a tear unless you do several things leading up to the death. I’ve read so many books where a character dies and all the characters make such a stink, but I don’t care. I wasn’t invested. Readers want to feel. They even want to feel sad. We like our heart-strings pulled. So how do you make sure your readers cry, full-bodied, blubbery tears?
Make sure you let your readers get to know them.
Build suspense leading up to their deaths. Think of the dramatic, foreboding music before a death scene in a movie. Oh no, something bad is going to happen.
Follow through. Once the character is dead, do your characters move on right away. How can your reader react if they don’t?
Beware False Deaths
Sometimes characters die and don’t stay dead, e.g.,Gandalf, Harry Potter, Kenny Mckormick. These characters legit die and come back to life. This is not an uncommon thing in fantasy; however, It’s not my favorite gimmick, and it can leave readers feeling cheated. After all, it’s a major cop-out. My advice is make sure your character is returning for a purpose, not because you missed them or felt bad about killing them. If it serves the plot, kill them and let them stay dead.
The biggest cop-out is the false death. No, I’m not talking about when a character is only mostly dead. I mean they never died. They were just perceived to be dead. This is a gimmick not to be overused.
At best your reader will be surprised and relieved when their favorite character or the villain returns after everyone thought they were defeated. At worst, they will feel lied to and cheated.
Never try to trick your readers into thinking a main character had died by making them black out. Your reader will be ticked when they wake up in the next chapter.
Never have your character die only to reveal it was a dream.
I think false deaths work best for villains. Let the character celebrate their victory only to realize the fight is not won. Again, don’t overuse.
I hope you enjoyed Murder 101. If you remember nothing else, just don’t forget it’s about your reader. They have invested emotionally in a character. Make sure it’s worth it. I got punched in the rib for killing a character once. True story. That either means I did something wrong or right.
Let’s here from you. What’s your body count? Do you cry when your characters die? Did your readers cry?