Well, Valentine’s Day is in the rearview, so it’s time to move on to a less lovey-dovey topic: killing people. Fictional people, of course!
Let’s face it, some of our characters have to die. Sure, we may have spent hours (days, weeks, decades?) shaping them, planning their backstory, filling their hearts with hopes and dreams. But in the end, it just isn’t their time to shine.
That deer crosses the icy road at the wrong time.
The cable hoisting a plate glass window to the third story breaks.
Or the psycho with the ax chooses your character like he’s Pikachu.
But here’s the thing: when it comes to killing, there’s a time and place.
We don’t kill because the scene needs some spice.
We don’t kill because we’ve spotted a plot hole, and killing a character seals it off.
We don’t kill when it’s the easy way out. (Bring on the suffering!)
We don’t randomly kill someone to show readers how bad our baddie is.
And most of all, we don’t kill 1) when the death serves no purpose or 2) if readers aren’t invested in the character. So, make sure the death pushes the story forward in some way and readers have a soft spot for the target (Rue from Hunger Games, for example) before you snuff them out. Emotional currency is king.
I know, I know, you’ve got a sad now, like I smashed your ice cream cone on the ground. So here’s when you can kill:
TO REMOVE YOUR PROTAGONIST’S SUPPORT SYSTEM
Sometimes our characters must hit rock bottom or lose everything before they can find inner strength. Taking away their safety net can trigger devolution or evolution and support their arc’s trajectory.
TO SUPPORT THE STORY’S THEME
Sometimes, there is a cost to holding to a belief or following a certain path, and death may be necessary to fully underscore the weight of the story’s theme. Sometimes, there is no justice. Evil triumphs instead of good. Safety is an illusion. Love means sacrifice, or finding one’s purpose in life may mean surrendering to it. Think about your theme and if this death will support the underlying meaning of the story.
TO SHOW THE COST OF FAILURE
Stakes can be primal, and it needs to be clear to everyone, including readers, when failure means death. If you go this route, invest time into the sacrificial character. Give them goals, needs, and people they would do anything for. Most of all, make readers care about them so their death has impact.
BECAUSE THEY HAD IT COMING
Some people deserve to die. They take risks, fail to heed advice, or are just plain toxic and awful. To show the cause and effect of their actions or provide a satisfying death scene for readers, take the character out in a way that makes sense, is ironic, or rings of poetic justice.
See? Lots of good options for killing. Challenge yourself to make it count so it serves the story in some way.
If you’d like to grab this “When to Kill a Character” checklist to save and print, just go here.
How do you decide when to kill a character? Who was it, and why did you do it?
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.