by Ellen Buikema
The death of a popular character has caused more than one angry fan to send email to the author and unfavorable reviews to chat groups and review sites. So, when you absolutely must cause a character’s demise, how do you do that without enraging your readers?
When and how you choose to kill off a character can make or break a story. It’s quite difficult for authors. The characters are very real. Permanently dispatching them is a bit like purposefully ridding oneself of an ally.
Characters should be killed off when the purpose of their demise will be the most impactful. Death may occur near the story’s end such as in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, once we really feel for the victim. Or, like in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where deaths frequently happen with no warning, establishing the theme that the characters are never safe.
Nothing aggravates a reader more than characters who die for no good reason. If you’ve built solid, relatable characters, then they deserve to die for a purpose.
For a death scene to be truly meaningful the other characters need to be invested in the outcome as well as the reader.
Hodor, one of the kindest characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, sacrifices himself by holding a door shut with his body to block the attack of a horde of wights, allowing the family he served time to escape. He is torn apart, while he repeats his own name until it’s revealed that Hodor is really saying “hold the door,” a phrase that became the only thing he could say.
When done right, foreshadowing is a great way to create emotional tension for the reader. It can set up expectations of the characters’ behaviors and outcomes.
Here are some common examples of elements used as foreshadowing:
If you end the life of an important character suddenly, readers are probably not going to react well. They anticipated spending quality time with this character. Ripping that character from them at the last-minute means sacrificing foreshadowing. And may get your book tossed across the room.
In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the reader knows early on that Owen is going to die. The narrator, who is retelling past events, tells us. Owen’s dreams provide clues to the manner of his death. When tragedy strikes, we are ready for it.
Unless you are writing a medical thriller with a plot that involves a miraculous drug that reverses death, or writing a fantasy that will allow a bit of wiggle room for returning from the dead, don’t be tempted to bring a main character back to life.
Another possibility is to have a “resurrecting” of a character who never actually died.
In Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend, a young man named John Harmon pretends to have drowned in the Thames so that he can gather more information on his sudden inheritance and the man who accepts the money in his place —Mr. Boffins.
Generally, people want satisfying, if not happy, endings. Even in the middle of a disaster, it’s important we find a ray of light. Sometimes, all you need to do is point out the good accomplished by the character’s death, like Owen Meany's, but at times little changes can give you a surprise happy ending.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses its time-traveling basis to allow the main characters to reunite, in the distant future, after the husband’s death. Their love and happiness alter its ending, easing the sadness.
If a death is needed in your story, then you can use these ways to satisfy your readers even in the middle of tragedy.
Have you ever killed a character? What do you think is the best way to kill a character and still keep the readers happy?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi.
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