Writers in the Storm

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March 24, 2023

How to Kill a Character Without Enraging Readers

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.

Four Ways to Kill a Character

1. Make the Death Meaningful

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.

  • Show how the death affects your characters
  • Explore the repercussions of the death
  • Look at the emotional impact on the characters

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.

2. Foreshadow the Character’s Death

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:

  • Dialogue, like “I have a bad feeling about this”
  • Active weather, such as storm clouds, wind, driving rain, clearing skies
  • Omens, like a broken mirror or prophecies
  • Symbols, such as blood, weapons, certain colors, types of birds, and physical/emotional symbolism like the pain of Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series
  • Settings, like a graveyard, battlefield, river, isolated path
  • Characters’ reactions, such as secrecy, fear, apprehension, curiosity
  • Time and/or season, such as midnight, dawn, twilight, fall, winter

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.

3. Avoid resurrections.

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.

4. End on a Positive Note

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?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

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.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

16 comments on “How to Kill a Character Without Enraging Readers”

  1. Yes, I "killed" the younger brother of the protagonist in a natural disaster just before the beginning of the story. The whole trajectory of what happened to the family afterwards hung on this shattering event. Each family member reacted in their own way, and none of the novel would have happened without this death.

  2. Great reminders, Ellen. Using them to double check myself.

    Yes, I have killed off a lot of side characters in my trilogy. I also killed off a viewpoint character and a "love interest" character. And yes, I gave "hints" that these characters were going to die. I gave (rather the characters did) those characters a proper send off and as positive an ending as possible. Those deaths drive the motivations and emotional reactions of my characters (even the antagonist) in the last book (a WIP).

    It is tempting to resurrect one of those characters, but I won't. Instead, I'm planning some short fiction focused on how the character got herself into a no-win situation.

    I write instinctually and didn't realize what I'd done, but now that you've given me a framework, I'll be able to do even better next time.

  3. Great post, Ellen. I am at that exact place in my ms and have been so worried about it. Your advice is timely and helpful.
    Many thanks!!!
    BTW I also write magical realism. We should talk.

    1. Thank you, Kathleen. I love it when timing works well and am glad the information here is helpful.

      Yes, we should definitely talk! You know where to find me.
      Cheers to magical realism.

  4. But killing off characters makes them want to read more, right? 🙂

    Thank you for these tips to make parting with our favorite imaginary friends easier, Ellen.

  5. I haven't killed a character. It's not usually done on the page in romance, and it can't work for a main character--defeats the HEA. The death of a lesser character would need to drive the story forward. I can understand if it's the death of a parent/grandparent and expected in the plot, but most of the time, it doesn't work in the romance genre.

    1. Denise, I see your point. Death and romance don't always play well together.

      In any case, there must be a good reason to use death in a story.

  6. I killed a character in Book 2 of my fantasy series, The Wolves of Vimar. She died so that in a later book (yet to be written) her husband can kill the antagonist in revenge for her death.

  7. I've been known to kill off almost-main-characters before, but I hope their deaths felt /right/, if that makes sense. 🙂

  8. I like your post. I was once challenged to write a novel where the main character(s) is (are) killed. The comment was "Can you kill your darlings?" I did. In my book, In the End, 12 teens are at risk of dying. The danger is great. When I talk to a potential person about my book I can't resist asking them, "So how many boys you think will survive?" The ending has a double twist that readers do not expect. Reviewers have appreciated the conclusion. Since you write so well on this topic, I invite you to get my book from Amazon (or me) and read it. I would love to hear your comments.

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