Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 3, 2024

How to Kill a Character

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer

White rose on grey granite tombstone outdoors. Funeral ceremony

Yes, there are right ways and wrong ways to kill a character in a fiction story. And, even if we're working with non-fiction and telling a true story, we might still need to determine how to tell how a character will die.

We often have characters who, for one reason or another, need to be left behind. Maybe it's a mentor, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. We know from the beginning of Charlotte's Web (at least, some of us know!) that the spider, Charlotte, will die, because few small critters like her live very long. But there's a time and place to help make the story more real, to create the most impact.

3 Considerations for deciding to kill a character

1. Why do you think the character should die?

Part and parcel of that, why did you invent the character in the first place? What role does the character play? Characters aren't just there for the fun of it. They each play a very specific part in a story.

We can use the archetypes for examples:

  • A Hero/ine is who the story is about. We rarely see them die because the story wraps around them. Maximus in Gladiator is one of the rare exceptions.
  • A Mentor like Obi-Wan teaches the lesson, then goes away. Dying is common for this archetype. After all, would Luke have been able to grow into the man he becomes if he’d had Obi-Wan to tell him what to do all the time?
  • Goose plays Maverick’s Best Friend archetype in Top Gun. He dies to propel Maverick into facing his past and the loss of his father.
  • The Villain archetype dies all the time, since we have to slay the dragon. But once this archetype is dead, the story often is over. So, normally, the Villain dies near the end of the story.

2. When does a character need to die?

Every story is different. For instance, a mystery often needs to have a dead body early on and we only get to know that character through other peoples' eyes. There can be other bodies along the way, but each death needs to be carefully planned and HAS to make sense.

In a heart-rending true story about a loved one's death, the protagonist is usually someone who is deeply involved with the dying person, so the decision about when comes down to where it will impact the reader the most. In Ray, the story about Ray Charles, the death of his younger brother impacted his entire life. So, does it work best at the very beginning? Or in the middle? Or at the very end?

My personal preference is usually smack dab in the middle in a story like this, since I like to get to know my character before I find out what drives him or her. But you may like it somewhere else and, as long as it makes sense and impacts the reader, it will work.

3. Are you using it as a shortcut?

Carefully consider whether killing off a character is really a too-easy way out of a story conflict. Maybe that character can stir up extra trouble in the story, leading to a stronger plot, if he or she sticks around for a while.

I read a story several years ago where the fiancé of the heroine was the captain of an ocean-going ship and was gone when she really needed him. Another man came to her rescue and she fell in love with him instead. So, when the captain died at sea, the path to her new relationship was very simple.

Should it have been? Would it have been better for the fiancé to come home and for her to make a hard choice between the two men? (Of course, the romance writer in me would have liked to see that choice. But that's just me.)

Final Thoughts

So, kill any character you choose. It can be a very cathartic and enjoyable process, especially if you don't like a character. But do it for the right reasons.

Impacting the reader with a death, even of a villain, can make a book immensely better.

Do you have a favorite book or movie where a character is killed off ? Why is it your favorite? Please share with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Sally

Sarah Sally Hamer

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com and hosts symposiums at www.mindpotential.org. Find her at info@mindpotential.org

Top photo from NewAfrica at Depositphotos.

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16 comments on “How to Kill a Character”

  1. Good points, Sarah. Reading about a character who is dying before I've learned enough about that character to care whether it happens or not, is a big turn off for reader me. Writer me has never planned to kill off a character before. My focus has been on what will cause the most pain or pressure on my main character. I've killed off minor characters to demonstrate the increasing stakes at various points of a story. I've also killed off a love interest at the final turning point to give my main character a reason to rage-fight. Finally, I've killed off a mentor at the crisis moment to force my character to change and grow in the next book of the series. Each death has it's own purpose and puts a different sort of pressure on my main character. So, I guess I've used the point in the story to some degree, but I will do so more purposefully in the future. Thanks!

    1. Lynette, it sounds like you’re killing your characters just as you should — for very good reasons. Good for you!

  2. I will confess that I've never had anyone killed in my books, although some characters have definitely died. That means this was a super fascinating read for me! You're giving me ideas, Sally...

    1. Great! That's what I live for! Well, there are a couple of grandbabies too.... LOL!

      It is a lot of fun, isn't it? We're the writers, so we can kill or not kill at our leisure. Whatever works for the book.

      Thanks, Jenny! Appreciate the comment.

  3. Good column, Sally.
    I love Elmore Leonard's reasons for killing characters - they're no longer useful to the story. His telling of the process goes something like this: when writing a new book, he creates some characters then has them interact on the page. Depending on where the story leads, he kills off the characters he doesn't need, leaving the rest to carry the book. This takes place maybe a hundred pages in or so.
    His book 'Stick' illustrates this. Near the beginning of the story one of the two main guys is killed in a drug deal gone bad. The other guy, Stick, is left as the book's hero. Hijinks ensue.
    I'm not a thriller fan but I do like Elmore Leonard. RIP
    Thanks for giving us murder food for thought.

    1. "Murder food for thought." LOVE that!

      I totally agree with Mr. Leonard about getting rid of characters he doesn't need. My question for him would be, "If you don't need them, why did you put them in there in the first place?"

      I suggest that characters are always there for a reason -- if nothing else, to build another character's character 🙂

      Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  4. Great points, Sally!

    In my WIP, The Hobo Code, I kill off a character on page two. The critique group was not pleased. However, her death is a turning point for the rest of the family - moving the story forward like a speeding train.

    I believe you need a strong reason for killing off characters.

  5. I've had it in mind to kill a particular character for three books now. He's still not dead, but also still on "death row." Now my series readers know him, which ought to turn the screws even more when he dies . . . if it actually "works" for the rising-action moment at the end of Act II when I have it planned for the current opus. Your post helped me clarify my reasons for wanting him dead. Thank you!

  6. I have killed characters successfully and unsuccessfully. To do it well requires careful thought and still your readership may not be pleased.

    1. Leanne, I'll stop reading a book or watching a movie if a character I really like is killed. (Even an extremely popular series of books after a certain very bloody wedding!)

      But if the killing is well motivated -- even having its own arc -- I believe most readers will understand and appreciate it.

      But death without excellent motivation can really harm a story. That's why I think it's so important.

  7. Killing a character is a heavy plot decision.

    Of the two in the first volume in the Pride's Children trilogy, the first one happens before the book starts - and is still affecting the main character several years later.

    The other is something that happens to the main character peripherally, at an important part of the story, and leads the plot off on a detour that has significance then - and later - again, to the main character.

    There are no deaths in the second volume, but we still face some of those reverberations, because deaths tend to show how characters deal with a whole bunch of things they normally don't have to face - it's sort of a little separate part of life, with its own rules, and mourners are allowed latitude in how they react for a possibly long time.

    That's for mainstream fiction; mystery, thriller, and crime stories have their own levels of death and violence and significance.

    Up until recently (this century, and maybe back into the previous one a few decades), there were many things that could take someone in 'the middle of life' - and it wasn't the shock it seems to be now, so you have to think hard whether it's the best way to achieve the plot goal.

    The whole area must be handled with infinite care - there are great opportunities for writing, and places where you can fall flat on your writer's face.

    Imagine, for example, Bridget Jones' Diary with an unexpected death in the middle showing up some of the self-centeredness and silliness of the chick lit tropes. And how different the effect would be depending on who died.

    Heavy duty plotting - handle with care.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Alicia. You're right, when and where and how it affects the entire story, is what makes a death important. We all need to deeply care about a character's death or, probably, it wasn't needed to make the story work.

      Interesting about adding a death to a Rom-Com. Is it still a Rom-Com afterwards? LOL! Of course, we see Rom-Coms that include the aftermath of a death, Sleepless in Seattle, for instance. Sam's entire character arc wraps around his wife's death but we get to see both the healing and the new love in the movie.

      Hmmm. Makes me think.

    1. Denise, it might be a good time to start! LOL!!

      The death of a character, no matter which one, gives the author the ability to create great scenes -- scenes of remorse, grief, guilt, anger, denial -- using all the emotions that go along with them.

      Try it! You might be surprised at what you write!

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