How To Kill A Character

Getting Away With Murder: A 5-Point Plan On How To Kill A Character

To live or not to live? Are you thinking of killing a fictional character? If you are, use our 5-point plan on how to kill a character.

Hello, you monster. So, you want to kill a poor innocent character. A character you yourself gave life. Well, truly, you have fallen low, but you have also come to the right place.

Let’s talk shop.

Like any crime, this one has a victim – your reader.

And, it is a crime. Make no mistake, your readers will judge you for it for the rest of time. So, you had best get it right or face the consequences.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers.

Who To Kill

Now, nobody is going to judge you for war crimes. By all means, blow up a thousand Alderaans with your Death Star, slaughter a billion Orcs with elven weapons of mass destruction, and murder your way through Victorian society while smoking a pipe.

We will forgive you these minor sins. But, give one of those bodies a name and we have a problem.

  • Give them dialogue and we have an issue.
  • Give them a personality; it’s a crisis.
  • Make them a main character and it’s a crime.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why should I even do it?

5 Reasons To Kill A Character

Kill them because:

  1. It could advance the plot. Thrillers and detective novels are built around this mechanic. Think of all those poor dead detectives’ girlfriends.
  1. It fulfils a character arc. A redeemed bad guy often sacrifices themselves. This shows that they have been redeemed. Boromir (Sean Bean) from Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings redeems his past transgressions and failings by dying to save Frodo. Also, you always have to kill Sean Bean; it’s just polite.
  1. It motivates another character. Revenge is a fine motive and easy to follow. It give clear goals and a makes for a solid and satisfying plot. Without the mob killing John Wick’s puppy, the movie could not happen.
  1. It creates a sense of real consequence. This helps suck your reader into the world and engages them more fully with the world. I think J. K. Rowling killed Snape and Dumbledore for this reason.
  1. They deserved it. The bad guy needs to be punished in fiction sometimes they even need to die. Often, at the hands of the protagonist. This is what happens to Scar from The Lion King when he is eaten by his Hyena army.

3 Reasons Not To Kill A Character

Don’t do it if:

  1. You are just getting rid of extraneous characters. Just don’t write them in the first place. Likely, nobody will even care if they die anyway. Why did Boba Fett die like a chump in Return of the Jedi? I guess the writers didn’t want to write a part for him.
  1. You are trying to upset your readers. People should enjoy reading your book not dread it. Luke Skywalker’s death stands out here.
  1. You have written yourself into a corner. If you have no way out for a character that you still want to keep, or who should not die, then it is time for a rewrite. Structure your writing to make sense. You are not a slave to what you have already written. It can always be changed. Example: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series killed off Kelsier (male lead) and the Lord Ruler (antagonist) before the end of the first book in the series. The subsequent two books felt somewhat directionless as a result and he essentially had to invent new foes. Because The Lord Ruler ruled the entire world, there were no other threats on his level. The characters eventually ended up fighting the god of destruction. With a bit of forethought, the climax of the story could have happened in the third book rather than the first.

How To Kill A Character

Having made sure it is a good idea to kill a character, here are some suggestions:

1. It should be sudden.

Death is never expected. Even when a character is fated to die or they have an illness, it should come at a time when they have not planned for it.

Preferably, a time when it would most benefit your antagonist.

They greater the shock to your characters and readers the better. If you can make an editor shout ‘No! Not X!’, you have done well.

2. It should not be a normal death.

Having a warrior die in battle is something that only happens in real life.

In fiction, the great warrior dies several minutes or even hours after sustaining their mortal wound.

This makes them more heroic and also gives time for dialogue and goodbyes.

Obi Wan dies right when they could have used him most in Star Wars.

3. It should be glorious or meaningful.

Make sure their death is noticed.

This could mean that they die doing something heroic, like saving another character. Or they could leave the surviving characters a will with the secrets to their enemy’s weaknesses.

Regardless, it should be a pivotal moment in the story and not just something that quietly happens in the background.

Emotionless Spock dies saving his friend Kirk’s life. Let’s have a quick cry together:

MCCOY: (holding Kirk back):  No! You’ll flood the whole compartment!
KIRK: He’ll die!
SCOTTY: Sir! He’s dead already.
MCCOY: It’s too late.
(Kirk walks to the glass.)
KIRK: Spock!
(Spock walks weakly to the glass.)
SPOCK: The ship… out of danger?
KIRK: Yes.
SPOCK: Do not grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many, outweigh…
KIRK: The needs of the few.
SPOCK: Or the one. I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?
KIRK: Spock.
(Spock sits down.)
SPOCK: I have been, and always shall be, your friend.
[Spock places his hand against the glass and spreads his fingers in the Vulcan salute.]
SPOCK: Live long and prosper.

4. It should be noble or horrid.

The hero needs to go down fighting insurmountable odds. The villain needs need to get his just desserts.

The death of the 300 Spartans that held back the Persian army to give the Greek armies enough time to muster is a good example here.

At least they fought in the shade.

5. It should feel right.

You don’t want your reader feeling like it was unnecessary. They should feel like it was unavoidable.

The logic of the death must be sound. The hero must not have any way out of it. The villain must have used his last trick already.

The writing must be on the wall; the die cast; the i’s dotted the t’s crossed, and when all is in order, you can plunge your pen deep into the heart of the character with a gleeful grin or tearful eyes. You can do this because you know it had to be done.

I always get choked up when the Iron Giant dies.

Last Gasp… Word

Now that you armed with such deadly knowledge on how to kill a character, I hope you can use it wisely. Kill sparingly lest you be left with no characters left to continue your story.

But, do kill. At least once in a while. It will keep them on their toes.

Source for artwork: FoxInShadow

[Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.]

Written by Christopher Luke Dean (Many Bothans died to bring us this article.)

Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

If you enjoyed this blogger’s writing, read:

  1. What Did They Say About Jane Austen?
  2. 10 Tips To Remember When You Choose A Domain Name
  3. Writers Talk 1: Neil Gaiman
  4. 30 Excuses Not To Write Your NaNoWriMo Novel
  5. 10 Quotable Tips From Oscar Wilde On Writing
  6. 10 Methods To Effectively Avoid Writing
  7. 5 Things You Need To Know To Write Science Fiction
  8. 5 Things To Remember While Writing A Novel
  9. Your Book: What To Cut & What To Keep
  10. 10 Mantras To Make You Grow As A Writer

[Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.]

Posted on: 17th December 2020

2 thoughts on “Getting Away With Murder: A 5-Point Plan On How To Kill A Character”

  1. This comes at the worst time for me. But it reassures me that I handled a character’s second chance at life correctly. I was afraid I would have my readers ‘figuratively throwing popcorn’ in reaction to the scene. Thank you for giving me some reassurance.

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