The Thing About Life And 5 Things To Consider When Killing Off A Character

The Thing About Life And 5 Things To Consider When Killing Off A Character

This post is about the thing called  life and five things to consider when killing off a character.

Neil Gaiman once said, ‘Fiction is the lie that tells true things over and over again.’

And he’s right. He’s not one of the best novelists around for nothing. People and animals die in real life. There’s no reason they shouldn’t die in books.

The Thing About Life And 5 Things To Consider When Killing Off A Character

1. It’s Part Of The Human Condition

In one of my books, I have a character think, as he passes a cemetery with a newly dug grave, that the thing about life is that there’s always someone dying. We all doing it. So don’t be afraid to build that into your book. To pretend that people and animals don’t die may do your story a disservice. But when, why, and how is the question.

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

2. When Is The Best Time To Kill A Character

How the character’s death affects the plot is the only consideration! Take, for example, the animated movie UP. The film breaks your heart right at the start. After a lovely montage of a couple falling in love, marrying, and having a seemingly idyllic life together, the wife dies, leaving the husband bereft, and grumpy. Knowing why the old man is the way he is and why he is so fiercely defending his home only makes sense when we know how much he loved his wife and what the home represents to him. Without that, he’s just a grumpy old man. The wife’s death is essential.

3. Why Kill Off A Character?

Because it forms the thrust of the rest of the book and the character arcs.
In Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Melanie dies. She asks Scarlett to look after her child and her husband, Ashley. She also tells Scarlett how much Rhett Butler loves her. This scene reveals Scarlett’s immaturity, and her selfishness. Ashley realises he only ever loved Melanie. Rhett believes now that Scarlett has Melanie’s permission that he has lost Scarlett forever. It forces Scarlett into making different choices. Her ability to do that, or not, makes it a pivotal moment in the book. One that wouldn’t have happened without Melanie’s death.

A few questions to ask yourself when contemplating the death of a character

Will the death of a character, small or large, impact the plot in any way? If it does, great! If it doesn’t, consider whether the character is actually necessary in the first place.

Do I want to kill this character because I no longer like them? Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he’d grown to hate the character.

Does my story actually need someone to die or am I just trying to be clever or shocking. Some readers believe that George RR Martin falls into this camp and that his deaths are more gratuitous than necessary. What do you think?

4. How Should I Kill Off A Character?

It depends.

Consider This Before Killing Off A Character

  • Small Roles Or Big Ones

In mysteries and thrillers, the dead the dying are de rigueur. It’s almost a given that ‘no body equals no plot’. Agatha Christie wasn’t afraid to kill off characters, small or large. In A Pocket Full Of Rye, a housemaid is killed. A seemingly unimportant character for the reader. But it is her death that explains everything to Miss Marple. Mrs Christie also killed off her most famous character!

  • Big Deaths Or Small Ones

Depending on your genre and the readers’ expectation, consider: Am I indulging in ‘gore-porn’?

Write it out, get it out of your system and then go back and evaluate how necessary it is. Horror is often achieved sooner and better with fewer words, rather than with gratuitous violence. What are you trying to achieve? Moving the plot on or shocking your reader?

The details of a death are a lot like backstory. It’s better when it’s revealed throughout the plot, bit by bit, rather than throwing it all at the reader at once, and, like backstory, too much of it will deaden the impact you’re trying to have.

5. If ‘it’s part of the human condition’ does that mean I must have a character die?

No. Not every story or every genre requires a character’s death, so don’t have one just for the sake of it.

The Last Word

A book is a slice of time. There are moments with quietness and wisdom. Moments of joy and humour. There are also moments when death is very real. Listen to your book.

Elaine Dodge

by Elaine Dodge. Elaine is the author of The Harcourts of Canada series. Elaine trained as a graphic designer, then worked in design, advertising, and broadcast television. She now creates content, mostly in written form, for clients across the globe, but would much rather be drafting her books and short stories.

More Posts From Elaine

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  4. How To Market Your Book Before You Start Writing It
  5. How Important Is Backstory In A Romance Novel?
  6. Setting & Description In A Romance Novel
  7. How To Pace A Romance Novel
  8. 9 Must-Have Ingredients In A Romance Novel
  9. 5 Things To Remember To Do When Publishing A Romance Novel
  10. 5 Things To Remember Not To Do When Publishing A Romance Novel

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Posted on: 17th October 2022