This week we’re going to start off October, and finishing our discussion about characters, with discussing how to kill them. Before we get into that though, I wanted to give you a heads up about the topics we’ll be covering this month. October is my favorite month due to the celebration of Halloween. So surprise, surprise, we’ll be talking about the horror genre – in both film and literature, about ghosts and ghouls, and about Halloween itself. I may also post another of my own short stories this month.
So, killing off a character is a big deal. If it’s someone your readers care about, then you’re going to probably make them hate you; if it’s not, then they’re going to love you. There isn’t going to be a lot of middle ground on this. So, you’ve got to get this right and there are going to be a lot of different opinions on how to do this and to go about it. I’m going to try to give you as much advice as I can about if you should kill them off and how to kill them off. There’s going to be a lot of info graphs and pictures instead of me talking.
Why You Should Kill Your Character Off
You want to kill off a character – that’s great! It can add a lot of tension to your story, it can help with theme development and character development. However, it isn’t going to be a good thing if you kill off the wrong character or kill them off for the wrong reasons. Here’s a checklist you can use for when you’re at this stage of killing your character off:
One thing that should be added to this chart is that if you’re going to kill off your main character and it’s in a series – make sure you have another strong, well-developed and likable character ready to step into the spotlight. Oh and really make sure that killing your main character is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY – or any character for that matter.
For example, Harry Potter. In the last book, we have characters dying left and right. The deaths of Tonks, Remus and Fred – it helped drive home what was at stake for the rest of the characters in the novel if they didn’t defeat Voldemort and his forces. The death of Harry himself was necessary in order to defeat Voldemort.
Out of all the reasons on the checklist above, killing for a specific reason is the most important factor.
How to Kill Your Character Off
We now have decided which character, or characters, you’re going to kill off and why you’re going to kill them off. You even have your next main character in place if you’re writing a series. So, now we have to figure out how and when you’re going to kill them off.
The when is something you’re going to need to figure out on your own and is based on where your story is going. How you’re going to kill them is a completely different thing altogether as there are a lot of different ways that can happen.
Here are somethings to consider when you’re going to kill them off:
- Time period. You’re not going to kill someone off with an automatic pistol from today when it’s set in the 1700’s. So, you’re going to need to do some research into the time period in which your story is set. This, of course, is going to depend on the genre you’re writing in – if you have time travel or it’s a fantasy or sci-fiction in nature, you’re going to have a bit of leeway to what types of weapons you use.
- The length of time it takes your character to die. If you want it to be a quick death, then you’ll have to make sure you’re killing them with a quick means and in the right spot on their body. If you want it to be slow – the same thing is going to apply.
- Your weapon of choice. Make sure the antagonist knows how to use it and the damage it does to the victim’s body. Knowledge of how the weapon works and how to maintain it is a good thing to know. Or if you decide to go with a natural disaster (tornado, hurricane, flood, etc.) know the causes of these things and how they work. Or how an animal hunts/kills/eats their prey.
- Anatomy. Have a basic knowledge of the anatomy of your human being. Or go in depth and know a lot. Knowing which circumstances might slow or speed up a persons death can be very beneficial and know where to hit with a weapon for maximum effect.
- Where do they die? Is it in battle or in their own bed? Are they in the jungle with no help? These things matter and can help create tension and spark certain emotions in your readers. It will help you figure out how your other characters will respond to the characters death.
- Does the death fit the character? How your character dies is going to matter. You have to do it justice. For example, in Hitchcock’s movie Notorious, the antagonist of the film has been poisoning his wife – who is a spy for the Americans. His plot is found out by her handler and he comes to rescue her. At the end, her handler makes sure that her husband is left behind with his Nazi counterparts – we assume the end is his death, which is something he was fearing once he knew what his wife was doing. Basically, just don’t kill them off in a trivial or anti-climatic way – unless it is for thematic purpose or significant to your plot.
- Don’t resurrect your character. This an easy and cheesy out. It’s also riddled with stereotypes and cliches, such as the character waking up and finding out their death was just a dream. Only do this if it is absolutely integral to the plot or theme.
So we’ve considered all of the above and we’re going to kill them off in an appropriate way, time period, and place. How do we go about killing our characters?
- Clever Girl Helps has a great article that lists 400 different ways you can kill your characters.
- Tumblr. I find can be a good way to gain ideas…. They’re very strange on there, but they’ve got some interesting ways for you to kill someone.
- Start Pinterest board. I seriously cannot stress how awesome this site is for gaining information about killing characters and how it happens.
Here are a couple charts to give you a head start on your research into death:
You’ve Killed Them – Now What?
Congrats! You’ve killed your character off and your fandom is possibly screaming with delight or for your demise. So, what do you do now?
Well, depending on when your character is killed, what genre you’re writing for, and/or if you’re writing a series, you’ll have some more work to do. Death doesn’t stop at the killing. There are always going to be repercussions to killing your characters off.
There is going to be a point right after an important death (i.e.: the villain or a main character), or when someone finds out they are going to die, where everyone and everything stops. It’s, what I like to call, the realization moment. For example:
During the three minutes of this clip, all action outside of this white land is stopped. This is Harry’s chance to come to terms with his death and to make a decision. The battle has stopped too as everyone grieves those who have lost their lives or been injured. They’re all waiting for Harry’s death.
It’s during this realization moment that you can really infuse emotion into a scene. It could be simple or it can be complex – depending on your story and how you kill your character off and which character it is. It’s a time where characters can focus and regroup, or strengthen their resolve. When Rue dies in the first Hunger Games book, Katniss gives her a burial and salutes Rue’s district in a show of respect for what they are going through with a loss of their own and to acknowledged her own grief.
After everything settles down or that realization moment is over, and the fight for life or ideals is finished, we have to acknowledge that there is going to be grief and mourning over the loss of that character or characters who died.
I cannot stress enough how important it is on letting your characters grieve properly for their fallen. You as a writer can take a page or three to just let them grieve. If you have more time to spend on this, then please do so and do it properly. Know what the stages are and let your character go through them. I do realize that there are some cases where death is going to be a constant – such as in war stories – but please treat those with respect and compassion as well. It may not get shown in movies or literature very often, but I do think it should be addressed.
As to murder mystery stories, you will have to think about the police procedure, forensics, and eventually the courtroom procedures that happen after a death. This is going to help you find the person who killed your character and you want to make this as believable as you can. There will be a bunch of resources after I sign off from this post relating to this subject.
So that’s it for this week. I hope this helps out anyone who is wanting or needing to kill off a character. Remember that it is not a bad thing to kill a character off – as long as you do so properly.
Until next week.
(P.S.: Your crime scene and courtroom resources):