You’re at a pivotal moment in your story, and you may be thinking: should you kill your character off?
Killing a character is a big deal, especially if you’re writing a trilogy. You know readers will be upset when you end the life of their favorite character. And sometimes, it’s hard to let go of a character you love now that their arc is complete.
But before you heft an ax over your character’s head, you need to figure a few things out first. Like if this is the character need to get rid of, and how to do it with integrity. By putting in a little extra work, you can get rid of a character while also making readers happy.
Should You Kill Your Character?
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 and character development. However, readers will revolt if you kill the wrong character or for the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, there are some questions that you can ask yourself before furthering your murderous plot. K. M. Weiland is here to rescue us with this excellent checklist:
As much as I love this infographic (and I do), there are two things I wish K. M. Weiland had added to it. If you kill the main character in a series, make sure you have another strong, well-developed, likable character ready to take their place. The second thing would be to make sure you need to kill that character.
Let’s take Harry Potter, for example. In book seven, loads of characters die, including Tonks, Remus, and Fred, to show readers what was at stake if they did not win. Even Harry’s death was necessary to Voldemort’s defeat. Without his death, they would never have won.
The take away is:
Killing for a specific reason is the most important factor in a character’s death.
Killing for a specific reason is the most important factor in a character’s death. #amwritingTweet
How to Kill Your Character
Now that we know which character(s) we need to bump off and who to replace them with, we need to carry out the evil deed. And there are many ways to do this.
Things to Keep in Mind
But before we dive headfirst into researching the perfect poison, there are some things that you need to keep in mind.
Automatic pistols don’t belong in the 1700s, so you may want to scratch that off your list of weapons. There are exceptions to this rule, but those exceptions are genre-based.
Regardless of genre, you should be looking into the period of your story. So make sure your research for this extends beyond dress, language, and culture to include weaponry and technology.
Your weapon of choice.
Speaking of weapons, when you decide on a particular sword or pistol, make sure your characters know how to use, and the damage it inflicts. The same goes for natural disasters and animals.
Why do you need to know all of this? Well, there will always be someone who knows this stuff and will call you out on any mistakes you make. They do this because it breaks their suspension of belief, which is how much they buy into your tale.
The good news is there will always be someone testing out weapons on Youtube. If that fails, libraries and museums are treasure troves of information, and I’m sure you’ll find the information you need.
Anatomy and time to die.
These two ideas go hand-in-hand. You need to understand a bit of human anatomy or access someone who does, for what constitutes as a kill shot and what doesn’t. It will also help you plan your character’s death rate and how much force is needed in specific areas to kill someone.
Again, there are people out there who pay attention to this stuff.
Where do they die?
There is no better way to elicit emotion than by paying attention to your setting and action. It will depend a bit on the genre, but it’ll help you craft a scene that delivers a punch to your reader’s feels.
Let’s take a look at Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. The ending makes people cry because that is something both characters wanted. They wanted to be with each other until the end. Additionally, before this happens, they had to spend time apart from one another, but it didn’t stop them from wanting to see and be with each other.
They fought for what they wanted, and they got it. And that’s what makes the ending so poignant and emotional.
Does the death fit the character?
How your character dies matters. You have to do it justice. If you don’t, you won’t get a good reaction out of your readers, and that’s not what we want. We want to make them feel something.
In Hitchcock’s movie Notorious, the antagonist is poisoning his wife, a spy for the Americans. Once her handler figures out what’s going on, he hatches a plan to save her.
However, he leaves her husband at the mercy of his Nazi comrades. Who we’re left to assume, kill her husband for his betrayal. We knew his death was coming because it was something he was worried about, and we’re also satisfied with that ending because he needs to be punished for his crimes.
Don’t resurrect your character.
Resurrection is best left to the world of superheroes and comic books. Outside of this genre, bringing a character back to life is a cliche and riddled with stereotypes. I’d only do this if it is integral to the plot or theme.
Going in for the Kill
We know the who, where, and with what. Now we need to put that planning into action finally. How do we go about killing our characters? I’ve collected a few resources for you:
- Clever Girl Helps has a great article that lists 400 different ways you can kill your characters.
- Tumblr is a great place to look for ideas.
- Pinterest is also an excellent resource for collecting information on killing your character, anatomy, etc.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has numerous infographics and charts on many common diseases and reasons for death across the globe.
You’ve Killed Them – Now What?
Congrats! Your character is gone, and your fandom is possibly screaming with delight or for your demise. What you do next depends on who you killed, what genre you’re writing for, and if you’re working on a series.
And that’s because death doesn’t stop at the killing. There are repercussions (both fandom and fictionally-based) to killing your characters off. And that’s starts with the realization moment.
The Realization Moment
Right after an important character’s death, or after someone is given a death sentence, everything stops.
The pace of your novel slows down, and an in-between like world emerges between reality and death. I like to call it the realization moment, and it looks something like this:
The realization moment provides us with an opportunity to infused emotion into a scene. It’s also a time where characters refocus their efforts and strengthen their resolve.
It allows the surviving characters can bury their dead and acknowledge their grief. This is displayed in the first book of the Hunger Games. After Rue’s death, Katniss buries her and salutes Rue’s district in a show of respect and mutual grief.
After everything settles down and the fight for life is over, we must acknowledge the grief period.
Let them Grieve
Speaking of grief, we should let our characters mourn the loss of their dead in some way. How long you want to let them grieve is up to you, but don’t just have them get up and walk away from their dead.
No one does that. Death affects everyone, and it’s okay to show the anguish death leaves in its wake.
Even in war stories, the death of a friend or lover leaves scars on the survivor. It can come out in many different ways (there are seven steps to grieving for a reason), and at different points of your story.
What Comes After You Kill Your Character?
Once you’ve slowed things down and let your characters grieve, you need to start thinking about moving on. Sometimes that means heading straight for the climax of your tale. For others, it may mean your characters have to immerse themselves in death.
Of course, I’m talking about mysteries and crime stories. If you’re writing in these two genres, you’ll need to start investigating the murder. It means you’ll need to look into police procedure, forensics, and courtroom procedure.
There is much more to killing your character than bludgeoning them to death with a two by four. You must make sure you have an excellent reason to kill a character as well as someone to take their place.
It also means research. You need to know how to kill someone fictionally, and with the appropriate weapon and method. So if you’re a fan of true crime, then now’s the time to deep dive into that world. If not, maybe ask your doctor if they have the time to answer a few questions.
But whatever you do, think about asking someone to wipe your computer history if you are involved in a criminal investigation. It won’t go well for you in court if you don’t.
Which character death is your favorite, and why? How have you killed your own characters? Did I forget anything? Please tell me in the comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.