So You Wanna Kill a Character?

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I was going to be serious and some of these suggestions will be in that category.  Yet I find myself in a silly mood, which means we’ll see what happens.  So what are some things to consider when killing off a main character?

  1. Make sure the readers will care.  If a central character dies and there’s no reaction then something went wrong.  Maybe you forgot to include them in the previous parts of the book?  Perhaps you forgot to explain what the character’s purpose was besides getting shanked in the giblets.  Either way, you might want some beta readers to make sure this doesn’t happen.
  2. Have it be memorable.  Nobody likes a forgettable death scene.
  3. Have it be simple.  Only so many ‘life story’ speeches a character can do with a gaping chest wound.  Unless they’re in a Metal Gear game and then they seem to have all the time in the damn world.
  4. Irony can be fun when killing a villain.  Though I might be thinking of blatant foreshadowing too.  I can’t quite remember what irony is exactly because I’m part of the generation who listened to a popular song that muddied the term.
  5. Sacrificial deaths are great, but don’t overdo them.  Also make sure the sacrifice is real and important.  For example, don’t have a character run the bomb into the enemy forces that are invading a space station when the others are standing near a button that decouples the parts that the enemy has taken.  Just hit the damn button.
  6. You don’t have to kill a character to make them suffer.  Villains seem to enjoy torturing and it can be more interesting to see a character rise from the ashes.  After all, dead characters don’t evolve.
  7. Be careful resurrecting characters and establish the possibility beforehand.  Don’t do it if the only reason is because readers are mad at you.
  8. Please make sure people know a character is dead, especially villains during the climactic fight scene.  If the reader has to ask you if that was a death blow or wonder where the bad guy went, you slipped up somewhere.  Of course, this can be ignored if your intention is to leave the character’s fate a mystery.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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85 Responses to So You Wanna Kill a Character?

  1. Reblogged this on Jo Robinson and commented:
    Yes.

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  2. Good advice. I’m still wondering how well this event is received in my own fantasy story.

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  3. Charles Lominec says:

    Good tips. I just killed an important ancillary character, and I was recalling the scene while reading your checklist. I’m confident that I got it right!

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  4. Great advice all around. Nothing worse than a main character’s death that elicits a shrug or defies common sense.

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  5. MRS N, the Author says:

    LOL! I loved this, Charles! My favorite one is #6. My final battle scene was worked and reworked until my brain was fried to get it perfect. 🙂

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    • I just work them very slow and take breaks if I think I’m slipping. One thing I noticed is that it gets really hard to do a main character death as you move on in a series. There’s a big temptation to draw out the scene even after the death, which kind of diminishes it.

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  6. sknicholls says:

    Great advice.There are times when you want the reader unsure of whether a character died or not. You make them think they should have died, but bring the character back later or in the next book. You do need to set up the plausibility for that to occur.

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  7. 4 and 7 made me laugh so hard. In general, though, I absolutely hate main character deaths–especially if they were the other half of a One True Pairing.
    …Yes, I am shallow.

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    • Never ran into the One True Pairing one. At least not as a mid-series/story event. Kind of like killing off one of the Wonder Twins and having the other go on somehow. I do think a lengthy series needs a few main character deaths, but I always look at those as ensemble casts instead of a central hero.

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      • Ah, I see. I don’t mind ensemble cast deaths–they might make me rage temporarily, if the author is good enough, but I can usually acknowledge the benefits to the plot. However, I don’t like it when the author consistently kills off the only bright spots, which is one reason I don’t want to read Game of Thrones. From the sounds of it, G. R. R. Martin does that a LOT.

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      • I heard the same thing. Also that other bright spots don’t rise up to replace the fallen. His series seems to be the trend right now though.

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      • Oh, so it’s even worse.

        I can see why it’s a trend; most people are probably delighted to read something that’s “not their father’s fantasy novel.” I don’t like stereotypical fantasy novels either, but I don’t like endlessly dark stuff.

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  8. Leona says:

    I have to add number 9: Learn from the best -read A Song of Ice and Fire books. George Martin definitely knows his character killing business!

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  9. L. Marie says:

    This is really good advice, Charles. I especially think of number 8 in some movies, where they seem to leave room for the person to return (ala the Friday the 13th movies; the Sherlock Holmes series).

    The sacrificial death can be powerful, but as you said, not so powerful if overused. I’ve never had a character go that route, but the notion intrigues me.

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    • I’ve done it once or twice. There are times you set up a sacrificial death and the character is determined to end it that way, but things don’t work out. One of my characters has something like that happen in ‘Allure of the Gypsies’. She/he went in expecting to die and managed to live. Those are fun.

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  10. Robynn Gabel says:

    Love it. Short, humorous and to the point and so right. Thank you! Good job!

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  11. Yes! This list is perfect. I really wish certain fantasy writers would read this, to avoid a lot of unnecessary heartache on my part.

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  12. Point 7 reminds me of the way in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Holmes with (seemingly) no chance of bringing the detective back, then being forced to do just that due to the howls of outrage from the general public. Doyle, did, I understand end up hating Holmes owing to having to bring him back from the dead. Kevin

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    • I can’t blame him for that. I heard once that Goku was supposed to be replaced by Gohan in Dragonball Z. Fans were royally pissed, so they brought Goku back and had to keep stretching ways to make him stronger.

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  13. Great list. Re. #2, I’m reminded of Jadzia Dax… 🙂

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  14. OK says:

    I bet 6 and 7 are challenging points for a writer; sometimes worrying too much how some readers may react can influence good writing or not. I don’t have the talent for novel writing but I noticed in some of my poetry that may have a sad or tragic ending, I feel I need to soften the blow if some readers are sad and yet…

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  15. Good advice *gasp* Charles. I haven’t killed a character yet but when I do..*choke* this will make a good primer *sigh*

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  16. Excellent advice.
    Reblogging via pingback :-).

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  17. paigeaddams says:

    Lol, oh man, I really struggle with killing people off. XD I even used to have trouble making my bad guys bad enough. My villains all used to be slightly rude, and that was about it, lol. Thank you for sharing this! 😀

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  18. I thought I had a great idea for a novel twenty years ago, but one of the early scenes was grim, and I discovered that I didn’t have the heart to do that to a character. It’s not easy being a writer. 🙂

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  19. mgill0627 says:

    Great post. I really like #6, make them suffer. Some of my most heart wrenching deaths were of characters who were already dead.

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  20. Pingback: Wednesday Reblog | Leigh Michaels

  21. Some really good points here! Character death is always a tough hing to pull off!

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  22. Years ago, I read an interview with Anne McCaffrey about her Pern series, and she was asked if there were things she wished she had done differently. She said that she killed Fax (the heavy in the first book) too soon. Then her editors asked her for follow-up books, and she had to come up with a whole new antagonist. So we do have to think beyond the emotional need for justice, revenge, whatever… to make sure we won’t need these characters again.

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  23. M T McGuire says:

    This is brilliant I. Having just had the best time ever killing a villian, myself, it resonated too!

    Cheers

    MTM

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  24. atothewr says:

    Great post. This is really one of the hardest things to do. I had to do it in the novel I am working on now. It was necessary for the plot, but it was tough to write.

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  25. hkrowe says:

    Great advice and points on this subject. Thanks!

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  26. Robynn Gabel says:

    With a dash of humor you captured the dilemma of writing a character’s demise quite well. Couldn’t agree more. 🙂 Though now I will have to revisit my first novel! What does it say about the antagonist when he dies and no one mourns his passing, but instead, my readers ask me why the Corvette had to be wrecked?

    Like

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