3 Things to Think About Before Killing (Fictional) People

Certain genres and death go together like peanut butter and chocolate. A murder mystery without a death (or at least a suspicious disappearance) just doesn’t work. Death is a present force in all of our lives in some way, and that’s part of the reason it’s so present everywhere in television, movies, and literature.

If you’re writing a story and feel a death is in order, there are some things to consider before cutting the red string.

1. Why are you killing this character? 

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This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s one many inexperienced writers don’t think about (I know I used to gloss over it). Killing a character is a big move, and it needs a lot of careful consideration. If the answer to this question is anything other than “It will benefit the story,” DO NOT KILL THEM.

Too often, characters meet their untimely demise because writers are uninterested in them. Reasons NOT to write their death include:

  • “They’re too difficult to write.”
  • “I don’t like the direction their arc is going.”
  • “I have too many characters.”

These statements are all indicative of problems with other solutions. Remember, changing your writing is never a failure. If changing a character’s design or motivation benefits the story, or even if removing a character altogether is the answer, do that. There is no shame in changing things for the better.

2. How are you going to do it?

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People die in weird ways, but that doesn’t mean every single character has to have a series of wild events happen to them. Death, like every other event in your story, should make sense. Every scene should serve the plot, and every detail should support your overall idea. That means your poor, inner-city teacher probably shouldn’t die in a horseback riding accident in the Sahara Desert, but it also means your character with a deep-set fear of fire could die by drowning (for an ironic effect) or in an explosion (a justification of their worst fear).

Make it personal. Dying is the end of the ropes for your character unless, like mine, their deaths open up a police investigation, flashbacks, or an afterlife. Pick something that suits your character. Even more important than staying true to your plot is staying true to them.

3. What impact will their death have on the overall story arc?

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In the real world, deaths always have consequences. Families and friends grieve. Plans change. People start searching to understand why. Deciding to kill a character means other characters are going to react. This could mean anything from an investigator having someone to look into all the way to a parent devastated over the loss of their child. This is going to have an impact on people’s lives, and it’s often best to plan reactions and events a death causes ahead of time. This post may help you on that front.

If a character is going to die, this needs to be the reason why. It has to impact the story in some way or your readers will feel like it’s a cheap shot. Make it make sense. Remember the saying by Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Killing a character for shock factor is a no go.

Bonus: “I think killing them would be great for the plot, but I really, REALLY don’t want to do that to them!”

Oh, dear fellow writer, that is exactly why you should let your character pass on. {Spoilers} Would Old Yeller have stuck with us as much if he hadn’t died? Would we still grieve over Lupin, Sirius, and Dumbledore in Harry Potter?

As I said a few paragraphs ago, a writer has to hurt in order for the reader to feel that hurt. Pour your heart and soul onto the page. If losing your character would benefit the story, that’s exactly what you should do.

Be realistic. Do you really think an entire group of friends who met during Basic during World War II would all survive? Maybe. The chances are incredibly slim. Do you really think a detective, FBI agent, or police officer is never going to be close to someone who gets hurt in the line of duty? No.

Loving your characters is fine. I know I’m attached to all (yes, ALL) of my characters. I don’t like killing them. If it helps the story, do what has to be done.

Some other helpful resources:

The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief
Funeral Etiquette
25 Most Common Ways to Die
Weird Ways People have Died

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