There often comes a time in any author’s career where they must kill off a character in their book. Or, at least they contemplate such a task. The question arises, however, “Should an author kill a character?” The definitive answer is, “Maybe.”
When should a character die?
There are several situations when it’s okay for an author to eliminate a character from a story.
The bad guy must die!
If the antagonist is a particularly nasty character who has done nothing but injure innocents and cause havoc throughout the story, then usually, death is the final and just end to the big black moment. The hero/heroine, confronts this nasty creature, and, with many close calls and moments of doubt, kills the SOB for the sake of humanity. (Think of every Bruce Willis movie you’ve probably seen). This is not only acceptable, in certain genres, it’s expected.
The good guy must die!
Occasionally, a character dies in order to prove he is a changed man or woman. This is the crusty, unlovable, maybe even dishonest character who has a moral evolution during the course of the story. Somewhere about mid-story, this character dies protecting others and as a result, his death redeems his previous obnoxiousness and spurs the hero on to victory. The Good Guy Must Die situation can also happen if the hero’s sidekick, girlfriend, sister, child is killed by Captain Nasty, thus making the hero determined to bring the villain down!
These characters are in danger. I mean it!
When writing suspense, it is sometimes necessary for the author to up the reader’s tension by killing off a character to prove that the other characters truly are in danger. The reader realizes, this author is serious and probably just a little crazy. He WILL kill off these characters! Since most authors don’t kill important characters, proving you are crazy enough to do so, adds a level of suspense to your story. However, tread lightly, grasshopper. Make sure the death of the character is not gratuitous and will push the story forward from that point or your reader will get mad at you and write nasty reviews on Amazon.
Hello, it’s a murder mystery. Somebody’s got to die.
It’s tough to write a murder mystery if someone isn’t, well, you know, murdered. In many mysteries, the murder occurs “Off stage” with the reader and main protagonist learning of the crime second hand after the murder has occurred. In suspenseful stories, the reader is often privy to the murder scene, complete with graphic details that provide fodder for nightmares if they’re lucky enough to fall asleep. With this type of story the victim rarely holds an emotional attachment for the reader. The hero cares for a variety of reasons, but the reader is rarely attached to the victim.
Weren’t expecting that, were you?
Sometimes the death of a character is thrown into the story to throw the reader off. The author plans and plots the perfect red herring. The reader is sure this character is the murderer than BAM! The author kills the character and everything is back in the air once more. As with the victim, this character usually isn’t one the reader cares about and the death adds an unexpected twist that will keep the reader glued to the pages.
When is it NOT okay to kill a character?
Many times, the death of a character is not received well by the readers, and nasty reviews abound.
Why did that just happen?
Gratuitous death of a character is rarely a good thing. If there are too many characters in the story, then maybe that character should never have been in the book to begin with. If the death is thrown in to bring tears to the reader (emotional blackmail) the author must be very careful. Most readers are savvy enough to know they’ve been manipulated and they will get ticked. Ticked readers rarely buy sequels.
The author of a very popular series, (which will remain nameless, but had a heroine that had to fight to the death or be hungry) decided to kill several characters off in the third book of the trilogy. The most egregious of these deaths involved a character that had been close to the heroine from the beginning of the saga. This character’s death was totally unnecessary and did nothing to further the story. It did not change the heroine’s behavior or the progression of the plot. In short, the character’s death did nothing except make the readers angry and the backlash in reviews pointed that out very clearly. While the series was a mega best seller, the final book was not received as well and largely because of gratuitous deaths that served no purpose (according to many readers). Something to think about.
Oh no, you didn’t… Fido?
Authors can get by with lots of horrible sins. Our characters can kill grandma, the neighborhood hero, an innocent woman…the list goes on, but it stops with the dog. Readers will not abide the death of a dog. It’s a sad commentary then you think of it. We care more about a dog than we do fellow human beings, but facts is facts. Don’t kill a family pet even in an accident. The readers will throw your book across the room and stalk you on Facebook.
Stay out of the nursery!
Killing a child or placing one in grave danger, such as a kidnapping, is also a risky proposition. Like puppies, readers hold a special place for wee ones, and do not like to read stories where children are threatened. Bestselling authors can pull it off, but the average writer is best to steer clear.
In short: The main thing to remember when contemplating the elimination of a character is the purpose of the character and his/her demise. Will the death of the character move the story forward? Will that death change the story in some way? Will it make your protagonists change their behaviors or is it just in there to get a tear from your reader?
If you decide to kill a character, don’t take it lightly. Think about your intended goal. If you want the reader to shed a tear, give the character some scenes so the reader connects to him or her, or let the reader see the character through the eyes of the protagonist. Either way, think about it before you pick up that lead pipe in the library.