How To Kill Off A Character

From a reader’s perspective, a death pulls me into the story on a deeply emotional level. Perhaps because it is a safe way to mourn for the little deaths in my own life — the stresses and worries and losses. Or because it feels real, far more than any happily-ever-after.
On Character Deaths

I’ve been thinking about character deaths again — why sometimes they work, and other times they’re off the mark.

A well-planned character death can lift a story out of the mundane, pull at your heartstrings, and catapult the plot into a new direction.

A poorly-planned death will, at best, send your readers into a rage.

So how do you successfully kill of a character?

  • Decide who to kill
    The more prominent a character is, the more considered their death will need to be. A stranger’s death can be a simple plot device; a secondary or main character’s death needs to be more, and cause a greater emotional aftermath on the survivors.

  • Have a GOOD reason
    Don’t kill someone just to shock your readers. A death should drive a story forward, cause character progression, or be the inevitable climax of a downward spiral. If you’re killing someone off simply because you don’t need them anymore, evaluate whether you needed them in the first place.

  • Be 100% certain
    That character isn’t coming back. Ever. Don’t be desperate; none of this “I was reincarnated from my angel form”. So make sure you don’t need them for future scenes and/or that you have a replacement character waiting to pick up the pieces.

  • Make it plausible
    Is it suicide? Murder? Old age? Disease? The death needs to make sense. Is your character emotionally stable (therefore unlikely to commit suicide) or do they love putting their life on the line? If they are murdered, who kills them and why?

  • Foreshadow it
    Don’t kill someone out of the blue; drop clues that it’s on the cards. If your character has a heart attack, show him taking aspirin earlier on. If your character is shot during a protest, include tensions between the police and the public from day one.

  • Don’t be afraid to let go
    Chances are you know who needs to die, and why. Instead of running around trying to save them, let your character fulfill their destiny. Your readers will thank you for it.

How do you kill off your characters — and why?

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