In Memoriam: When a character dies

Merelize → in Church & Cemetery

In fiction, a character’s death is the ultimate spoiler. When I taught high school English one of my favorite books to read with students was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It proved to be a popular one in my class, as we spent weeks on end discussing Gene Forrester’s motives for “jouncing” the infamous limb, and gravely injuring his spirited friend, Finny. The funny part was each time I covered the story, there’d be at least one student who’d read ahead (or perhaps log onto Sparknotes) and do the unthinkable: spread the ugly truth around the classroom in venomous whispers, Finny dies!

As writers, why do we kill our characters? Is death a good plot twist? Does it make a story better? More dramatic? Emotional? Symbolic? Does death effectively touch on the greater human experience?

I’ll admit it. I’m a convicted character killer. Lock me up. I’m not vicious about it though, I simply understand their fates. As sad as it can make a reader or writer, some characters just seem destined to die, and as far as I know there is no set of criteria to follow, except for this: it must reflect the larger web of the story.Otherwise, as my characters’ divine creator, I think it would be too difficult to do.

Some surface elements to consider:

Who: Which characters will be plucked from the page? This needs to be carefully considered. Usually it’s not the main character, particularly if he or she is also the narrator (unless you’re going for a Lovely Bones angle, which I just find unsettling). If you know who will perish in advance, you can characterize accordingly. If not, there’s always revision.

When: At what point will the unfortunate character(s) pass on? Those who die in the middle of the story might have a dynamite personality to make up for lost time. If a character goes early on, perhaps it’s to set a precedent, or to establish an important plot point.

How: Tragic death? Violent death?Peaceful death?Inevitable death? It all depends on the individual character(s).

Why: This is a big one. Does the death serve a purpose? It most likely should.

I’ll take this last point—the “why”—a bit further. Based on everything I’ve ever read, written, watched in films, or seen on television, I’ve come to find that characters almost always die for one of the five reasons below.

1. The Extraordinary Person Syndrome: This character has a spirit that’s too big for life (not unlike poor Mr. Finny). Think of rock stars—Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all robbed of life at a tender age. It’s as if their brilliance was meant to be solidified.

2. The Stigma of the Very Important Person: At least to the main character. In fact, maybe too important to the main character. It could be a friend, lover, relative, etc. of the protagonist. This person’s passing is often a lesson in love or guilt.

3. The Evil-Doer’s Demise: A nasty villain. A murderous creep. An abusive spouse, parent, or significant other. This is someone who has done no good throughout the story, and flat out deserves to die. Perhaps at the main character’s hands.

4. The Magnitude of the Martyr: This character’s death will quite literally shift ‘the sands of time.’ A mother of two estranged sisters dies of natural causes, and thus forces her daughters to reconnect. The passing of a woman’s controlling husband will influence her to take a spiritual journey. A former high school quarterback overdoses and brings countless alienated peers back home to pay respects. Get the picture?

5. The Reprieved: This one is for the disease-stricken, the ill-treated, and the less fortunate. They die because the suffering has become unbearable. In death they are in peace.

I believe there is room for some blending. Maybe one character’s end will fit into two of these categories, or three. Even those who die for political reasons, or while at war will likely touch on one or more of these elements. Our characters are our babies, and with time, we share them with the world. Losing one can no doubt be super sad. But sometimes, for the sake of the story, it must be done.

Have your characters gone on to a better place? For what reasons? I’d love to hear your comments, morbid as they may be.

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23 Comments

Filed under Characters, Why We Write, Writing Process, Writing Tips

23 responses to “In Memoriam: When a character dies

  1. Excellent post, Katie! I’ve read some books where a death served no purpose whatsoever, and that’s disappointing. Even if it’s a peripheral character, and they die, there should be a reason. Maybe I’m thinking of real life, when death sometimes doesn’t seem like it should have visited. At least in fiction we can give everything a purpose.

    • Hi Marja, thanks for stopping by! Great point about the difference between death in real life and in fiction. Maybe sometimes in real life death can serve purposes as well. It’s a least more comforting to look at it that way.

  2. I must admit, I have never killed a character… Maybe this is the year! :) [goes off to her writing corner to think evil thoughts]

  3. Kiersi

    Great piece. Makes me want to kill off some important characters. And wow, those five were spot-on! I’m trying to think of a death that DOESN’T fit into that category. Except maybe Game of Thrones. Everybody dies for no reason at all. Just to kill them off.

    Maybe that’s number 6? “Because you are George R.R. Martin.”

  4. Yes! I don’t kill them off in the story. Rather they are dead before and somehow part of the story and are preventing my heroine from moving on. I’ve written one story, a dark one, where the main character isn’t too nice and takes the life of another character. Other than my first finished book, the second WIP, and the random dark story, I haven’t killed anyone – yet, but who knows. Everyday brings me something knew on the page. Great post.

    • Thanks Brenda. I know what you mean. I don’t always go into a story first-degree murder style. In fact, it’s often second degree murder. Sometimes involuntary manslaughter! Just another testament to the fact that the writing will almost always take care of itself.

  5. Very thought-provoking post.

    All I know is when I kill off a likable character, I probably mourn them more than any reader ever will. Pass the tissues… :)

  6. Great post, Katherine! I’ve definitely killed off a character or three in my time. In my first book, I killed two bigger characters; then I went back and killed another. Then I changed the ending and never got to the third person’s death. I do remember thinking it was time to just kill off some people, but they definitely fell under (3) and (4). Despite this, I generally try not to kill people—but I suspect that in my next book, I may run a different course. Time will tell! :) Thanks for breaking it down, and I particularly enjoyed your exploration of why!

    • Thanks Eva! I generally don’t plan to kill my characters, but sometimes it gets to the point where it just seems right. I’m glad you liked breakdown. I’ve gone back and forth on character death too. It actually makes a big difference to the overall story. That’s why it must be carefully considered!

  7. One of the things I love about writing is that I am the god of my story world. I am a merciful God though, and I think long and hard before I take a life. In stories, I think, unlike in the real world, characters die for a reason. I always ask myself, “If this one dies, what am I saying? What is the take-away?”
    Let’s just say, it’s not fun to be a bad guy in one of my stories!

    (I also tagged you for The Next Big Thing blog hop. Hop on over if you’re interested. :) )

    • Yes, I know what you mean! I make all the decisions! But you’re right. I don’t just kill for the sake of killing. Whenever one of my character dies in serves the greater purpose of the story. Most of the time it happens naturally, which is pretty amazing. Being a novelist has helped understand (potentially, anyway) what fate is all about. Not that I have God complex or anything…

      Thanks for tagging me! I’ll be sure to stop by. :)

  8. Hi Katie, thank you so much for visiting our blog earlier. I love your thoughts here, and somehow Nancy from ‘Oliver Twist’ kept popping up in my head. I haven’t killed off any of my characters because I write for young children, (but I have had them get dementia). For the novels I read where characters die, the stories stay with me after a long time especially when they didn’t deserve to die. And sometimes it isn’t just Death, it’s when really bad things happen to them, too.

    • Hi Claudine, thank you so much for stopping by. I understand that your take would be a little different writing children’s stories and all :) I agree…sometimes its not just about death, but about character struggle. I think this is very important (in any genre) because it’s attests to the characters’ strengths. As humans we are always battling our obstacles, and it’s crucial for readers to see how characters handle the tough stuff life throws at them.

  9. I love your categorizations. Its a great way to structure and contextualize literary death. Mmmmm yes this is definitely giving me some food for thought for my next upcoming death scene…
    Although I admit, have not done a lot of character death in my novel writing. However I am infamous for character death in my roleplaying games. I used to joke I ran the graveyard for one story rpg since I would write out abandoned characters rather than them mysteriously just disappearing when someone had to drop the club. Wish I had a tool like this then to map dramatic deaths appropriately.

    • Thanks Elaine. Yeah, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that generally speaking of course, characters die for a limited number of reasons. I do think it’s something that needs to be carefully considered (at least in novel writing, not too familiar on rpg–but my husband does that stuff!).

  10. Interesting post. Character is one of most fascinating aspects of fiction writing. I tend to be a very character-driven writer. Trite as it sounds, it’s true for me that “character is structure.” (One of my teachers said that.) Once developed, they begin showing me the way they affect one another. They can change my subplots. Thus far, nobody’s been “done in.” But, one of my characters — a male character I already know is un-redeemable … maybe. Just maybe.

    • Thanks Terri. I agree, characters are by far the most interesting part of literature. I often forget major plot points, descriptive language, etc., but I never forget characters. I may forget names, but I always remember motive. AND–I always remember which characters die :)

  11. Great post as always! I’ve never killed a character and couldn’t imagine doing so….my characters are usually a reflection of myself. Very interesting though and I will think about it more. Thanks!

  12. s ugly, but there. Rowling admits she could be writing the further wizarding adventures of ‘Harry Potter. It cannot be contested that Harry Potter has enthralled and enchanted millions all over the globe.

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