How to Kill Your Characters

Sure you do.

I recently ran across an outline for an old story I didn’t write. A long piece, it had multiple characters and not all of them lived to the end.

It’s a good thing I didn’t write.

From the outline, it was obvious which characters would die right from the beginning. They had two common characteristics:

  • They were not point of view characters
  • They didn’t have character arcs

While their deaths served the needs to the plot, I’m certain they wouldn’t have had an emotional toll on the reader.

Character arcs create connections with a reader

A lot has been written about character arcs. I recommend you go take a look. To keep things short, a character arc is:

Walter White from Breaking Bad is a character who struggles against the odds. Despite the evil he does, he want him to win.

  • Introduce a character who has something that she wants but can’t get (or she has something she wants to keep)
  • This character should also have some kind of flaw
  • Something beyond her control changes, putting what she wants within reach (or, if she already has it, at risk)
  • She fights to get what she wants, but her flaw gets in her way… but she can’t see that it’s her flaw that’s holding her back
  • She struggles, determined, against long odds
  • There are setbacks and she considers giving up, but she moves on
  • Finally able to see her flaw for what it is, she overcomes the long odds and succeeds

We cannot help but to root for characters who fight for something, even if we disagree with it. We wish we had the heart to endure setbacks and, even though we know the pain that is coming, set off again to get what we want.

Regular people give up. Heroes struggle on.

So where do meaningful deaths figure in?

This is easy. Take the character arc described above, put success within reach, but the character dies before he can reach it. Making the death a self-sacrifice to save others gets you bonus points.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, who began Psycho as the main character, but then got killed quite suddenly. This is just one of many reasons why Psycho works.

For example: the young, cocky solider who alienates everyone else. A girlfriend at home, he’s going to marry her when his tour is over. In combat, he builds trust with the other soldiers and overcomes his brashness. He becomes a sergeant. But with a few days before he goes home, he throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies.

We can tune this up by having him come to realize he never loved his girlfriend and she never loved him; their attraction was superficial. Plus, the soldier has never done anything meaningful with his life. And he could have escaped the grenade, but it would have cost the life of another soldier who has a wife and kids at home.

But readers will see it coming

This pattern has been done so often that we recognize it. How many times have you read a book or watched a movie, heard or read the line like “When I get out of here” and said to youself: Yup, he’s dead. So what can you do to surprise readers?

Short-circuit the character arc. Don’t have the character die at the end, but the middle.

So, what if they killed Short Run halfway through Temple of Doom. How shocking would that have been? Especially if he actually affected the plot somehow…

In the example above, the tragedy is the soldier realized and overcame his flaws, but never had the chance to live a better life with this knowledge. Imagine now that when he becomes a sergeant, he has an inkling that he will have to change. He knows as sergeant, the responsibility to survive is on him. But before he can explore that idea, he is killed. The tragedy now is this realization never got to happen. We the audience are programmed to expect that he will change, for the hero to emerge. Violating that expectation will shock readers.

The Walking Dead comic book and Red State do this brilliantly.

Do not take away the set-up elements

You must begin your characters on their character arcs with the set-up elements. This will hint to the audience that it is a character to latch on to. To follow. To invest in. When you kill that character you have violated that trust and achieved the shock you want.

But character development is not enough. The character must also serve an essential element to the plot. A well-developed character that you could remove from the plot without affecting it is bad writing.

For example, let’s take the loyal sidekick who grows to be an equal with the hero, but sacrifices himself in the end so the hero can succeed. Now, let’s have this character die before the halfway point, just as he is growing in confidence and about to emerge as a hero-to-be. To really turn up the tension, this sidekick must be able to do something the hero cannot. Without the sidekick, the hero id doomed. Tease the readers into guessing how the sidekick and hero will work together to overcome an obstacle.

And then kill the sidekick. Not only is the hero distraught and the audience shocked, the hero has a bigger challenge to overcome, adding more emotional weight to your story.

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