Killing a character isn’t as simple as it seems. From readers not caring about a dead character to awkward deaths that contribute nothing to the plot, it’s easy (as with everything in writing) to screw up. What’s more, there’s no one right way to kill a character. There are, however, some story elements that are more or less universally effective when it comes to literary homicide:
1. Make readers care
Making readers care is a writer’s toughest, but most important, job. If readers are emotionally invested in characters, their deaths (the characters’ not the readers!) will matter. The death of an interesting, three-dimensional and compelling character will hurt far more than an undeveloped character’s demise.
2. Make it genre-appropriate
Genre informs audience expectations. Knowing your story’s genre will guide you when it comes to killing your characters. For example, if someone doesn’t snuff it by the end of a mystery novel’s first chapter, readers probably won’t read on. However, in a tragic romance story, (i.e. The Fault in Our Stars) putting a death in the novel’s climax makes more sense.
3. Make it impact the story
Every sentence of your story should progress the plot and develop characters. (Note: I don’t phrase this as an either/or because there is no true distinction between plot and character – they are intertwined). A character’s demise is no different. Simply shocking readers doesn’t count (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead) – a death must make meaningful change, whether it throws other characters’ plans out of whack, drives someone insane or rams home your story’s theme. The Great Gatsby made excellent use of Myrtle Wilson’s death, which simultaneously ushered in the climax, characterised Daisy and Tom Buchanan as selfish and aloof and drove George Wilson to kill Gatsby, among a slew of other outcomes.
4. Leave the dead alone!
If you kill a character, keep them that way. As dramatic as it may seem to bring back a character from the dead (i.e. almost every Marvel movie), constant resurrections only lessen death’s impact. Readers will grow desensitized to it, and you’ll no longer be able to use death as a menacing threat.
Following along these lines, resurrecting dead characters through flashbacks and dream sequences can also lessen the impact of their death. In real life, what makes death so huge is the fact that you can never see someone after they’ve died. If you want readers to truly feel loss, bringing back dead characters through dream sequences basically means the characters aren’t dead, because they’re still around.
Later seasons of Sherlock are a good example of how not to handle deaths. Moriarty, the main villain of seasons 1 and 2, [Spoiler] dies at the end of season 2. However, this dramatic death has been made meaningless through his countless ‘resurrections’ (through dream sequences, videos, etc.) in seasons 3 and 4 . In fact, he’s probably had more screen time after his death than before! [End spoiler]
What are your thoughts on character deaths? What’s your ‘favourite’ (and I mean that in the sense of artistic appreciation, not sadistic delight) death in a story? Have I missed any key elements of writing powerful deaths? I’d love to hear your ideas!