How to Kill off Characters

GravestonesSince my last tutorials were about fight scenes and battles & wars, I thought it might be prudent that this one would be about killing off characters.

Many writers state that they are very connected to their characters. This is not surprising, for writers we build worlds, we create people and animals and imbue them with a form of life.

We let them live in our heads and think on them often. How can you not become to connected to people who live with you that closely.

Often I have day-dreamed into my written world, found myself sat on a log watching my characters around the campfire as they swapped stories. I’ve seen them laughing, passing around skins of bad wine and spiced meats. I’ve seen them sink into sorrow at those they have lost, those they couldn’t save. Whether any of this gets written is a different matter because it is all designed for me to learn more about my characters, so see them react and feel how they do.

We begin to know them intimately, their moods and habits and loves and fears. We can read their facial ticks and subtle body poses. We know what isn’t said, what churns them up and what brings them joy. So again, why wouldn’t we become connected?

When you write stories, especially long ones were you have a larger amount of time to learn about your characters and allow them to develop, they do become something important to you.

So then the story takes a turn and a death is required. Suddenly someone important to you has to die and you aren’t watching it, you are writing it. Most writers have fallen into the trap of allowing one of their characters (some times THE main character) to miraculously pull through. It can work and can be what is needed. However it can also turn a powerful and emotional gripped story into something that just doesn’t have the same bite – the same “reality”.

Some of my favourite novels have deaths in them, usually of the main cast of characters. In that even as I re-read them there is that tiny irrational part of my brain telling me that THIS time when I read the book, it will end differently and they won’t die!

It is always a good idea to know if a death is required. If you are writing fantasy and there is a war or a battle or a plague then someone has to die. It is all well and good flinging non-characters into the breach to perish but even Star Trek knew they couldn’t only send red-shirts to die! Every now and then a main character had to perish and it would shock us (especially if they were stood NEXT to a red-shirted ensign!)

Good writing is about emotion. It is about anger, hate, joy, humour, love, passion, fear, sorrow, jealousy, anxiety, compassion… readers will cling to a story, ride alongside the heroes, watch the villainy over the shoulders of tyrants and FEEL so many things. A good book can take you on a gamut of emotions and new writers should not shy from this.

To Kill or Not to Kill
So, to kill a character – first is there a reason? It does not have to be some all powerful prophecy that comes to pass. Like I mentioned, if there’s a war or a plague and your main characters are involved or even just passing through how likely is it they will get through unscathed?

Even the strongest warriors tire eventually, even the best archers can be caught by a “lucky shot”. Make sure there is some reason for the kill. Where they always a target? Was it an accident? Was it self-inflicted? After all a character may be struggling more than the other characters even realise.

Like anything connected to your main characters everything should either move the plot or define/develop the character and/or story. A death is no exception and should not be flung in randomly without thought as this can get your readers pretty pissed!

Bowing to pressure
I often see this with romance story lines more than death story lines with both amateur writers and professionals. In a series of stories there will be sexual chemistry between characters usually in some triangle. There then becomes the big “who will character A get with?”

Say Character A was always destined to get with Character C and so this happens. However a nice group of readers have decided they prefer Character B and are leaving comments, notes / contacting the writer stating so.

Often it can be VERY messy and pretty clunky writing to suddenly cause a rift between character A and character C just so character A can get with or have a fling with Character B. Unless that was the plan the whole time otherwise it can get awkward and you can end up pissing off ALL your readers… I personally don’t recommend it (but that is just my opinion). It doesn’t have to be outside pressure, even writers themselves, unsure who to choose make their character get with both in some way. I’m sure it can work, however most of the time, I find it doesn’t.

The same can be with killing off a character. You write a character, they get a plague and get sick or maybe captured/tortured or whatever. This is one of the strong main characters and has a nice following of readers who love this character. So you get notes and comments and letters stating they want him/her to get better.

Do you cave?

Hell, before we even get to readers. YOU like this character, they are one of your favourites. Do you spare them when you know the story calls for their death?

It is up to you as the writer however if you already have your ideas and how the character’s death ripples through the book then you should stick to it otherwise you are causing yourself more grief as you attempt to re-write the new plot to fit.

Remember even if you have readers who love characters, the character’s death will be an emotional rollercoaster for those readers. It will rarely have them turning their nose up in disgust at your work and vowing never to read it again.

When I speak to others who read and we discuss books, many describe parts of a book where a character died or another character lost someone. These feelings are important and they should be felt! Don’t edge around them and keep everyone happy and healthy!

In fantasy stories there is usually some evil or darkness or tyrant around. There is usually a challenge or a quest or a journey. These are not picnics in the park, they are difficult and they will tax your characters. They will push them to their breaking points and passed. Some will emerge a better person, stronger, wiser. Some will emerge broken, shadowed and scarred forever. Others will not make it. It also adds a taste of realism.

Death’s far reaches
The death of a character is not a singular event. If you decide that yes one of your main entourage has to perish then it is not just the slicing away of their life.

Death affects people. Does this character have family or friends? Do they know? Will they be told the truth or a nicer lie?

Where the characters friends/family/comrades with them? Or did they die alone? Was it quick or slow? Painless or painful? Was it touch and go and did everything think for sure they would make it?

All these questions should not just be asked regarding the death of the person. How about the one who killed them (if it was a death like that)? Was it an accident? Was it a trained killer? A random arrow shot from across the battlefield? Was it friendly fire? How does the death affect the person who caused it?

Was it a silly accident? A mis-step on a bridge, a broken slat? A tumble into a river and others tried but failed to hold on to them? How would that affect those who watched it, who tried to help? Those who didn’t even try?

Then there is family and friends, are they glad it was quick? Are they glad the character died the way they wanted? Are they grief ridden because the character died alone and in fear? Are they blaming others? Blaming themselves? Denying it is true even when they stare at the body?

Does the death have an effect on the story? Did that character have the only knowledge of the safest way through the dreaded swamp? Did they keep everyone else together and without them there is dissention in the ranks?

For those who may have seen the death how are they affected? If it was an illness or a condition are the friends/family/carers guiltily relieved that they no longer have to take care of them? Are they traumatised by the method of the death (such as an execution or the horrific ravages of a virus)? Does it spur them on for revenge or into a blind fury where they themselves become something that kills? Or does it wipe away the idea of taking life – eg a soldier may drop his/her sword and decide he/she can see no further bloodshed.

You don’t just have to show the ripples that come from the death in those connected to the character or the incident itself. What about those who happened to see it but where not connected, never met the character – are they changed? What does (if anything) it do to them?

Death scenes & beyond
Understandably I have known writers who didn’t WRITE the actual death scene, unable to put their characters through that. Like sex scenes, these can often be just hinted at while we don’t need to hear the death rattle, or the fall of a guillotine blade etc.

However if you are fine to write a death scene there are ways to do it. As always consider the mood, the character who’s dying/dead, the other characters around. How would they react? Remember not everyone will react the same nor do they remain in their normal ways. E.g. a calm rational man may become hysterical when his brother dies!

If you do write a death scene decide if you want it to be on the soft side or more real. Death is not often dignified, with bodily fluids being released when the muscles relax. Bodies begin to decay and smell pretty quickly so will you have your dead character remain in the camp while the others drink solidly in his /her honour for five days. There will be insect activity, a change of appearance etc.

If you want real then think about researching topics like rigor motis or lividity these can help to create a more real sense (if you want it) and will give you better description for the more gruesome aspects…again if this works for your story.

My grandmother often told me of my grandfather’s death. It was swift, one minute washing the car ready for a holiday next minute dead. It was due to shrapnel in his body from the war that doctors had been unable to remove. Anyway, his body was put in the house while they waited for it to be collected. While sitting in the living room (body under the window). My grandmother received a fright when his body groaned and partially sat up.

The cause? Gases in the body built up due to the bacteria (such as those in the gut that don’t die the instant people do) breaking down stuff still in the body and increasing the amount of gas.

Now researching death and dying is not exactly something enjoyable but again it can give you knowledge of what does happen and then can be built into a story. Understand this isn’t a lovely topic and there are things you might not want to know.

Remember many death rituals like the Wake / Embalming etc came about due to ignorance of what happened in death. Maybe your characters have a culture ritual such as watching the body for three days (until the soul has left…. this is a common thought in many religions that the soul remains close by the body for three days) and then the body is burned…maybe so nothing unholy could claim it? Maybe as a form of purification? Maybe to stop the spread of disease etc

These are all additional thoughts when a character is killed off that you can add/ think about if you feel the story would move along / benefit from such detail.

However there is also no problem just making it quick, clean and focusing only on the emotion of the dying and the grieving.

A final thought

Something that can be quite good, especially if you write series’ and especially if you write “histories” of your books. You can have a series where there is a story or legend about a character (who will obviously die eventually – unless they are immortal but let’s skip that for the sake of this thought).

This “myth” or “legend” of the person could shape the culture or the laws or the ideals for people.

Then in the Histories you could write the story of that person. This would be interested because you could show how easily histories are written by the victors. How stories change and mould and so the legend may be of some wise and powerful king. However the truth may be that he was more of a tyrant and those decrees that came from the Royal house were actually written on the day of his death (before anyone else knew) by a trusted adviser who believed in change and forged the signature and royal stamp.

In the end killing of a character needs a lot more thought than just “chop, he’s dead”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Happy writing

Ari 🙂

If you like this tutorial, please follow the blog as I will be adding new posts on Fridays

Credit for Picture: By Nikodem Nijaki (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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