Reasons and Methods of Killing Characters—And One Reason Not To

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

There’s an interesting phenomenon when you comb through your RSS reader—even if you have a large number of blogs that you’re following.  Sometimes it’s as if everyone got an idea for a particular blog post at the same time.  This is natural when you’re talking about posts on a topical issue (publishing news) but a little eerie when it happens spontaneously, with nothing prompting it.Dagger

So I recently came across and shared or scheduled for sharing, four different posts in a week’s time, that either linked to material on the same topic, or posted on that topic.  So we’ve got “400+ Ways to Kill a Character” from Clever Girl Helps,  “How to Successfully Kill a Character—the Checklist” from K.M. Weiland,  “How to Kill Your Main Character” from Rhiannon Paille, and “Murder 101—7 Reasons to Kill Your Character” from Robert Smedley.

I was blinking from all the killing, and I’m a murder mystery writer.

All of the posts had excellent points, which is why I shared them.  K.M. Weiland also delves into reasons why you shouldn’t kill a character:

  • Shocking readers just for the sake of shocking them. (Shock value isn’t without its, well, value, but not every author is Alfred Hitchcock and not every story is Psycho.)
  • Making readers sad just for the sake of making them sad. (An old saw says, “If they cry, they buy.” But readers never appreciate being tortured without good reason.)
  • Removing an extraneous character. (I know, I know. I just said that was a good reason. But you have to double-check this one. If the character is extraneous, then you better verify he really belongs in this story in the first place.)

Naturally, as a mystery writer, I kill characters all the time.  I’ve done the math.  At a rate of two bodies a book and I’m on my fourteenth book…that’s 28 bodies I’ve got littered out there.  But my readers expect bodies in these books.  They even enjoy trying to figure out who body number two is (body number one is always disclosed on the back cover).  I write a gentler subgenre, so my victims are usually the result of blunt force trauma, falls, or barely-described poisonings, knifings, or gunshot wounds.  Although the 400+ ways of killing characters post was fascinating to me.

But what series readers don’t usually expect is for main characters in the series to die.  They’ve developed relationships with the recurring cast members and I haven’t broken that covenant with them…yet.  Although our discussion the other day of dark story arcs for series made me mull this over a bit.

But there is one element I think we have to consider—what have we either invested in this character in the past or what potential does this character have to be a good investment for our series? Basically:  does this character have star quality?

I have an example, actually.  I’ve mentioned before that I have an editor who likes outlines and I turn in an outline for each book in the series before writing it.  I’d submitted this particular outline (this was probably 3 years or so ago) and she said she loved it—but she really wanted to keep Miss Sissy. In fact she’d particularly liked Miss Sissy the best among the supporting characters.

Miss Sissy, of course, died in the book’s second act—in the outline.  But that’s the nice thing about outlines…they can be changed.  So I brought Miss Sissy back from the dead and picked another victim.  And the editor made a great call—Miss Sissy ended up being the character I hear most about when I get reader emails for that series.

So, my basic point is—if you’ve got a character with potential for reader popularity, you might want to back off from killing that one.  If it’s a series.   Just saying.  It’s hard enough to create new, lifelike characters for a series…why put in all that labor, create a solid, winning character, and then kill her off for the sake of a minor plot twist?  Then we’re back at the drawing board for the next book in the series, trying to create another well-rounded, lifelike character that readers relate to. Now obviously, if a major plot point or story arc depends on the death of a character…this is just something we have to go through with, regardless.

How can we know which characters instantly resonate with readers?  If you don’t have an editor…it may help to get one (I maintain a free database that has many freelance editors listed).  Otherwise, beta readers are also very helpful—good betas are discerning and honest readers who can provide you with constructive feedback.  There have also, in another feat of synchronicity, been a couple of solid recent posts on betas: “Beta Readers: The Magic Elves of the Publishing World” by Nillu Nasser Stelter and “Where to Find Beta Readers” by Jami Gold.

Have you ever killed a main character?  How and why did you do it? When might you avoid killing off one?

Image: MorgueFile: Penywise

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33 thoughts on “Reasons and Methods of Killing Characters—And One Reason Not To

  1. I don’t think I’ve written a novel where a character didn’t die, although I have yet to knock off the main guy.

    We all know how great series are, so that kind of stops you from killing main characters. I’m nearly finished with a fantasy novel, and many of the main characters ‘die.’ I leave it so there’s the possibility they didn’t all die. Sales will tell if this is true or not. But hey, it’s fantasy – there’s always a healer or temple around!

    When I was writing my mystery/thriller I found that surprise deaths for close supporting characters was really good. Well, I thought so, readers have yet to tell me.

    Anyways, people die in my books. :)

  2. Yes, I have killed off the main character before. It sucked to do it, but the other main character could not have advanced in the direction he needed unless it happened. At least I did it in the beginning of my series.

      1. I think I’ve got near half your kill count in my first novel (yikes!). Great post and very timely. The synchronicity is killing me…and a few of my characters ;-)

  3. I killed a main character in a recent wip, because her story arc drew me in that direction and I realized there was no other way. She couldn’t go on–simply because her sacrifice would save others, including the hero. I still feel this is the right decision.

    1. Traci–And if it’s something significant like that—I can totally see where it was necessary. Sometimes that *makes* the story. In my case…I should just have picked somebody else to kill because the storyline was basically “the character who knew too much and needed to be eliminated”–and really, that could have just been any character.

  4. Elizabeth – Isn’t it interesting how people do get the same/a similar idea at the same time? Synergy!! As to killing characters, I think that any character’s death really has to serve the plot. That is, it can’t be contrived. So for instance if your killer has a secret and the victim has found it out, that’s a believable reason for murder. But otherwise (e.g. just to shock readers) no, thanks. And that goes for the method of murder too.

    You make a well-taken point about when not to kill a character too. You can’t bring ’em back once you’ve killed them off. Well, not credibly anyway.

  5. Thank you so, so much for this blog. Truly wonderful!

    I’m into my second book and I created a character in the first chapter solely for the purpose of dying in the last chapter. Problem is; I really found I liked him. Sometimes I think I’m a breath away from institutional care.

    But if I like that character, I have to suppose the reader will also – or at least feel empathetic. So, I’m going to be nice – life in a wheelchair after a crippling fall down a flight of stairs.

    Also, I feel your pain. I killed off six people in my first book and several readers told me they appreciated the fact my book was non-violent.

    1. James–It’s almost as if we invested a lot into those doomed characters because we felt sorry for them, isn’t it? Yes, I’m like you…quite demented. :) Now, I *did* have my Miss Sissy character to get coshed on the head, but she was fine.

      Isn’t that funny about the reader response? I get so many readers thanking me for my quieter stories and gentle reads…and yet I’ve killed nearly 30 people in my books! Too funny.

  6. I laughed out loud at your 28 dead bodies!

    This is a great point. I think sometimes a writer will want to kill a great character for a plot twist, but in the end, they make the reader mad. The season ending to Downton Abbey comes to mind. They killed one of my favorite characters. I’m not sure if I’ll watch the next season!

    1. Julie–Oh, my goodness…yes, I know what you mean. At least the writers at Downton Abbey had an excuse….they had an actor who wouldn’t renew his contract because he wanted to go to the States. But if *our* characters start telling us they won’t participate in our books anymore….well, we’ve got bigger problems. :)

  7. Oh, makes a series so tough for me. I’m a quick hook.

    I might have to maim a character occasionally if I take up the “Bill and Veronica” series. They’re my proto-type criminals instead of sleuths.

    Why should Nick and Nora have all the fun.

  8. I am having this problem with the next Man Who book — and on thinking about it, it may be the core problem. In this case, I think I will recast the character in some way. (I used the old “character survives murder attempt” dodge in the previous one. Can’t do that in every one.)

  9. Nice article. BTW sometimes the most painful part can be killing off a character you have built over a course of 3-4 books in a series. You never know whether it would put readers off.

  10. Great post! I’m often a little gleeful about axing characters. But it can easily get out of hand. I think we’ve all encountered at least one book that totally turned us of thanks to an ill-placed character death. Thanks for linking back to me!

  11. Hi Elizabeth
    Thanks for the post.
    I find the same synchronicities, though through twitter more often, and it is a bit spooky. So I’ve already read two of the posts you mentioned, and will have a look at the others also, thanks for the links. :)
    I have killed off a main character, although he’s one of seven in my Sci-fi/Superhero series The Assembly trilogy. He died so others may live, which is a bit cliched, but is a pretty damn good reason, and entirely fitting to his character and the arc he’d gone through.
    I think the key to keeping the reader engaged is for the death to have resonance, and a genuine effect on the other characters. The best example I can think of, though not from books, is Buffy’s mum in the TV series. Handled outstandingly well, and her death echoes throughout the entire season, affecting everyone.
    cheers
    Mike

    1. Mike–Isn’t it weird when it happens. I keep checking to make sure I’m not just coming across the same post over and over….and I’m not!

      In your genre, I’m thinking a death can be an important plot point….and you’ve made a good point about resonance. It shouldn’t be just some throw-away minor plot point.

    2. Excellent points, Michael. Yes, it’s really got to be that the MC’s sacrifice, whether consciously chosen or caused by others, has to leave the remaining characters better off.

      Speaking of Whedon’s murder spree :) Wash dying at the end of Serenity hit everyone the wrong way at the time, but I think it was an artistic statement – the series was done. The film was demanded by fans, but the reality was that the producers and actors involved had other projects in front of them, so rebooting Firefly wasn’t in the cards. Killing the pilot made perfect sense.

  12. “28 bodies I’ve got littered out there” … Elizabeth, the mass murderer :)

    My wife quit reading a series because the protagonist’s husband, who was in a dozen books, was killed. She said she could no longer trust the author (Faye Kellerman maybe?)

    Peace, Seeley

    1. And I’ll be at an even 30 bodies in the next month! :)

      Ahh…and that’s what I worry about. Your wife felt this covenant with the author. She invested time in the character, grew to care about the character…and then the character is killed off. It can be a deal breaker.

  13. I am a firm believer that character killing, with a purpose, is a good thing. It’s not easy, especially when you love them, but no one lives forever.

  14. I think excessive character-killing can have a dehumanizing effect— as if you are saying that human life is essentially valueless and that an individual human being is easily replaceable. Especially when it’s a series main character, or an important secondary character.

    This trend of mass-slaughter in fiction in my opinion is related to some dark trends in current-day human society. I hope it ends soon— the trends, not human society.

    1. Nissa–I think it can be a problem, yes. I’m not a fan of reading books that showcase a high body count just for the thrill. Some genres are gentler than others, of course….I usually just gravitate toward those to read within my personal parameters of comfort.

  15. This post came at a perfect time! I’m working on my fantasy series and I’ve had it in mind that a certain character was going to die. And then suddenly, out of the blue, one of my other main secondary characters tells me he is going to die. It was like getting hit with a ton of bricks. I’m still struggling with that direction, so maybe it won’t happen. :/
    -Thanks for the food for thought.

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