Writing character deaths is one of the most critical and thankless tasks a writer can do. This makes sense, given how impactful and final death is*, and how it’s often the greatest source of contention among readers, viewers, and fans. As a result, authors need to understand when to kill characters and when to hold the reaper at bay.
The best way to kill a character is as a result of the extension of their actions choices. Death can be an effective means of bringing a character’s arc to an end. It can be a character sacrificing themselves to hold a horde of zombies at bay or pulling a “take you with me” gambit against the antagonist. It can be a consequence of miscalculation on the part of a scheming chessmaster, or a tyrant who pushes his minion too far. The most important key is to make sure it ties up the character’s plot threads and has meaning.
Character death can also be used to affect the arcs of other characters. If the protagonist’s best friend dies, it can spur them to drastic and desperate measures to enact revenge on the killer. Or, the protagonist’s sister can die and bring him to his lowest moment where he doubts himself and his leadership ability. The best character deaths can both satisfactorily end that character’s arc and push the rest of the characters’ arcs further.
Finally, character death can also be an effective way to open up new plot threads. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this. Although many fans were horrified and dismayed at the sudden and brutal deaths of characters like Ned Stark or Robb Stark and his entourage at the Red Wedding, it’s impossible to deny that having them die allowed significant plot developments that would have been impossible had they lived. Ned’s death forced the rebellion of the North and sparked the War of the Five Kings, whose ripple effects are still being felt well into the sixth season of the show.
What about when character deaths should be avoided? Simply, if killing a character is the first option that pops into your head, put the breaks on hold. Is the best way to end a character’s arc or simply the easiest?
Death is often a quick and easy method of redemption for antagonistic characters. A character in my own book was slated to die in a noble, redemptive death. As I thought about it, however, I decided to have him live. Dying would simply be too easy. Having him survive to face the consequences of his actions and strive to fix them would be a far more powerful end to this character’s arc.
Death is also sometimes used to simply get rid of characters that have overstayed their welcome. There are plenty of ways to write a character out of the book that don’t involve death that might be used to better effect if simply considered. It’s also possible that the fault lies with the writer and not the character. Stop and consider why the character is no longer appealing and if it’s possible to develop them in such a way as to make them fresh and interesting once more.
Now, let’s go ahead and address that elephant in the room, ie the asterisk you may have observed in the first paragraph. Depending on the genre, death might not be so final after all. If your work has even the faintest whiff of magic or the supernatural, the topic of resurrection is bound to come up. In Part 2, I’ll establish when and how to bring back characters whom even death can’t hold back!