Killing off Characters

I was originally thinking of titling this: “Writing Advice From Someone You Should Definitely Not be Taking Advice From,” but that’s too long of a title. So I’ll just make it a new category, and hopefully it might become a thing.

But this really isn’t advice, it’s more of my opinion on deaths in literature. And I’m pro-death!

If I had said that last sentence fragment in any other circumstance, I would have been given a bunch of dirty looks, and possibly a rag-tag bunch of teenage hoodlums would gang up on me and beat me to death.

Because I’m the greatest person that ever lived, my death would be a tragedy to all my friends and family. But if all my friends and family did was grieve over my brutal death and nothing else, that would not make a good story. The death would seem pointless since all it did was make the story much sadder than it was in the beginning. It did not help the plot, nor the characters, nor the reader, who would probably have thrown the book away by this point, saying “It’s not worth reading now that Matt’s gone!” Pointless character deaths lead to a boring story.

Now, if my death had caused my heroin addicted but still highly intelligent brother to plot revenge on those teenage hoodlums, then the death wouldn’t seem pointless, because without it, the plot of the book would not have happened, and those stupid hoodlums would not have been taught a lesson (albeit in a very violent way). The book has improved because of my death.

(Yes, in this scenario, I am a dead side character in a hypothetical novel where my brother is a heroin addict for some reason. Just go with it.)

And that, my dear readers, is my opinion of stories, whether it be a book, movie, or TV show; killing off characters just for the sake of killing off characters is bad storytelling, and will lead to a lot of angry readers/viewers, (and possibly a bunch of dangerous teenage hoodlums with plans to kill you).

Killing off characters is also addictive. The moment you kill off a character “because I felt like it,” you won’t be able to stop. Your near-perfect manuscript will now turn into a sloppy, depressing mess, with dead characters with so much potential lying all over the place. And soon you’ll look over your manuscript and realize that you have actually just written the book Mockingjay without even realizing it. That happens sometimes.

One of my favorite novels is The Shining, by Stephen King. Why? Because despite being a horror novel, a surprisingly small amount of people actually die at the end. Despite the stunning lack of violent, gory deaths, the book is a million times scarier than any other horror movie I’ve ever watched, where characters are killed left and right. Why? Because 1.) You get to know the characters more, which leads to 2.) You actually care about the characters, and would prefer it if they didn’t die, and 3.) This 1, 2, 3… writing technique is cool. Thanks, John Green!

Good point, Boromir

This post may surprise you, since I’ve often commented on people’s blogs saying how much fun it is to kill off my characters. I fibbed. Coming up with a good character death is fun, but actually killing off the character isn’t. Unless you’re a soulless monster who preys off the fear of orphaned children, you should feel at least a little bit of sadness when a character you created and watched develop dies. If you are a soulless monster, you probably shouldn’t be a writer to begin with.

That being said, here’s a list of cool ways to kill your characters:

  • Have the gun he/she’s using malfunction and explode in his/her hand. It’s a horrible way to die. 🙂
  • Have a boomerang do it. I’m not sure how you’ll pull this off in a believable way, but still. (Bonus points if it belongs to the character.)
  • Have the character get shot by a random bullet and never spoken of again (they should have done this to Jar Jar Binks).
  • Have the character get hit by a penny someone dropped off the Empire State Building, and then have another character, having witnessed the event, say to his friend, “See, I told you a penny dropped from the Empire State Building would kill you. You owe me a twenty bucks.” and then his friend would say, “Okay, fine,” and begrudgingly hand him the money. They both walk away like nothing happened.
  • Have him/her die from a severe chronic nosebleed.
  • Or from suffocating on a basketball (it’s possible).
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16 thoughts on “Killing off Characters

  1. I totally agree with everything you said – and awesome ways to kill people, btw.

    I personally tend to add death and sex (some of my favorite things to write) with the same measure of caution. Will it further the story and/or entertain without being disruptive? If Y, proceed. If N, rework.

    Of course, during NaNoWriMo or some other kind of wordcount spree, these are my go-to filler, regardless of the plot.

    1. I did the same thing last April. I am ashamed of it (not really).

      Also, I killed of one of my characters using the last option on the list of ways to kill people. It was a comedy spoof story, one that I put barely any effort into.

  2. Killing characters is one of the best things about writing because its fun and really sad at the same time. Reading about characters dying? Not so much. I spend the entire rest of the novel in desperate denial. That’s probably why the last character I killed resurrected himself in the second draft.
    Btw, mythbusters busted the penny from the empire state building myth

    1. i compltely agree, though I tend to stay away from resurrections.

      So by busting the myth, does that mean they proved it’s not true or that it is true? Because someone once threw a penny at me from twenty(ish) feet away and it was really painful.(It left a scar, somehow.) I could only imagine getting hit by one that’s falling from 2,000 feet (or however tall the empire state building is).

      1. Resurrections probably aren’t the best idea (unless you’re Jesus, of course), but that character just had way too much life and chance left in him to properly die :’)
        And busted means that they disproved it.

  3. I agree with your post completely.

    P.S. I can’t believe you didn’t put a slow death by infection on you’re list of awesome deaths. You could reveal it to the reader at the beginning of the book, and keep giving them false hope of a cure until the character dies, or reveal at the end and watch as the reader realizes in horror that the character was dying from the moment we met him. Either way, it’s very painful.
    … Not that I’ve thought about it a lot. Muahaha.

      1. Exactly.
        And if the infection is painless, or symptomless (until death), you wouldn’t know who’s infected.

  4. ROTFL! Using a penny dropped from The Empire State Building to kill a character? Hilarious! I’m going to have to use that.

    I used to be afraid to kill characters. I saw how mad people were when Dobby and Fred were killed (including me) and I didn’t want to be “that author.” Of course, as I got older, I realized it was too–unrealistic to have ALL of the bad guys die and none of the good guys. Then I went a little crazy and killed off too many good guys.

    Gosh, being the God of a fictional world is hard work!

      1. Hey, they’re real to the writers and (hopefully) the readers. 😉 You know you’re a good author when you can make the readers feel as if they’ve known the characters for years.

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