Killing off a character isn’t easy. If you do it too bluntly, it won’t be memorable. If you make it unrealistic, you lose reader involvement. If you kill off too many characters, then death scenes lose their impact. Yet, when you pull it off, the death scene has a firm place in the reader's memory, it adds to your story and makes that character special.
Here are some of my top tips for killing off a character!
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1. Make it Necessary
Of course, killing off a character should have some reason behind it. While there are many we can cover, there is one that is above any other.
Is it necessary for the plot?
The plot should be the first thing you consider. If you have a set plot to follow and the story can't continue until a certain character dies, then you don't need another reason. Write the scene with confidence and continue your story.
However, if you are writing on instinct, letting the story flow from your imagination, or perhaps you want to kill a particular character off despite your plot plan, you need to find a way to work it into your story. Make it so that the story requires this particular character to be killed off.
You need to be able to ask yourself, "Will killing this character add to the story? Will it push the plot forward?" and say 'yes' to both questions.
Personally, I highly recommend taking a step back and replanning your novel or at least go over the plot when you make this decision. You never know what character will really 'click' with a reader. It might be easier to kill off an annoying character, but to kill off a side character that a reader might find charming is a different story.
By creating a reason your characters and reader can understand, you make that death scene necessary for your novel. That goes a long way to making the death scene memorable and impactful.
It is very easy to see when a writer doesn't think much on a death scene. There is an almost jarring difference between the scene and their other writing. The extra planning helps fit the scene into your story, making the writing flow once again.
2. Make it Motivate
Now, let's talk about how some deaths affect the characters close to the deceased.
The relationship between your characters really matters. If you have a character who loses a love interest, a wave of emotions will carry them down a dark path. Misery, anger and a bunch of other stages, not necessarily in that order, might follow.
In which case, what happens to these characters in regards to the story?
Typically, a protagonist's death will motivate other protagonists. These characters will feel a sense of duty to avenge their fallen comrade, or they will use it as added fuel to their ambition, or their anger, or their sense of right and wrong.
While on the other side of the conflict, the fall of a protagonist, especially a formidable one, will motivate the antagonist and vice versa. An antagonist will become enraged, while the protagonist is encouraged.
Sometimes, death isn't so simple.
Unless you are writing a story involving a battle between good and evil, a death of a character might just make another character sad. Their influence on other characters really depends on the relationship between the characters and the story you are trying to tell.
Some deaths will be more important than others, once more depending on the character relationship. However, when it comes to human nature, it is common for people to rise when they fall. A character will accept the death of someone close to them, grow stronger and grow wiser.
Don't underestimate this link between your characters. It can make scenes more emotionally moving.
3. Make it Realistic
Many writers today kill off their characters for realisms sake over anything else.
If a character is shot, more often than not the bullet seems to miss a vital organ or simply graze one. In which case, a few bandages and a rush to the nearest doctor results in the character getting back on their feet a few days later.
However, that's something else entirely. Returning to the subject, your character is dying, it needs to be a realistic death. To make it realistic, consider the way in which you kill them.
For example, if a character is run through with a sword, the positioning of the sword and whether it is still lodged in them should tell you how long they have to live. It could be anything from five seconds to five minutes in rare cases.
Next, consider their pain and the amount of strength they might have.
If one is dying from a particular disease, in most cases they will feel really weak. It will affect their actions, the way they speak and the way they think.
And returning to the sword-kebab, if there is a large stick of metal running through their body, it's fair to say that their last words will be both gory and said through gritted teeth.
The point being, no matter how your character dies, it needs to be handled realistically. First, the situation in which they die needs to make sense. Next, the way they handle their dying stage, if they have one, should also make sense.
Finally, if at all possible, give them dignity in their death.
When done right, the reader will be more focused, more invested, in their last words or how they die, instead of pondering the plausibility of their death or the manner in which they died. The last thing you want to do is break immersion with an unbelievable death scene.
4. Make it Matter
It's not only the characters that are affected by death.
A death scene, one that deserves some relative attention, should always affect the world or the plot. There needs to be an influence in some way.
It could be that one character falls in battle to protect another. It could be that they fall nearby so another character can pick their sword up and continue the fight. It could be that a character depended on the deceased and must now manage their life alone.
It could be that the character mattered to the world space in a major way.
For example, sticking to the medieval hypotheticals, the benevolent queen dies and is succeeded by a tyrannical king. That is a death that clearly matters to everyone in the kingdom, to such a degree it might be the catalyst that brings the kingdom crumbling down.
The effect it has makes that death more important. Characters will talk about it, use it to affect other people's decisions and so on.
Another example, a character takes a step down a dangerous corridor, setting off a trap and being vaporized by some hidden laser. That is a death that matters for the people following in that character's footsteps, as they will try to avoid making the same careless mistake.
Finally, it could simply matter to the plot. The character's death not only serves to develop some character, or an aspect of the world, but it adds to the depth of the plot as well.
Once more, this is something you can really play with depending on the story you want to tell. Some characters die and become martyrs for others, leaving a lasting effect on the revolution against the tyrant king.
Other characters die and in doing so, teach others which berries not to eat.
5. Consider Using Foreshadowing
The final tip I want to talk about is more based on personal advice.
Typically, I write thrillers and horrors, which means I deal in a lot of death when it comes to characters, from the innocent victims to the noblest heroes. One of the tools that I've taken to using in particular death scenes is making use of foreshadowing, both obvious and subtle.
In obvious cases, I leave clues for the character. Strange signs, ominous signs, giving them that feeling of dread. The reader sees this and reads into it a lot a lot better than the character. Next, a strange noise makes a character leave the safety of their home. A sense of anxiety builds until they finally get the chop.
In less obvious cases, I mention the instrument of their destruction, or I give them a metaphorical dream. I might subtly mention small, important pieces throughout the story, all leading up to the death scene.
Foreshadowing can be done like a thriller writer, or it can be done differently. A character might go on a suicide mission for a cause they believe in. Or there might be a prophecy dictating their death. Or there needs to be a sacrifice to summon a big, bad monster.
Point being, the reader knows that a major character is going to die. The question is who, when and how?
Foreshadowing adds a nice weight to a death scene, as it is expected, but if done right, just as impactful. It might work for your story, so be sure to consider it when plotting your character’s death scene.
I've read and written my fair share of death scenes. Some of them I approached coldly, knowing that the character was destined to die. Other times, even though the death is planned, I found myself regretting writing their death.
Some characters are tough to lose.
However, that is what writers want to achieve with their writing. At least, that's what we want our readers to feel when they read the death scene. We want them to feel the right emotions, we want to make an impact.
I want to encourage, like I always do when it comes to writing major scenes, that you take your time. Don't be afraid to be poetic or to be grim. Try your best to create that desired feeling.
With that, I thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!