Killing Your Characters

There is a hierarchy among your characters – main, secondary, occasional, and cameos. Some are killable, and others aren’t, or so many literary “experts” say. They claim that main characters are in the “not killable” category. But it’s open season on the others. In reality, killing your characters is totally at your discretion as the author. However, you have some things to consider before you bump off any of them, especially the main characters.

1. Method

You can go traditional (sickness, shooting, stabbing, choking, poison, accident, etc.) or offbeat (complex situations that often mean the victim has to be in just the right spot at the right time). The genre in which you are writing will help determine this as well as how you do the deed.

  • Romantic fiction – less detail and more traditional. (Rodney put his hands around her throat and squeezed until he knew she was dead.)
  • Horror – the gorier and more offbeat, the better. (Rodney slashed her throat with his long-bladed knife and laughed as the blood spurted from her carotid artery, lapping up the drops that splashed on his face.)
  • SciFi – high tech and unusual. (Rodney injected the nanobots into her throat and watched as they multiplied into a bulge in the side of her neck, slowly suffocating her.)
  • Murder mystery – a bit of gore, realistic, and possibly a bit offbeat or startling. (The woman’s body was lying on the floor, showing clear signs of strangulation. Rodney just shrugged as the Police Detective studied first the body and then him, saying, “The person who finds the body is often the killer.”)
  • Action/Adventure – same as murder mystery but a bit more “active.” (Rodney stepped back as the Police Detective entered the room to examine the woman’s body, seeing clearly the marks of two strong hands on the throat. Rodney took a step to run away, and the detective grabbed him. A knockdown, drag out fight ensued.)

The British murder mystery series Midsomer Murders is full of situations that rely on improbabilities – that victim being in exactly the right spot at the right time, etc. It works for them. The series is intended to be a somewhat lighthearted approach to characters biting the big one. If you don’t intend humor, think through your character’s death very carefully. Make it believable. (The more I work out my own death scenarios, the more I see these improbabilities in TV and literature.)

2. Approach

You can dive right in and kill off a character in your book’s opening – a popular technique in an age when writers have to have a “grab the reader” opening in order for a publisher to take interest in their opus. Or you can build up to it, being careful not to give too much away. Sometimes you might be rolling along and see the perfect opportunity to whack a character. Just be sure you’ve done the right setup. Going back and rewriting earlier scenes (or even an earlier manuscript that’s part of the same series) might be necessary.

Thinking ahead is definitely key, but you can always go barreling along with your writing and then back track and add in necessary set up items later. For example, an important scene in the first chapter of Beyond Hammil Valley (book 3 of The Freelan Novels series) has a main character killing an occasional character who first appears in The Hammil Valley Effect (book 2 of series). The entire scenario was given careful thought. I had to have everything work logistically as well as fitting the characters. What I found is that book 2 hadn’t really set the stage for this event (my character had to have the right skills to carry out the killing), so I had to go back to that manuscript and do some additions and editing, an advantage of not having the series in publication yet. I also killed off a main character (protagonist) in book 3. Again, the scenario had to be given a lot of thought, with the stage being set in advance. Not to give away too much, he pissed off the wrong person (also a protagonist) who had friends “in all the wrong places.” Another example spans several manuscripts (as of the writing of this post, but things could change). In Year 8 of The Freelan Journals series a secondary character dies of a health condition that is diagnosed in book 3 of the series. (I’m a non-discriminatory character whacker! No level in the hierarchy is safe.)

3. Risks

Your biggest risk in killing off a main character is that your fans may not be the least bit happy about it. In fact, they may revolt.

A couple examples:

  • Agatha Christie killed off Hercule Poirot, had to bring him back.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, had to bring him back.

Sometimes, though, you have to do what you have to do. A main character’s death might be needed to make a point, such as when bestselling author Ayn Rand killed off a heroine in one of her novels (I don’t want to specify, it would be a spoiler). You may have to kill off a main character to move your story along. The death of that main character may spur another character to revenge, for example.

Final Word

Killing off characters willy-nilly is not the best answer. Nor is killing one off because you’re bored with him. I would have loved to have kept that protagonist going, but frankly his time had come, plot wise, and I had his replacement lined up and ready to go – someone far more insidious. Know when your characters’ time has come, keep it believable, and make sure it fits your genre.

Hope you found this helpful and have been inspired to start and/or continue writing!

Please check out my WIPs. And thanks for reading.

See also: More on Characters and Crafting Your Characters

Disclaimer: I get no compensation for links in this post or on my site to other sites and/or products.

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