When a Character Dies

I’d say it’s high time we talked about character death.

As a writer, there is absolutely nothing more fun than plotting a character’s death.

As a reader, there is absolutely nothing more agonizing than reading a character’s death.

(This is why it’s so much fun for writers.)

All people eventually die. It is a sad part of life, that it must end. Unlike real people, characters need not die unless writers kill them.

This is the one thing we should bring out into the open before we move on: if characters die, no one killed them but the writer. I don’t care what the circumstances were, whether a serial killer or falling boulder, the writer of the story is at fault. He is playing God in a shadowbox, and whatever he says goes. Now that we have that clearly paced, we can move on.

All writers are usually readers as well. Show me a soul who loses his identity in the novel he’s fallen into like a pit, and I’ll show you a sap with writing potential. Writers: keep this in mind. Remember how distraught you became at the death of your favorite character? That is what you are creating in the heart of your readers whenever you kill someone in your book. Is this bad? We shall see.

I’m not saying this to keep you from killing your characters, (good Lord no, that would never work. You guys grind people up like a hamburger mill, don’t you?) but rather to inform you that something very valuable and useful is happening right in front of you, and I don’t want you to miss it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aim of a storyteller is to manipulate and influence the emotions of a reader in the path of story, not unlike the physical manipulations of a roller coaster. When something happens in your story that affects a reader, don’t waste it! Use it!

Don’t tell a joke just to be funny; use that laugh to break a tense moment.

Don’t create conflict just because you like to see people argue; use this conflict to create confused feelings in your reader.

Don’t kill a character just because he has to die, or it will resolve your problems a little; use that event to direct your readers’ sorrow to where it will better serve the plot.

I know that writers kill characters for a number of reasons: to galvanize other characters to action, to give weight and importance to an event, or to prove that your bad guy is worse than imagined.

These are great reasons, and killing a character will certainly direct the story in these ways. But you must keep in mind that when a character dies, your audience will immediately shift (if your character has been lovable enough, of course. If so, good job.) into the five stages of grief.

Denial. We normally deny that a character is really dead. When it becomes clear that he or she is, we move into

Anger. This is important: who is your reader angry at? If the antagonist, good. Keep up the good work. If your character is dead because of random events, this anger is transferred to you, the author. This is not good. The job of an author is to create a believable secondary world where the story is happening. The instant that a reader becomes conscious of your actions as a writer, the story is done for.

In the words of Tolkien: “The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.”

This is to be avoided at all costs.

If properly handled, Anger can propel us until we are

Bargaining. Not with the author, but with the villain of the book. This immerses the reader farther into the Secondary World. But be careful. Before too long, your readers will have entered

Depression. If you have done your job well, your readers will have reached this stage and are mourning the death of the character. Soon they will rush through the book to see if there is any gratification in his death. Bravo.

If you have instead killed him off for the sake of killing, then you have a problem. Your readers may very well be depressed, but outside of the book. You want their depression to work from inside the story.

If not, the reader is locked in a loop of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. The book will have affected their life, yes, but at the cost of story.

Acceptance. This is where you must make the death worthwhile. Don’t waste this. Make the death count for something. These are your characters, yes? They’re in the story for a reason, yes? Not just to fill the numbers of a body count, I hope.

If you must kill a character, by all means kill a character. But do so in a way that hides your manipulations from your reader.

Have the villain, or actions of the villain, kill the character.

Let a characters death be the result of his own poorly made decisions or actions.

Use the death to a certain end, and don’t kill wantonly.

If you do, you’re no better than a villain yourself.

Thanks for reading! I hope this gives you writers a little insight and allows you to plan out your stories with more confidence. Take care! -BW

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