As writers, we are sometimes accused of gloating or chuckling evilly to ourselves in dark castles over the sorrow we cause readers when we kill favorite characters. I won’t confirm or deny that, but I will say that writers who reap tears from readers will feel the deep satisfaction of a job well done, because they’ve made readers care about the characters.
But whether we weep over our characters’ deaths, rub our hands and grin over them, or indulge in both reactions by turn, several points must be considered when deciding if a character needs to die, how he should die, and the end result.
Does Your Character Really Need to Die?
Not everyone has to die. Otherwise no one would be left to mourn the deceased, and where’s the fun in that? Also, sequels tend to need living characters to fill the pages and bring readers back to your stories. In all seriousness though, depending on what you are writing, it’s likely that a character (or two, or ten) will die—but you must have a reason.
Don’t kill for shock effect; it’s simply not good form. Although it’s not wrong to plot a character’s death that does shock the reader, your reason should be larger. Merely wanting to get rid of a character is not sufficient. Perhaps the death emphasizes the cost of the struggle or the character of the villain. Perhaps it deepens or pulls together the theme of the book. Perhaps it keeps the main character moving or thrusts him back into action. Perhaps it foreshadows a later scene of the book. Death can fulfill many purposes and be heartbreaking for both the reader and the characters. (Writers may have hidden depths of darkness. But dying characters cause us sorrow as well, and we are more than willing to pass the suffering on to our readers.)
If you kill a character, don’t focus on the person everyone expects to die. The mentor, for example. One way or another the main character will have to venture out on his own, but mentor deaths have been so overdone that even a well-written and well-reasoned death might lose some of its power. Plenty of other characters can die without warning. In a book, no one is safe—not even the main character nowadays (though, quite frankly, I much prefer my main character to survive, even if there is a solid reason he should die).
How Should Your Character Die?
Once you’ve figured out which character needs to perish and why, then comes the fun (I mean, sad) part—the actual death.
Is the character murdered by a villain? Does he sacrifice himself to defend a friend? Does a tunnel collapse on him, or does he catch a terrible cold? In real life, most deaths are not the result of heroic actions. Old age, sickness, accidents…the list could go on and on. I’m not necessarily recommending a mundane death, but if it fits the story and enhances the realism, it is an option to use on occasion.
Beyond the method of death is the human element. Is the death someone’s fault? Could it have been prevented? Was it an accident? Did the character expect it and stand firm, or did he flee and fall anyway? The grief of the doomed character’s friends/family can easily be worsened by guilt and doubts of all kinds.
Once you’ve decided on a death, make it as heart-wrenching as possible for everyone involved. Perhaps the character dies while failing. Or maybe he succeeds, but dies thinking he’s let down those he loves. Perhaps he not only gives up his life, but also his reputation for a friend. Maybe he dies at the peak of success and happiness, or in the middle of his character arc. Maybe…but I’ll stop. It’s much too easy to scheme a heartbreaking death. I’ll leave the details up to you.
How is the Death of Your Character Presented?
The view of death held by your character and his friends/family will affect how your character faces death and the thoughts of those left behind. Your character has died, but for the rest of your cast, it’s not the end. They have to deal with the sorrow, the mourning, and any remorse or anger they harbor.
The way that death is regarded in your story will depend on whether your characters hold a Christian worldview. Is death the exit into nothingness or into final peace? Is it the last great adventure, the final sleep of deep rest, or the last path a man must walk? Is it dark and to be feared, or is it the parting of a curtain, when all the world turns to silver glass and white shores, and a far green country appears under a swift sunrise?
Is the Character Truly Dead?
Supposed deaths are so much fun. We can inflict emotional trauma without lasting damage. And the reunions are a joy to write. However, supposed deaths have been done enough that readers will probably be skeptical if they can’t see a body or if the body is suspiciously beyond recognition.
Convincing the characters that their friend is dead will probably be easier than convincing your readers, but both is possible. You can show the “death.” You can have a spy or traitor lie about an already convincing “death” when the character has really been taken prisoner. You can plant tokens on an unrecognizable body that will seemingly identify the character in question. Of course, you should also include the faintest hints of foreshadowing so it doesn’t seem like cheating when you bring your character back to life.
Use faked deaths sparingly, however, or else your readers won’t accept a real death, assuming that the character will walk back through the door when needed.
The pen can kill as readily as the sword, and in more ways than one. But when it comes to novel writing, be sure you have a reason for every death, and then don’t be afraid to make it as heartbreaking as possible. The emotional turmoil is well worth the effort.