This post was written specifically for the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop.
For this month’s AuthorToolbox, I’d like to talk about the way we, as writers, handle the death of a character. Not the actual means of their death, (for one thing, that would be a significantly longer post) but rather the why of them being killed off. Ask yourself, what purpose does this death serve?
Of course, I’m talking more specifically about the deaths of named characters. Depending on your genre, you might have armies of orcs being wiped out or entire planets being blown up but those tend to be more abstract than the death of a character that your readers have become invested in, for good or ill. Each major death should have an impact; on the plot, on the other characters and, ideally, on the reader themselves.
Here are some ideas on why a death might be necessary, how they can be used and things to try to avoid.
It’s the inciting event.
There are plenty of mysteries/thrillers etc, that start off with a death, or where the death occurs beforehand. The hard part with this is that the reader has no initial connection to the victim. Instead, the hook is how that death affects the character. Was it someone they knew and will miss? Maybe they’ll be blamed for the death. Or maybe the story follows an investigator and we come to know the dead character as they do.
It’s the natural outcome of their actions or decisions.
The decisions characters make have consequences and, sometimes, that consequence is their death. The added bonus of this is that it helps reinforce the potential danger to the characters left behind, whether they were enemies or allies.
It motivates other characters.
Killing off someone close to a primary character can often be used as a motivating factor; see any number of action films. It might be that it leads the character to seek revenge, maybe it results in them dedicating themselves to preventing the same tragedy happening to others. And don’t be afraid to show your character’s grieving.
It showcases your antagonist’s villainy.
What better way to show how bad your bad guy is that to have them kill a favourite supporting character? You can combine this with the previous one, if you want to up the animosity between them.
NB – Where either of the above two can become problematic is when the character being killed has no other story function than to be killed. There’s a reason why Redshirts and Women in Refrigerators become tropes.
It keeps your readers guessing.
If you kill a character that you’ve set up so readers expect them to survive, then you’ll not only shake them, you’ll leave them wondering who could be next. If you can do this when everything seems to be going right for them, then the reversal can be even more striking.
It’s just their time.
Maybe the character has reached an appropriate end to their storyline. In which case, do you keep them around just for the sake of keeping them around? Or can their death serve one of the purposes above?
I realize I’m only scratching the surface of this topic here. Maybe I can expand on it more in another post.
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