Killing Off Characters – Knowing When to Drop the Guillotine

Killing off your characters, while heartbreaking for some, and a joyous field day for others, is something that should not be taken lightly. Kill off too many characters, and your audience becomes irritated. Kill of a beloved character prematurely, and you may face a backlash.

Yet there comes a time when a character has had his moment of glory, and is ready to be retired. If you handle this correctly, you can create a monumental force of emotion in the story. But before you drop the guillotine, understand when it is, and is not, appropriate to do so.

Here are some points to consider:

1. Does it move the plot forward?

Killing off a character can further the plot, provided that you create the right situation.

*SPOILER* In A Game of Thrones, think of when Eddard Stark was executed. Not only was it a monumental event, but it shifted the plot entirely from where it appeared to be heading. That event was a game changer, and moved the story forward in an unexpected direction.

Consider the following questions:

  • If you send your character to the chopping block, does it move the plot along?
  • Does the character’s death contribute to the development of another character?
  • Are you simply looking for a way to remove this character from the story?

2. Are you killing this character for dramatic effect?

When cast members are expendable, it is possible to kill characters simply for dramatic effect. This can be used to either shock or frighten the audience. Think of a typical horror movie, where a group of teenagers venture into the woods and are killed off until only a few remain. However, sometimes a seemingly important character is killed off at an awkward time, preventing the audience from getting to know why the character was so important as to be mentioned within the story.

Before killing a character for dramatic effect, ask yourself the following:

  • Does this character really have that little of value to the plot that you can kill them off so easily?
  • Has this character served his purpose, or does he still have a role to play in the story?
  • Does the removal of this character really serve to improve the story?
  • Is this the right situation in which to kill off the character?

3. Consider the bond between you, the characters, and your audience:

Some writers become so attached to their characters that they’ll never let anything bad happen to them. As a storyteller, this approach is limiting. You need to realize when the appropriate time to say goodbye is.

Ponder these points:

  • How much of a connection will your readers have with this character?
  • What do you want your readers to feel when this character dies?
  • How will the remaining characters respond to the death?

In a sense, when you kill a character, you’re ending a part of your story. Be sure that you don’t end it at the wrong point. Nor do you want to leave anything that the deceased character set in motion unable to be finished. Everything needs to weave together.

How do you handle the deaths of your own characters? Do you have any tips for reaping the most emotional impact from a character’s demise?

Codey Amprim

Codey is an aspiring fantasy writer and enthusiast who gets lost developing plot points inside of his head instead of paying attention to his factory job. Codey is slowly chipping away on a lifelong project of his, a saga of men and demons, the light and the dark, on a cataclysmic collision course that threatens the existence of both spectrums. In his free time, he enjoys long, romantic walks on Summoner’s Rift and gunning down aliens on Halo rings. Words of encouragement are always welcomed, as he may be contacted via Mythic Scribes or on his Facebook page.
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BabbleBubble
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BabbleBubble

I love my character. He is the bread and butter to this story. But in order for the main character to develop and become who she was meant to be this character has to be killed. Of course it will be hard but without his death the stroy would go no where and there would be no point in it. Just so you get a heads up… dont fall in love with Daniel to much! It will make it harder in the end.

Meredith L
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Meredith L

I kill off an important character at the end of my story. I knew he would die going in – his death is necessary, both as part of the mythology my story is based on, and as part of my two main characters’ motivation for the action at the end of the story. I’m always tempted to warn people who read my drafts, “Don’t get too attached to X!” Heh.

Sonia G Medeiros
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Sonia G Medeiros

I’ll admit I was pretty pissed when Eddard Stark got his head lopped off. I do understand the value to the story but it was still pretty infuriating…still is. I guess that means GRRM did his job LOL. I have a couple of character deaths planned for my WIP. They are necessary to the plot and hopefully they’ll affect the readers (but not so much they throw my book across the room LOL).

EliseShedd
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EliseShedd

I am definitely thinking about killing off one of my characters as a form of self-sacrifice and that character being redeemed at the end. It may add more emotional depth to the other characters that have fallen in love with the character who dies in the story.

Heather
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Heather

I’m planning on doing something similar. Its going to be hard for me, because he is the fun, swashbuckler type, and I think people are really going to like him. In the end, some of the characters have to die. Otherwise it seems strange when all of the important ones continue to pull through.

EliseShedd
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EliseShedd

Now I know in the new series of Dune, my favorite series, Duncan Idaho gets remade into a ghola or a clone if I am not mistaken. I remember reading a synopsis from one of the books.

Mythic Scribes
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Mythic Scribes

John, any thoughts on what they did with Duncan Idaho in the Dune series?

John Tlustachowski
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John Tlustachowski

I like to memorialize fallen heroes. We even made a village church and cemetery set where they earned their final rest. I never resurrect heroes in the game. We want death to be a tragic possibility. If characters die and can simply “come back” then what’s the point? As characters progress, their feats become more heroic, their deaths also become more epic and dramatic. It makes the overall story that much more interesting and in the end, the game that much more fun.

Heather
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Heather

Interesting. I don’t write a game, but I think having my characters remember their friend in a memorable way would be great.

WeepingOath
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WeepingOath

@GriffithPublish @mythicscribes I feel so bad when I do that and never fully recover. ^__^

thetruereaver
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thetruereaver

@Elena Alexyev: I couldn’t agree more! I love to get the reader emotionally involved with a character and then kill them off unexpectedly.

Mel McWilliams-Chesley
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Mel McWilliams-Chesley

But killing characters is legal! Oh and fun, don’t forget fun! XD

F. Simon Grant
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F. Simon Grant

It should be inevitable & necessary — it has to be absolutely true to the story’s soul. Otherwise, it’s cheap. You have to trust the reader to catch on to cheap & that will blunt the impact.

Elena Alexyev
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Elena Alexyev

Make it sudden and unexpected

Jessica Harkness
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Jessica Harkness

Taking a shot before they utter their finals words usually takes the away the sting.

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