The death of a major or secondary character can impact your story in a big way. As such, it’s important to understand what character death will–and won’t–do for your story so that you can use each death to its full effect.
Effects Character Death May Reasonably Have on Your Story
Killing a character will change the tone of the story, especially if the character is fairly major. It signals that things have gotten serious and it ups the risk factor. The closer that the deceased is to the main character, the more direct the threat to the MC appears.
Killing a character will also open up opportunities for different sorts of characterization and character interactions. The way that the deceased faced their own death may be used to make a statement about them. Likewise, the way that other characters react may be telling. Consider the complexities of how each character regarded the deceased before they died. Not everyone is going to be sad, and there may be a lot of mixed feelings. Figure out how each character feels (Upset? Conflicted? Vindicated?) and how they would personally choose to express these feelings–hint: it isn’t always going to be tears.
It’s worth noting that characters cannot always express how they feel, and that sometimes circumstances prevent them from mourning–or not mourning–openly. Bear in mind that emotional outbursts are cathartic. Delaying emotional outbursts delays this catharsis, and builds tension.
Also think about the impact on the plot. If the deceased had unfinished business, if other characters know things about them that are better left unsaid, or if they took important information to the grave, that’s going to come into play. Their death may have been used to advance a particular agenda, and may have far-reaching consequences. There is also the question of whether the death happened on the page, or if details have been withheld to add an air of mystery to the surrounding circumstances.
If you plan to write a funeral or memorial service for the characters, its worth thinking about this as an opportunity. Funerals allow you to gather a large number of important characters in one place, which means that they can facilitate all kinds of plot developments or act as a staging ground for other interesting events. That said, note that memorials that do not lead to larger plot or character development are fluff, and reader interest is directly proportional to how invested the reader was in the deceased.
Things Character Death Probably Won’t Do
Killing off characters won’t make your story sad. It also won’t make your story deep. These things come from how you chose to handle the character deaths and how you set up for them. If readers don’t care about a character, they’re not going to be sad when that character dies. They’re also won’t necessarily see any meaning in the character’s death.Character death is not a shortcut to reader investment. In fact, trying to milk a character death for all the reader-feelings that it’s worth often come across as exploitative, and usually just makes people roll their eyes.
Additionally, killing more characters does not mean that the impact will be greater. The impact comes from how the reader felt about the character prior to the character’s death, and from the actual the circumstances of the death. Rather than turning the ending of your story into Shakespearean tragedy, you may be better served by picking off one or two characters and doing it well—unless the point of the story is that no one gets away.
Writing Like a Boss: Do I Have to Kill My Characters to Have a Kickass Novel?
No. The only thing that you have to do to tell a good story is tell a good story. There are excellent, fast paced, gripping stories in which no one dies. Death is not the scariest thing that can happen to a character, nor the saddest or the most profound. Likewise, you can keep the stakes high by threatening something that the main character cares about, even if it isn’t a life or death situation. If you’re going to kill off a character, you should be killing them off because you think that their death is the best thing for the story.
Coming Friday: When to Kill Your Characters