Killing off major characters means a drastic change in both the tone and plot of your story. This is the post about how you decide when to kill off a character, and when to stay your hand.
When to Kill a Character
There are two ideal times to kill off a character.
The first is when you have set up for their death and it is the only logical conclusion to a situation. If the villain has them at sword point, if a heroic sacrifice is the only option, or if death is the logical conclusion to the character arc and anything else would feel contrived, kill them. Even if you didn’t anticipate removing them from the story, don’t be afraid to kill them off and see where things go, especially if they’re a secondary character.
The second is the moment that they become more interesting dead than alive. If their death will push the story forwards in a meaningful way and will open up new possibilities, kill them off. The same, if things are too easy with them around, or if getting rid of them will force the other characters to step up and act creatively. Death changes the way that both readers and characters interact with the deceased, and it alters their role in the story dramatically. This is especially true of characters who hold an important position (political or otherwise), and of characters who either take things with them or leave things behind.
When Not To Kill A Character
The inverse of the circumstances for killing a character hold here. Even if you had initially planned to kill off a character, if the story develops such that the circumstances no longer justify their death you’re usually better off sparing them than making them bleed out from a papercut. And if a character is more interesting alive, the same is true. Generally, if you need a character for future plot developments and their death would stall the story, its in your interest to keep them around.
Another good reason to spare a character is because you don’t have the space to deal with the consequences of their death. Killing off a lot of characters at once requires great care, as does killing off characters at the very end of the story, because both of these situations make it difficult for the story to fully realize the implications, and risk coming across as abrupt. If you do plan to kill a character very close to the end of the story, best practice is to set up their death beforehand. This makes it so that readers have a good idea of what the consequences are, and so that it feels like part of the resolution rather than a loose end.
You also generally don’t want to kill off characters in freak accidents. This includes car crashes (for characters who weren’t engaging in risky behavior) and medical emergencies like heart attacks and aneurysms (for characters who haven’t been coping with a preexisting condition). Sudden accidental deaths happens in real life, and they’re devastating. But they make for bad fiction. There isn’t much drama when a character dies in a way that has nothing to do with their own choices or the choices of another major character. This undercuts their agency, and becomes a missed opportunity for characterization.
When to Really, Really Not Kill a Character, and Maybe Think About Your Life Choices
Do not kill off women just to give male characters something to brood about. This is called stuffing the woman in the fridge, and it makes her death all about the man. It takes away her personhood and turns her into a tragic figure for the man to angst over as he wallows in his man-pain. It’s also a tired cliché. And my god, is it sexist. It sends a message to women that even their death revolves around men. Doubly true if the woman is killed by another male character to get back at the first guy. Women are not pawns to be pushed around and thrown away for the emotional development of men. If a woman dies, make her death about her.
Do not kill off minorities to make a point. We have enough tragic minorities. Like stuffing women in the fridge, it’s a cliché. It’s also seriously problematic. Minorities should not be more disposable than other character, should not exist solely to make a point, and should be able to have an equal shot at a happy ending as any other characters.This is a cheap way of removing them from the story to deny long-term representation. Depending on the circumstances, it can also be tokenizing. POCs, trans people, disabled people, and the queer community do not exist to be a tragic footnote in someone else’s story. (As if anyone needed proof that this was a problem, this chart is a good place to start.).
Both of these tropes emphasize the disposability of characters who aren’t able-bodied, cis, straight, white, and male, and normalize violence against these groups. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever kill off any marginalized characters. It does mean that before you do, you should ask yourself why you want to kill them off and think very carefully about how you plan to handle their death, and whether its really necessary.