This is a tough thing to do sometimes, unless you’ve set that character up to die from the start. If you have an Obi Wan Kenobi just waiting to be sacrificed for the main character’s development, that’s one thing, but what about a character whom you may not have initially intended to kill off? What about a character that’s had significant development and may have actually survived the first story as you write the sequel?

That’s where things get a little more shaky. The first thing you should ask yourself is ‘why?’

Why do you want to kill this character off? Has their story gone as far as it can and there is no other way to out that person? Will the plot be furthered by killing that person off? How will your audience react?

Killing a character has a sense of permanence about it (unless you write for Marvel or DC, in which case you kill a character off to bring them back a week later). Should you decide to do this, think very carefully on how it would affect the rest of the cast. Is it someone who needs to be killed off?

In my writing, I came to a point in my stories where I knew that I had to make this move. One of my characters had to die off… and I knew I was going to get in a lot of trouble for doing it because the one that I had in mind was one that had been with my readers since the beginning.

So when the time came and I killed off one of my characters… I can not begin to describe the angry emails I got. I seriously thought that I was destined for a ‘Misery’ episode… good lord!

I guess in the end, what I’m saying is that if you’re going to kill off a character, ESPECIALLY A POPULAR ONE, just be ready for the storm that will follow and make sure that the fans understand why you did what you did.

42 Comments on “Killing off a Character…

  1. Very good points. I have been struggling with whether or not to kill off a rather prominent character of mine at the end of the series. He must sacrifice himself in some way, just not sure if it needs to be that final yet. Guess we’ll see as I progress. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the very helpful tips!

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  2. In my ‘Silent Resistance’ I knew that one of the ‘good guys’ would have to die in order the others to bond, so I chose the character with least character, and did early on in the tale so that his sudden. unexpected death came as a shock to the characters but not the reader. I couldn’t have done it any other way: I don’t kill off my friends – even imaginary ones.

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  3. Thanks James for liking several of my post on my blog Brenda’s Bookshelf. I appreciated this essay on killing off a character! I guess one of the most fearless current writers to do this is George R.R. Martin in his Game of Thrones series. The moment when Eddard (Ned) Stark is beheaded is so unexpected and shocking and yet at some visceral level moves the story forward and let’s the reader know that they are in the hands of a master of story telling.
    I wish you continued success in your writing!

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    • Thank you very much! Yeah I don’t know how George does it. He must have this all planned out in advance, like he knows who’s not going to make it. That’s the only way. Honestly, when I kill off a character, I don’t always necessarily plan on doing so, it really just happens and it’s hard to stomach.

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      • Sorry it got away from me.. What I meant to say was that I agree that It is hard to kill of a character and I admire how George does it. he never seems to stint in investing in these characters, even though he must know how their story arc will end. That, to me is the sign of a good story teller, willing to sacrifice their investment in and attachment to a character for the larger story arc.

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      • That’s in some ways the best though, when you don’t plan on something happening – it means the story has grown without you and you’re basically just along for the ride! πŸ™‚

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  4. Ahhh, we should be so lucky as to have a readership who gives a rip about our measly characters. When, tiring of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off at Reichenbach Falls, there was a maelstrom of invective hurled at him! You know the rest! You’ve been warned. *g*

    Ron

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    • No problem… a character I decided needed to be killed off… I actually modeled after my wife. She was not happy. Case and point, I don’t model characters after people anymore… at least not with their knowledge.
      Glad you liked the post!

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  5. I have a character set to die in the second book of the series and while it makes sense to me and the plot, I often wonder how it will be received. I know when a favorite character of mine gets killed off, I get pretty upset – which may be what the writer intended. Luckily, mine is part of the main group of characters but not a lead by any means.

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  6. Interesting thoughts here. I guess if you get it right, the ‘fans’ will be shocked by what has happened, but won’t hold you to blame. Thanks for liking my blog post, btw.

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    • Hehe, it really depends on the bad guy. I’ve had a few baddies that were actually more relate-able than the good guys. It’s hard to see them lose when you’re actually rooting for them.
      A good example is 300 Rise of An Empire…

      Spoiler Alert

      I did not want to see Artimesia die

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  7. I killed off a vampire in a book, and my critique partner was devastated. I write romance, and she had fallen in love with him–even though he is not a good guy. So when I had the rights back to the book, he lives in this version. Sometimes I’ll write a character that I find annoying. But they add to the characterization of my main characters. And then readers want his or her story. lol Then I have to make them redeemable to be the hero or heroine in another story. πŸ™‚ Great post!

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  8. I’ve grown a little weary of stories in which the main characters are menaced over and over and over — but everyone survives. I feel that gets to be too predictable. The menaces start turning to cardboard. Having a menace actually kill someone — and preferably someone the reader has gotten to know a little bit — is a way to keep the tension in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Man, if I’d happened upon your comment two minutes ago. I just left a comment about the same exact thing, and how I kill characters in my novel so the reader doesn’t get too comfortable and the antagonists still seem like a real threat. Glad to see there are others who agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I rarely make a point of letting anyone die without the readers getting to know them a little bit. That nobody guard the villain is going to turn to dust in ten seconds: he needs a bit of personality, a reason why his death should at least concern you. Few of my victims die without their paragraph or two in the limelight.

    That said, I have killed very few characters the readers have got to know well. Personally what I get sick of is authors who hate their characters, and put as much effort into hurting them as possible. Some writers seem to feel that their characters need to pay for the wrongs of the universe (especially YA writers) and those characters will never die, because that would stop their torment.

    So, I’ve killed a starship frigate crew we got to know quite well. They died heroically in a battle to save their home world, and they were never major characters, but they died and I hated doing it. I’ve also killed the boyfriend of one of my heroines. (Despite this being a clear case of Inverted Women in Refrigerators trope, no one bitched at me for doing it.) He was designed from scratch to be killed, but I still almost gave in and saved him.

    It is hard to kill a character. I believe that in the kind of action/heroic/mythical fiction I write it should be hard.

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    • Thank you for sharing! Pardon my ignorance, but what are YA writers? Honestly, when I start a story, I never intend to kill a character. I’m usually not that far into things when I start. So I write my characters all equally, like they’re supposed to be there and they’re supposed to survive. That way it’s even more of an emotional shock when they die.
      I do agree with you about authors who hate their characters… seriously, why write a character you hate? Heck I give the same level of care (arguably more in some cases) to my villains as I do my heroes. I love my characters.

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      • Sorry, Young Adult. Famously this means Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, but a lot of other angst-ridden fiction falls into the category.

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      • Ah, I see! Yeah I definitely agree with you!
        Sorry, acronyms are not my strong suit. Thanks for clarifying.

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  10. In my first fiction novel I kill 11 out of the fourteen characters and in my new novel I kill someone in the first chapter lol…Nobody expects charcters to die. It makes the other characters that more important i think πŸ˜‰

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  11. It’s tough to do but I do it when required. I always get grief about it from my mom and beta readers but they agree it had to be done. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  12. You mentioned “Obi Wan Kenobi.” How free are authors to use the names of cinema and television characters as examples, in non-fiction or fiction, intended for publication? Thanks.

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    • I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give you the in’s and out’s as much as you probably need. In my work, I’ve tried to avoid using said names as much as possible. I do know that you can mention movie, song, and book titles, names of businesses and real people without any sort of copyright infringement… However you can’t use lyrics, passages, or quotes. So I would think MENTIONING a fictional character would be okay, but I’d ask a copyright lawyer. Having that character appear would be a different story.
      Also, remember when mentioning things that are real or owned by someone else, be careful how you portray them, if you do it in a negative light, you can be sued for slander.
      For me personally, my first three books were Urban Fantasy and took place in the modern world, so I mentioned my characters going to stores, businesses, etc. that I had been to myself. So I knew that I wouldn’t be making anything up or getting things wrong.
      Case and point, make sure to do your research.

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  13. One of the greatest limitations of first person POV, IMHO, is that no matter how desperate the situation for the protagonist, the reader knows he/she lives until the end.

    Conversely, you don’t want to kill off a bad guy too soon, not matter how much you or the readers want to SOB to die!

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  14. My issue is, in my novel, most of the characters are in constant danger. This does great as far as tension and pace are concerned, but I feel the pressure to kill off certain characters just to make the threat seem real to the reader. If none of the important ones ever succumb to that danger, I fear the tension will vanish as the reader stops seeing the antagonists as an actual threat. “Well, Siddo and his friends have always come out okay, this time shouldn’t be any different,” they’ll say. They’ll feel complacent, in other words.

    I definitely agree with you though, always a tough thing to do. But, as with most things in life, sometimes it’s necessary.

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  15. Poetry is not like a novel but there are or can be many voices in one piece, if I can make the voice speak and get the reader to listen,well life and death can be a part of the piece,if I got you glued then I can do whatever the voice wants

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  16. Hmm . . . I’ve never seen the need to kill off major or well-liked characters. Not in what little I write, not in books, and not in movies.

    The idea an author “has” to do so is a little misleading. An author can certainly rationalize the decision but cannot be forced to do so, be it by the plot, the story, or anything outside themselves.

    The main argument against it is the re-readability (re-watching, for movies).

    In effect, you are retroactively changing how readers relate to the characters.

    Before I get the argument “everybody dies, eventually” I’ll point out that we don’t go about our daily interaction looking at everyone as if they are going to be dead (as they most certainly will be). Try it, sometime.

    Interact with the cashier at the grocery store keeping in mind he/she will one day be dead, possibly violently or from some horrible disease.

    I hear people say it adds to the “realism”. Really? Why do they call it fiction, then? For that matter, if one wants realism, put in the other 90% of an average person’s life . . . mundane stuff that will bore everyone to tears.

    Sorry . . . I sound mad.

    I’m not, but I just don’t buy the argument. Reading, movies, they are escapes. If one needs suspense, realism, not knowing if humanity will make it, watch the news.

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    • While I don’t disagree with a lot of what you’ve said, I think you may have misunderstood my meaning.
      I didn’t mean that someone had to kill off a character in a story, what I was trying to say is that it is sometimes necessary.
      In one of my writings, it was necessary as the narrative was heading towards the direction of ‘undead apocalypse’ and so I needed a motivator to make that happen. What better motivator than attempting to resurrect a love one, more specifically, a loved one that the audience already knew and loved, and having it go horribly wrong?
      I’m not saying that anyone has to kill off a character, all I’m saying is that for those who are considering, think carefully on the ramifications both in the story and your audience.
      Thanks for sharing your opinion!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I have killed main characters before but only recently realized that I was essentially killing the same type sidekick over and over. I guess there’s no real reason I shouldn’t but your post just reminded me that I need to be more mindful of what I’m doing and why. Thanks. Beautifully designed blog BTW.

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  18. Great post. Yes, be forewarned, but do it anyway if it must be done. In real life, the good guys don’t always make it to the end. You made an excellent point about making sure to consider the impact of the death on the other characters. The challenge I see most often is the absent or too brief reaction. That just doesn’t ring true to me and completely pops me out of the story

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  19. LOL. I killed off a character in my first story. It had to be done, it was a major motivator for my MC. My mother yelled at me.

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