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Killing off a character is a serious issue. Secondary characters or even extras can pass away without too much negative response from the readers but main characters are a whole different matter.

It saddens readers but sometimes it's unavoidable... But how do we know that? I've searched around and the advice can be summarized as follows:

  1. Kill the character if it helps/affects the plot or is important for it;
  2. The character did something that would grant his death (e.g. he was a bad guy in the past)

Are these good motivations and are there other reasons a write should consider killing a character? I thought it'd be important to go more in depth and analyze this issue because certainly we don't want writers to kill characters "just because that's what happens in other novels/movies, so I have to do it".

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I only ask, nay plead, that you do not develop Joss Whedon Syndrome and whack beloved characters just because you can. Kill a main character if it makes sense to, but not just for shock value. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '13 at 13:19
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+1 Let me add my signature to that petition –  Lexi Feb 6 '13 at 13:25
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@LaurenIpsum Ahah no, I don't intend killing main characters. I wanted to make the question less attached to my work but since you mentioned it: I'm feeling bad even thinking about killing one. :) –  Alenanno Feb 6 '13 at 13:28
    
There is a third reason: To add Wangst to the story. As we know, 'True Art is Dark'. (If you don't what these terms mean, checkout Tv Tropes) –  Shantnu Tiwari Feb 6 '13 at 13:34
    
Try Bokurano. It's a manga, not yet a classic, fairly mainstream and quite well-done. It has around 7 distinct examples of 'death' with their respective 'whys'. –  Mussri Feb 6 '13 at 23:58

6 Answers 6

I would say that your first point pretty much summarises why you would kill a character (or do anything in your story, really). When I consider killing a character, there are two main questions I ask:

  1. Who will this affect? How will it change their outlook or motivations?
  2. How will the death change future events in the plot? Will it mean certain things happen/don't happen?

One of the best uses of a character's death that I've read happens in Brandon Sanderson's novel Mistborn. Spoilers below.

The main character, Kelsier, is killed by the main villain, the Lord Ruler. But it turns out he planned his death, and used it to galvanise the lower classes into full-on revolution. And yes, he really did die, and remained dead for the rest of the trilogy.

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If?

If you want your story to be dark - or at best grotesque. It can be an element of drama or an element of horror, that's your choice. You decide upon the mood, and death of a character is an important factor.

When?

One of most important and common reasons to do it is to prove: "Stuff's gotten serious". You tell the reader the characters are not protected by [Warning: TV Tropes link] plot armor. They are mortal and the danger is real. So, if you feel your adventure becomes too light, killing a member of main cast is a sure-fire (if cheap) way to tune darkness up a notch or two.

Sure, "when it's important to the plot" - that sounds simple and cheap, but believe me, it doesn't have to. Imagine the character was very important, a live key to victory that had to be protected and delivered to the goal point. It all seemed like a straightforward, run-off-the-mill escort/travel story where dangers pop up along the way and the protagonists overcome them one after another. Then suddenly their savior/chosen/hope dies, in a way that shows the enemy is really competent. Suddenly all the secondary crew is left with saving up scraps, fighting with their own hopelessness and facing a battle without hope, desperately seeking an alternate solution. Such a turning point will totally shatter the reader's slightly bored area of comfort.

Or opposite, the death may be essential part of the progress. Strugatski's "Roadside Picnic" exploits it in a great way: a character tagging along as a bait/victim/sacrifice. Make it clear early enough or late enough, the impact will be strong.

Do NOT make it meaningless. You may feel like a character has outlived their usefulness and having them tag along with the team will not add anything of value, so you deem the opportunity to kill them while it still counts for something. It will be cheap. Don't. Get rid of them by wounds, by a necessity, by death of faith. Don't just kill them because you don't need them.

In essence, always make the victim live past their death: as a memory, as an idea, their spirit, their heritage. Whether a boon or hindrance, make their death matter until the very end, changing outlook of the survivors.

Also, death is the ultimate redemption. If you really want to give your villain some depth, have them redeem themselves by sacrificing themselves. If they had their doubts all along, this makes for some quite satisfactory ending.

How?

Thoroughly. Sure bringing a character back from dead is a common trick, but not bringing one who didn't die for sure is a bad crime against the reader, giving them false hope. No, make the death very real, possibly quite graphic and leaving no doubts. It's your choice if it's fast and sudden or if it's a slow, prolonged spectacle, a struggle and a fall - but make it count and make it hit.

One more thing: Remember Chekov's Gun can shoot real ammo and kill people dead. Hang one early enough and keep it conveniently in the background, then let it drop and kill your victim when needed. It creates a very strong "oh shit!" moment, when the solution to an unsolvable bind comes not from a deus ex machina but from an impartial background element that was there all the time and just waited for the right set of circumstances.

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@LaurenIpsum why the warning? TV Tropes is work safe. –  Aerovistae Feb 6 '13 at 17:55
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@Aerovistae No no, nothing to do with being work-safe. TVTropes a massive time-suck. Seriously, it's hard for me to spend less than an hour there, and I usually get dragged in for two or three. It's just courtesy to let people know they may lose an entire weekend before they click on the link. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '13 at 18:10
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Oh wow, great point. In all seriousness whenever I've gone there, within seconds I've ended up with between 20 and 30 tabs open. –  Aerovistae Feb 6 '13 at 18:48
    
@Aerovistae Yes, exactly, me too. It's a great resource... just be prepared, and pack a lunch. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '13 at 18:50

A lot depends on the tone of your story.

Like you mention in your question that a criteria might be to only kill a main character if he "deserves it" because of evil deeds he's done, etc. That's good and valid IF you are trying to establish a tone where, basically, everything ends up with a happy ending, good triumphs and evil loses, and all justice is restored at the end.

On the other hand, if the point of your story is to say that there is no justice and sometimes the good guys lose, having a good guy die tragically and unfairly would advance that point.

Hamlet would have been quite a different play if in the end Hamlet had avenged his father by killing Claudius, and maybe even succeeded to the throne himself. It would have been an even more different play if in the end Hamlet had discovered that Claudius was completely innocent, it was all a mistake, and Hamlet and Claudius became best of friends and lived happily ever after. All those endings could make a perfectly good story, but they'd be completely different kinds of stories.

I've often thought that a problem with a lot of fiction is that the reader knows that the main characters are all invincible, so there is no real suspense. Like, no one watching a James Bond movie supposes for an instant that Bond is going to be killed, no matter how many bullets fly or how many things blow up. No one is on the edge of his seat wondering IF Bond is going to survive, the only question is HOW. A story in which main characters fail, even die, heightens the tension because now the reader really doesn't know if the hero will triumph in the end.

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I'm more than a little wary of the second option presented here, i.e. "The character did something that would grant his death (e.g. he was a bad guy in the past)". This to me feels like the author imposing an external criteria of good/bad on the reader, in a slightly sneaky manner.

Now, sometimes doing this means you're sticking faithfully to the conventions of a genre. We all expect the villain in a James Bond film to get snuffed at the end, possibly through some 'ironic' twist, in which they are undone by their own evil plot. The viewer understands the rules that are at play there, and the villains are so outlandish that it's not really too troubling.

However, using the same principle more broadly can put artificial limits on the story. Or make it predictable. Or make it actively annoying.

Consider another genre staple, 'virgin girls never die in horror films', for example. It's almost impossible not to see it as on some level a moral judgement, but personally I find it annoying and insidious. Annoying, because for me horror films rely on surprise, and predictable patterns lessen this. Insidious, as I'm left wondering if the writer really believes in this criteria they're using - that on some level, having sex makes a character a more 'legitimate' target to be killed off in some nasty manner, depending on their gender.

So, I think use it carefully. If I as the reader can spot a pattern in the writing (e.g. how flawed a character is determines how likely they are to survive in a way that does not depend on the actual events in the story) it may break suspension of disbelief if I'm not expecting it. Worse, if I spot such a pattern but disagree significantly with the author's definition of 'bad', then I might begin to view the work as proselytising rather than entertaining. And then I might just put it down.

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Note that those options were not invented by me. It's what I found on the internet to be the most common ones being used. –  Alenanno Feb 6 '13 at 17:45
    
Ok. Edited it slightly to make it sound less directed to you personally :) –  Pat Feb 6 '13 at 17:50
    
Great, thanks. :) –  Alenanno Feb 6 '13 at 17:56

Give a reason for one character (or several, or for non-character entities, etc.) to attempt on another character's life.

But give the dying character (the one whose life was attempted on, etc.) a cause of death besides the motivation of the killer (if one exists) and mere chance.

For example, there had been numerous reasons to try to kill Hitler, with numerous attempts on his life. But the guy was paranoid and well prepared most of the time. The result: he was never 'killed'.

JFK probably had a mole in his 'team' the day he was assassinated. But whatever actually happened, I wouldn't use a roof-less vehicle in an apartment complex when there's a 'slight' chance someone 'might' be targetting me. He trusted (or maybe not, who knows) his security detail and his people, and he had a reason to show up in public, and there was a cause of death (besides the bullet).

So, if there's a reason for a character to die, consider killing him. If there isn't a cause of death, he can't die.

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Killing characters can be a tricky idea. There are a few main ideas behind killing characters that you have to keep in mind.

The first is that you shouldn't kill a character just for the sake of killing a character. This goes especially for killing main characters, but can count just as well for "red shirts" (nameless, unimportant side characters). Here are some times when you should or should not kill a characters (as a general rule of thumb, not a hardfast rule):

  • If you just want them out of the story, killing them might not be the best idea. It might mean instead that they didn't fit in your story to begin with. Look at that character and see if they were doing any good in your story. If not, maybe you should figure out how to write the story so they aren't there to begin with. If they are doing good, maybe you should rethink killing them. You might not personally like them as a character, but if they're being useful for your story, and are driving the plot along, you probably need them.
  • If it will cause an emotional reaction in your character, you should think very seriously about whether you want to kill them off. If you are doing it solely so your character will be angry/sad/emotional, it might be a waste. You want to move the plot forward, and if it will move the plot forward, go with it. If it will hinder the main character and force them to work harder, go for it. If it will just make your MC weep and cry and be whiny, it might not be the best idea.
  • If they have done something that will bring about their death, you should probably kill them. Nothing is more annoying than a character who is supposed to die but doesn't because the author loved them too much to kill them off. If they do survive, there should be a very good reason (someone sacrifices themself instead, they win a fight through actual ability and working really hard and training instead of just being the author's darling). But if you set them up to inevitably die, you should probably kill them.
  • If they are the villain, you don't have to kill them in the end. Think of the consequences of killing them or of not killing them. If he is the king, there might be a huge uprising if you kill him. But if he's a dictatorial king, there might be a huge uprising if you don't kill him and sentence him to lots of jail time (think Egypt post: Arabic Spring). Just remember that killing him/her isn't the only option.

For how the person should die, remember to make it fit within the story. If the person is going off to battle the big bad evil guy (or if the big bad evil guy is coming to battle the MC), don't have one of them die in a car crash. Maybe your MC can be stabbed by a poisoned dagger sent by the big bad evil guy and then someone else has to fight in his stead or the fight never happens, but only do that if the big bad evil guy would send an assassin with a poisoned dagger to kill him. This is really just an example of a time when it depends entirely on your story, but just make sure that it's internally consistent.

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