A Time to Kill: The Death of a Major Character

Gun shaped woman hand with bulletAs fiction writers we get to play God. We create an entire universe (unfortunately it takes longer than seven days) and have total control over our characters, even to the point of who lives and dies. It’s a heady experience and one we shouldn’t take lightly.

Killing a major character is fraught with danger, so, first decide if you want to take the risk. Are you using it to surprise or shock your reader or take the plot in a new direction? Killing a character can do this. But you’re playing with fire. Eliminating a main character, especially a sympathetic one, asks your audience to divest their emotions in the character and that’s a huge risk.

In a recent conversation with my editor-friend who’s currently working with me on my new novel, he queried as to whether a particular character would make it to the end. She does, but he’s only about halfway through the book and I wasn’t about to kill the suspense. He responded with, “Well, you know us writers? SOMEONE MUST DIE!”

This gave me pause. No one important does die in my new book, although someone thought to be dead is resurrected. However, in my first novel, a major character is killed and I’ve had some interesting reactions from my readers. One, in particular, is a writer pal about my age, and honestly, not actually a member of the demographic for this novel, so I was thrilled that he liked it so much. I saw him at the gym one morning and he stalked toward me, fuming. “I am sooo mad at you!” I frowned, confused. What had I done to upset him? “You killed X?!” (Don’t want to give a spoiler here). I howled. He was devastated at the death of this character and we shared a good long laugh.

When I killed this character it felt necessary and right. It forced my protagonist to take her plight seriously and finally face the challenge before her. I hadn’t considered the reasons to any great length, but now that I contemplate it I’ve come up with some thoughts as to whether it’s the right plot twist for your novel.

  • WHO TO KILL. Obviously, you don’t knock off a character without good reason and slaying your protagonist is deadly, literally. Of course, this means that you can never write him again, so be sure you really want to send him off to The Great Beyond. A death must mean something and is frequently a tool to get the attention of your protagonist. A love interest is always a good choice, (hopefully someone better comes along) so is a sidekick or a mentor.
  • WHY TO KILL. What is the motive? Is this revenge? A righteous killing? Or just plain bad luck? Is he a foil for another character? Is the purpose to convey information, to motivate action, or to thwart some other potential result? Killing a character can either remove a factor from the story, or serve as a motivation for others.
  • HOW TO KILL. The more unique the death the better. Craft some crazy circumstance, something that will takeKnife in hand your reader’s breath away. Surprise is always good, if your reader gasps and thinks, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” you’ve scored big time. Understand the importance and consequence that comes when someone near to your character dies. Many factors affects the reader: age, or the means such as a car accident, overdosing, self-harm, uncontrolled rage.
  • WHERE TO KILL. Again, the more distinctive the better. As you do with most issues of setting, find someplace off the beaten track, a place where you will surprise your reader.
  • THE KILLER. The most obvious choice here is your antagonist. It spurs your protagonist to charge onward now that your villain has killed his best friend or lover. But other means/characters will also work. It’s important that it not be random, or senseless unless that is the point of your story. Set it up so it makes sense.
  • EMOTIONS. What do you want your reader to feel? Is the death justified? Motivated by revenge? Bloody and gruesome, or quick and painless? Make the ends justify the means. Do you want the scene(s) to be funny? Sad? Surprising? Scary?
  • FORESHADOW. I can go either way on this. Hinting at the danger is a good technique and builds suspense, however, killing a character without any forewarning can really get your reader’s pulse pounding. But be careful, you don’t want this death to make your reader walk away or unable to recover.
  • AFTERMATH Consider seriously the after effects of the death. It can be a great plot ploy to send your character spiraling out of control, into despair, or question what their path should be. I think this is the most compelling reason to kill a character. It forces your protagonist to face the challenge before them with a passion and motivation that may have been lacking. Also, how do the other characters recover? You can really play off of the readers’ emotions, specifically if you’re going for grief and tragedy.
  • LAST WORDS. A death can set the stage for an important revelation or confession. Those dying words can give the protagonist a clue to their success or a reason to complete their journey.
  • BE REALISTIC. Make sure the death fits the story. If it’s a fantasy you have the freedom to do something outrageous, but if it’s a tale of inner city poverty and crime, you probably don’t want the character to get hit by a comet.
  • A MORAL. Be careful here. If there is a moral you wish to impart, don’t hit your reader over the head with it by stating it: “Here lies, Mortimer, I guess the moral is not to…”
  • MELODRAMA This is the perfect place for a writer’s emotions to get the best of h/her. You want your reader to really feel the pain, or the satisfaction, but too much drama and purple prose can destroy the effect. Craft it slowly and carefully, build the suspense and fill in as much detail and emotion as necessary, but don’t overdo it.
  • RESURRECTION. Not everyone has to stay dead. If you’re writing a fantasy, reincarnation is possible. In a more realistic story you can make your reader think a character is dead and then surprise them later when he shows up.

Now that you are well armed to murder someone, go about the task like a good killer. Plan, execute, and clean up the mess with surgical precision and enough verbal bleach to make the scene believable and satisfying.

Just be careful, even God makes mistakes sometimes and you can’t always take it back.

Up Next from Caryn: On Becoming a Word Gatherer


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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