Killing off a nice character, even a secondary one, is a big deal. Every single time I consider doing this as a writer, I struggle with my decision.
Did I handle the death correctly?
Will killing off this character just piss off the reader?
Is this death achieving what I intended it to achieve within the story?
Turns out there are a finite number of reasons to kill off a nice character, and these same basic storytelling devices show up in countless stories. Picking the reason you want to kill off the character is just as important as choosing the character you want to kill.
Here are four excellent reasons to kill a nice character:
1. They are Obstacles:
A protagonist should be conflicted. We want to see them emotionally tugged in different directions, but at some point we also need to release them and send them off on their story journey. Killing off an obstructing character can do that. Think of the moment when Luke Skywalker refuses to leave his aunt and uncle’s farm in STAR WARS. He made a promise to stay and he is a man of his word. When he discovers them both dead moments later, Luke went from wondering “if” he could ever leave, to someone ready to leave ASAP. Their deaths remove the ethical barrier, while also giving him powerful motivations to hate the Empire who killed them.
The tricky part with killing off the obstacle character is timing! You need to make sure it’s not overly predictable, or too soon. We need to feel the character is being pulled by their allegiances to the obstacle character before removing them.
2. Red Shirt Syndrome:
The term Red Shirt was created by fans of the TV show STAR TREK. Early on, they noticed that the show often featured the death of a minor character in a red Star Fleet shirt during the first act. This character almost always dies to efficiently illustrate the dire stakes the other characters are facing. Red Shirts are tricky to write because by nature they are expendable and therefore have a tendency to be rather flat and formulaic.
Another way to think about this death is to use a symbolic death, such as a character that leaves the story under a cloud of failure. In both cases, this sacrificial character helps create urgency and tension for the protagonist. If others failed, so can they. If it’s a very well-written scene, this character’s death can come as a surprise or even as a terrible blow to the reader.
3. Pulling the Old switcheroo:
Many books use this slight-of-hand plot device. They build up the perception that one character is in certain peril, only to swap out the character that actually dies. It’s often used close to the end of the book as a last emotional trauma for the main character to endure. The key ingredient in the switcheroo is surprise; it’s more exciting if the reader didn’t see it coming.
This kind of death was used very effectively in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. We are so focused on Hazel’s death that it’s easy to disregard all the foreshadowing clues (and there are a lot of them) to end up blindsided by another character’s death. The switcheroo is also common in stories featuring a sidekick character that dies protecting the hero.
4. False or Decoy Protagonists:
In some stories, the author will try to mislead who the hero is. They use a false protagonist. This is a character that feels like the hero in the early chapters, only to be leapfrogged by another character, the real hero, for the remainder of the story. A common way to reveal the presence of a false protagonist is to kill them off. This shifts the focus and gives the other character a chance to rise up.
This method works great with coming-of-age masterplots. In those, the dominate character can feel like the mentor, or someone else in a leadership role. Upon their death, the apprentice character moves up, often reluctantly, to take the lead. It some ways this method is similar to removing an obstacle character, but with a major key difference. The false protagonist often stands between the real protagonist and the forces of evil. It’s not obligation or loyalty that prohibits the other character’s rise, but inexperience or a lack of confidence. The death of the mentor character makes it possible and even necessary for the real protagonist character to step forward and reach their full potential as a hero.
In many stories bad guys die; this is seen as fitting punishment for them being a jerk to the other characters. However, when good characters die, it’s even more shocking. There are many good reasons to kill off a nice character. Ways that never feel senseless or like something just meant to provoke the reader to tears or to shock them. Make sure the death is plausible and realistic to the story. In a war story, lots of characters die; it would be unrealistic if they didn’t. The nice character’s death should advance the plot, provide character motivations, increase the story tension and/or prove the stakes. If it can’t bring about some substantive change in the story, you might not need this character’s death or perhaps to include that minor character in the first place.
What about you? How do you feel about killing off nice characters? Please share your experiences in the comments.