Killing Off Characters: The Good, the Bad, and the Necessary
Whether it’s the main protagonist, a secondary character, or a villain, deciding when that character’s journey has come to an end is probably one of the most challenging decisions you can make as an author. It not only affects the story as a whole but also every fictional life that character has touched.
Sometimes, you may create a character with its death already in mind. At other times, you may be surprised you’ve come to this crossroad in your writing. You may even feel torn because it’s a character you care about. Whether that character’s death serves as a catalyst or cautionary tale is up to you and what’s right for your story.
So, how do you decide when and why to pull the fictional plug?
1. The character’s journey is complete.
Sometimes a character’s journey has run its course. The main lesson of his/her story has been learned, inner peace has been achieved, or the ultimate goal has been met. You may have nothing further planned in his/her story arc. If a certain ending like driving off into the sunset or living happily ever after doesn’t feel right for your character, then perhaps his/her death can serve an emotional or symbolic purpose; sometimes a tragic ending is the character’s ultimate fate.
Think of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: two young lovers are torn apart by their feuding families. Despite all of their efforts to be together, they cannot overcome fate or the consequences of their actions—or their families’ rivalry. The tragedy of their deaths, and what it teaches the remaining characters and readers, is one of the most famous and symbolic endings in literary history.
2. You need to launch another character’s journey or story arc.
As I mentioned above, some characters you create with the intention of killing them off. Their death may be the inciting incident that launches your protagonist’s hero’s journey. Or, it’s just another obstacle as the main events of the plot unfold.
Remember, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
In Erin Summerill’s Ever the Hunted, the young protagonist, Britta, discovers her bounty hunter father was murdered by his apprentice—who also happens to be her childhood friend and long-time crush. To avenge her father, Britta embarks on a dangerous quest to hunt down her former friend, and discovers truths about herself and her family that were long kept hidden.
3. You need to show the consequences of a decision or event.
Life is messy, and characters aren’t perfect. There’d be no point in writing their story if they were. Certain kinds of decisions or mistakes can have dire consequences. Killing off a character may be the best way to help your main cast of characters and readers understand what’s at stake.
If you’ve ever read the classic novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, you may remember Piggy. On an island where the young schoolboys are stranded, Piggy represented the voice of reason, intellect, and humanity amid the growing chaos. When he’s murdered, the main protagonist, Ralph, not only loses his friend but also realizes just how savage and brutal his classmates are becoming on the island without societal norms and adults. Additionally, Ralph realizes he is no longer safe among his peers and must fight to survive.
4. The character is too powerful to be overcome or detained.
Certain characters are just too powerful or dangerous to conceivably imprison once they’ve been unleashed. It's difficult to remove them from their throne or position of influence once the pinnacle of power has been reached. Death may be the only true path to defeat.
I’m reminded of a line from Mace Windu in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He says to Anakin Skywalker about the Emperor before he attempts to kill him, “He has control of the senate and all the courts. He is too dangerous to be left alive!” Unfortunately, in that instance, the Emperor was too strong and prevailed, and it was Mace Windu whose time was up.
5. You’re removing the safety net or a resource for another character.
Part of a hero’s journey is having an older and wiser mentor to teach him/her the ropes. When we want to test our hero, it’s often the trusted mentor, friend, or parent who meets an untimely end. Removing that support system or resource can thrust your protagonist into the thick of the plot and really show what s/he is made of.
Remember Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? He had not only been Harry’s mentor throughout the series but also the only other wizard in the world powerful enough to take on Voldemort. With Dumbledore gone, the reader—despite feeling the devastating loss—knew it was finally time for Harry and his friends to reach their full potential and defeat the villain on their own.
6. You want to create an unlikely pairing or alliance among characters.
Certain characters would never have met, let alone interacted, without another character to bridge the connection. Removing the middleman creates an opportunity for the remaining characters to carry on and possibly lean on each other, whether they get along or not.
Six of Crows by Leigh Berdugo is one of the best books I’ve read in which an unlikely cast of misfit characters eventually come together as a team and forge a friendship. If not for their individual losses and trauma, which the author explores in detail, their paths may have never crossed and led them to rely on one another to carry out a heist that would change all of their lives.
7. You plan to misdirect the main characters and readers.
How often have you read a book or watched a movie where the characters believe someone is dead, only to later learn that that person is actually alive? If you’re an avid reader like me, you’ve encountered this plot twist often. A fake character death is a classic red herring and, when executed well, still surprises the reader and causes more problems for the main cast of characters.
To borrow another Star Wars scene:
Luke: “… He told me you killed him.”
Darth Vader: “No, I am your father.”
(Cue dramatic music and Luke’s denial.)
It never gets old! Even if the fake death isn’t that surprising, the aftermath it triggers may be the character’s biggest challenge yet.
If by the end of this post you’re still torn about whether to kill off a character, ask yourself these questions: Where should the story go? Which characters will get it there? And will these characters still have a part to play?
If any characters are missing from the scenario, then they may already be on the chopping block in your mind.