19 August 2009 - 9:19 am

Killing characters

Those of you who read the Apocalypse Blog (and are up-to-date with it, I know there’s a lot to get through if you’re new) will have noticed that mortality has been a feature recently. So much so, I decided to call a recent post ‘Attrition’. It wasn’t my original intention to put two major characters’ deaths so close together, and that presented me with some tough choices. Killing off main characters isn’t something I do lightly.


I have firm views about killing off major characters. For me, violence and death should follow similar rules to sex in fiction:

  • Avoid gratuitous occurrences.
  • Detail should only be included if it is important or there is some reason for it.
  • It should have some effect on the story or characters.
  • Give it the attention it deserves.

The second and third points are all really related to the first one – avoid gratuitousness at all costs. The third point is the most helpful in deciding whether the death of the character is gratuitous or not. Does it progress the plot? Does it affect character development? If the answer is ‘no’, then why are you really doing it?

If you’re going to put it in, make it mean something. And I don’t just mean ‘let’s upset the readers’ – that’s not a good reason for doing something on its own (and your readers will hate you for it). Much like throwing a random sex scene in because you think the readers might like some sticky hotness, randomly killing off main characters is cheap and ultimately annoying.

The last point on the list is one that often doesn’t get enough consideration. Too often, major characters are killed off-screen, or off-handedly, and the audience is only given a fleeting mention of it. I’ve heard that the last Harry Potter book is rife with this sort of thing (it’s one of the major complaints I hear about the series). If your readers – or viewers, as this applies as much to TV shows or movies as it does to written fiction – have spent the time getting involved with your characters, then do them the courtesy of acknowledging that. Don’t leave them feeling flat and discarded – do the character and your audience justice. When you take away someone they are attached to, make it a feature, not a footnote.

On the other hand, lingering over a character’s death too long can also be annoying (and often slides into melodrama, which leaves me eye-rolling and flipping pages). Trinity’s (second) death in the Matrix movies is a good example of this – you know it goes on too long when you’re wishing that a main character would hurry up and expire already, so we can get on with things. We don’t necessarily need to see every last gasping breath. Make it a feature, acknowledge that something important has just happened, and move on with the story.

It’s not an easy balance to strike, and opinions about that appropriate spot in the middle will undoubtedly vary. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find it.

More coming soon about the latest events in the Apocalypse Blog. Hopefully that’s some food for thought in the meantime!

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  1. Svenja says:

    Yes! I completely agree with you on this and thank you for saying it. I hate it when writers kill off characters for no discernible purpose other than to “make the story more dark and gritty” or even to give other characters flimsy pretexts for doing stupid out-of-character revenge stuff.

    And I think some authors don’t realise that just because a character isn’t the main protagonist, s/he might still have fans, so killing them off in one sentence is going to annoy those fans.

    I struggle with killing characters off in my stories, so thanks for posting this. You’ve reaffirmed my own position on the subject and thrown some good arguments into the mix. 😀 You’ve got some really good tips on here.

    August 19th, 2009 at 8:55 pm

  2. Mel says:

    I’m glad you found it helpful! I get so annoyed with writers who throw characters away like trash, disrespecting the importance they might hold for the readers. It’s a way of disrespecting your audience.

    It winds up looking and feeling cheap, and I hate that. It’s one of the few things that can really turn me off a story – that, and random sex scenes. Again: cheap!

    So happy to hear there’s another writer who makes the effort to do it right! 🙂

    August 19th, 2009 at 9:16 pm