Character Death Should Be Premeditated

I’m a big fan of fiction and screenplays that kill off major characters mid-stream.  It happened in Breaking Bad.  It happens all the time in The Walking Dead.  The problem is that an amateur writer will kill off characters for the sake of killing them off or for shock value without thinking through the character death and what it will mean for the other characters and for the furtherance of the plot.

I have three rules about character death:

  1. There Must Be A Reason – Unless you are writing an absurdist novel, character death has to have meaning.  Yes, I know that real death doesn’t have meaning to most, but character death should be about loss, about the fragility of the human condition and to give depth to the plot.  Killing off characters for the sake of killing them off is meaningless and useless.
  2. Does It Further the Plot? – Think very carefully about what the impact might be if the character were to die either tragically or quietly in their sleep.  If the death does not spur the others on to action (as Agent Coulson’s death did in The Avengers) or it doesn’t cause some type of reflection among the other characters it is probably a poor plot choice.
  3. What If They Lived? – I always ask myself this question.  If the character doesn’t die, then what impact would he/she have on the rest of the characters in the story?  What kind of purpose would it serve?  Would their life be enough of a drag on the narrative to justify erasing them from existence?

The main point, here, is to be sure that the character death is part of the grand plan you have for the entire novel.  I once killed a character mid-way through my last novel only to resurrect him in the rewrite because he left such a hole in the plot.

If you have decided that someone in your novel needs to die, then do it with finesse, not with a sledge hammer.  Remember that you run the risk of alienating a reader with their death because you have introduced these characters to them and the readers have invited these people into their homes.  Sometimes they grow very attached to them.  Killing off a character without good reason could cause a reader to quit reading your book.

Above all, always think about how the reader will take the character death.  What do you want to accomplish emotionally by killing that beloved character?  If it is a villain who dies, then make sure you have an even nastier person to take their place, unless it happens at the end.

If you have any other ideas about killing off characters (i.e. the “do’s” and “don’ts”) then please post below.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

9 thoughts on “Character Death Should Be Premeditated

  1. I think the death of an important/beloved character should be meaningful if at all possible. And foreshadowing is important also. The idea is that the reader shouldn’t experience an out-of-the-blue shock, and that the reader should be able to have some comforting thoughts about the death.

  2. Hey, Roger! Thanks for linking me in your related articles. I’m incredibly grateful! I’ve returned the favour on my blog by linking our two articles on character death. :3

    I agree with everything you’ve said here. If a character is to die then it should be a case of thinking of the outcome of the event – the effect it would have on story, the other characters and the reader should be taken into account because you don’t want to be left with these niggling plot holes and discomfort from the audience. They may have thought that killing off Joe Bloggs was too easily done and/or without the appropriate level of emotion conveyed, or when the “chosen one” dies and there’s no other way to fulfill “the prophecy” (so to speak) etc..

    Although I think that you could kill a major character on a whim, you’d still have to revisit the scene and make absolutely sure that it’s appropriate, doesn’t have the glaring plotholes that you can’t address, and still consider the fact as to whether or not killing them was the right choice.

  3. Reblogged this on The Lightning Bug & the Lightning and commented:
    Could it be that the choice to kill off a character takes as much time, effort, and consideration of total story value as it does to create a character? I believe Roger made some good points in his entry…points that I need to remember from time to time.

  4. You make valid points! One sign of growth as a writer is realizing that every word must count, must move the story forward, including words that kill… 😉

    Of course, on a personal note, I’m really (really!) waiting to see how ‘s death will change things. He was a great character that had a tremendous arc and served the series and episode well. That’s the kind of character I seek to write. Thanks for writing on this topic.

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