So, time to discuss death: Character death, that is.
Here are 10 points to consider, when it comes to killing off your fictional people.
Whether you love or hate this aspect of storytelling, it’s something that we have to deal with, as writers: that sometimes our “babies” need to die.
This will probably sound disturbing to non-writers, but most of us, to some extent, find it therapeutic, to commit “murder”, on the page.
1. The genre and type of story are factors.
The number, and nature, of character deaths, will be influenced by category and genre, as well as your personal approach and style. If you have a specific target audience in mind, then think about their needs and preferences.
Scenes of extreme graphic violence would generally be deemed unacceptable, in the context of Children’s or YA fiction.
Even within Adult fiction, there are going to be variations. A Romance or Women’s Fiction novel would generally not be littered with fictional corpses.
If you’re venturing into the territory of horror, dark thrillers, or crime, it could be time to bring on those dead bodies.
2. The death of a character – or characters – should advance the plot.
It ought to move the story forward, in one or more respects. If it doesn’t do that, you need to seriously question whether the death is necessary.
It may be that it motivates other characters, thus becoming a catalyst for future events.
Often, you will be able to come up multiple story benefits to a single character death, in which case, you will know that you’re on the right track.
3. Death can create a sense of realism.
This, combined with advancing the plot, is a good reason to kill a character.
If you’re writing about drug addiction and the criminal underworld, it wouldn’t be unexpected for some of your characters to die.
4. Death can sometimes be used to drive home a point, emphasizing the work’s central theme.
This could certainly tie in with my last example, about drug addiction.
5. Avoid killing characters for the shock value alone.
If the only point of the death is to horrify the reader, don’t do it. No-one is going to be impressed.
6. You will sometimes realise that you’ve included an unnecessary character.
In this situation, many writers feel tempted to kill off said character. Almost certainly, not the best solution.
The truth is, there’s no easy fix. If the character never had a significant role in the story, it’s a case of going back, and reworking all scenes in which he or she appears. In other words, delete that character. It’s called editing, right? It has to be worth the extra effort.
7. How about characters who are literally created to die?
No problem, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, if you’re a plotter, as I am, then the aim is to know, in advance, which characters are going to die.
Now, in my own case, this does alter, as I write. I’m not a “synopsis set in stone” writer, even though I do start with an outline. I tend to end up with more character deaths than I started out with, rather than the other way around.
But, anyway – the “born to die” characters are ones whose primary purpose, in the story, literally is to end up dead. As long as the reason for the demise meets the criteria mentioned thus far, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with inventing characters for the purpose of killing them.
8. Research is vital.
Whether a character is stabbed or poisoned, involved in a road traffic accident, or dies of a heart attack, or a form or Cancer, it’s important to get the facts right.
With the internet at our disposal – in addition to more traditional research methods, such as reading books, and talking in person to experts – it’s easier than it’s ever been. Still hard work, but in comparative terms, straight forward – and part of the job, in my opinion. I find You Tube particularly useful for research.
9. As with other areas of writing, avoid cliché.
You only have to consider a handful of TV dramas, and some cliché death scenes should come to mind. These will jolt your reader out of the story, shattering the illusion, and making it feel fake. So much for the deep emotions that you might otherwise have stirred.
10. Finally, remember that death is followed by grief.
You can choose to leap into the future, skipping the intense mourning period, which is legitimate.
Even then, however, you have to address the issue of ongoing grief, for the characters who remain. The process is not linear.
Everyone goes through grief in real life, and if you truly love your characters, and they feel like real people to you, you won’t shy away from addressing their grief, when people they love die.
Allow yourself to feel their pain, and then hopefully, your readers will, too. We aim to break our readers’ hearts, after all.
I hope that these tips will be useful to you, and possibly help you to kill off some characters. If – and only if – necessary, for the sake of your story, of course. For specific advice relating to child death in fiction, take a look at my post on this precise subject.