A Guide to Killing Your Characters

No matter what genre you’re writing in, there’s a chance you may end up having to write a character’s death scene. Killing your characters is not an easy thing to do—you want to make sure the scene carries weight, is emotionally charged, and can really devastate your readers. If you’re empathetic, you may even have a hard time just approaching the concept at all. But… sometimes, characters just need to die. 

If you’re having a hard time killing one of your characters for your story, or if you aren’t sure if you should kill anyone at all, read on! 

Why You Should Consider Killing a Character in Your Story

There are many ways a story can benefit from a well-written character death. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to take a character’s life, then take a look at some of the ways your story could be influenced as a result. 

A good death scene:

  • Can add depth to a plot. Death raises the stakes, it makes the journey more dangerous and upsetting, and it can introduce new layers of emotional and physical challenges for the surviving characters to overcome. 
  • Is memorable. Readers are much more likely to remember your story for years to come if you kill off a lovable character.
  • Sets the tone. If you want your characters to feel hopeless, lost, powerless, or frightened, a good, well-timed death can really help to establish that overarching mood. 
  • Is impactful. Death isn’t something you want your readers to take lightly. You should strive to make them feel something and to empathize with the characters in the situation. 
  • Can motivate surviving characters into action. Sometimes, a character needs a push in the right direction before they’re willing to take the next step of their journey. What’s better than the death of a loved one to inspire them to set out on a journey, get revenge, or start fighting for what they believe in?
  • Advances the plot. Deaths aren’t trivial, so the death of a character should move the plot forward in some way. 
  • Adds realism to the story. If your characters spend a lot of time in harm’s way, then it’s only reasonable that one of them will eventually end up dying as a result. Death is a part of life after all, and sometimes, it’s just unavoidable.  

Being able to write about death, and to know how and when to end a character’s life, are absolutely invaluable skills for any writer to have. Whether you’re writing a drama, a romance, a horror story, a coming-of-age story, or anything else, you’ll probably eventually get to a point where a character needs to die. When that happens, you need to make sure that you can do it justice when you write it. 

When to Kill a Character

If you know that you’re going to kill a particular character before the story’s end, you need to make sure you time it right. If you kill a character at the wrong time, it won’t have the right impact. 

First of all, you need to make sure that you have given readers ample time to get to know the character. Regardless of whether the character is a love interest, trusty sidekick, or even a villain, you need to develop them into a well-rounded character before you cut their life short. If you kill them too soon, then readers just won’t care that much. You want readers to feel like they lost a friend when a good character dies.

The next thing you’ll want to consider is the individual character’s arc. Every character that appears throughout the story should have their own goals, like coming home to their family, getting revenge on someone’s behalf, getting into college, getting married, or going into space. Every character is driven by something. Naturally, if you want their death to have the most impact, you need to kill them before they achieve their goals or reach the end of their character arc. 

Interrupting their arc and ending their life before they can achieve their goals will make their death feel more sudden. It will leave a gaping hole in the narrative, and readers will be forced to accept that the character’s story will never get finished. It will make their death feel real. 

Finally, killing your character should make you feel bad. You shouldn’t be snickering as you’re writing out their demise. You should miss the character when they’re gone, and you should be impacted by their death as well. The character’s death should have a profound and important impact on the story. If you don’t think this character’s death will, then you may need to rethink what you have planned. 

Bad Reasons for Killing a Character

Although there are many good reasons for killing a character in your story, there are also many terrible reasons to kill them as well. You should never use a character’s death as a cheap trick, and you should be careful to avoid harmful stereotypical pitfalls. 

First of all, you shouldn’t kill a character just for shock value. When you’re writing a mystery, horror, or action story, it can be really tempting to kill off a character just to surprise your readers. You should avoid this because, ultimately, a death like that serves no purpose. 

This should be obvious, but don’t kill off a character just because you’ve written yourself into a corner. If you don’t know how to progress in the story, or you aren’t sure how the characters will get out of a situation, then simply skip it and start writing the next scene. You can always come back to it later to rewrite the section, and skipping ahead will give you a better idea of the direction you’re working towards. 

Another thing to keep in mind is the concept of resurrection. In general, you shouldn’t kill a character only to bring them back to life later. It can feel like a slap in the face to your readers, and it can invalidate any of the feelings they had surrounding the character’s death. However, if done well, resurrection can work in a story—if that has been established as a possibility before the character died. My advice for if you want to bring a character back to life is this: there should always be consequences. If you bring a character back from the dead, make sure they aren’t exactly the way they were before. Alter their memory, personality, behavior, or health, and while you’re at it, make it so the character who brought them back also has to pay some sort of price. 

Finally, be very careful about how you approach killing minority characters. You’ve no doubt noticed a trend in media and fiction wherein the minority characters are the first (or only) ones to die. Consider the trope in horror movies where the one token Black man is the first to be killed by the murderer/monster/ghost/etc. Another trope like that is the “Bury your Gays” trope, in which LGBT+ characters are killed off as a result of their identity or orientation. 

To be perfectly clear: The death of any one type of person is not more tragic than the death of any other type of person. A death is not made more tragic just because of the fact that the character is a minority. The problem is that the trend of killing off minorities in stories reinforces the idea of minorities being more expendable characters. If you only have one token minority in your cast of characters, don’t just kill them off. Especially if you don’t intend to do anything similar to other characters.

How to Write a Death Scene

There are many elements to consider when writing a death scene, but I’m going to focus on two: the emotional aspect of the scene and the authenticity of how the death is portrayed.

First of all, let’s focus on the emotional aspect. 

When writing about a character’s death, many writers focus on the thoughts and feelings of the character who’s dying. That can work well, but it’s much harder to write, given how most people don’t know how it feels to die. The key to writing any kind of emotional scene is to make it relatable, and to allow readers to sympathize with the characters they feel closest to. 

When you’re writing a death scene, it is usually much more impactful to focus on the thoughts and actions of those witnessing the other character’s death. Many of your readers will know how it feels to lose a loved one, so they will be able to relate more to how the surviving characters feel about the situation. Your readers are going to miss the dead character as much as (or more than) the characters will, so use that to your advantage. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that the death itself is not as important as the aftermath. Sure, death is sad, but watching the surviving characters try to move on and deal with the emotions of losing their friend is much more heartbreaking to witness. Don’t get too caught up with describing the death in a sad way, since that can lead to cheesy last words and cliché tropes. Focus instead on showing how the death impacts the other characters, plot, and tone of the story moving forward. 

Now, let’s focus on the authentic aspect of the character’s death.

When you’re writing about death, you need to make sure that the death you are describing is realistic in the way it plays out. If you don’t write the death realistically, that can lessen the emotional impact the scene has on readers. You don’t want someone to read the scene and think it’s unrealistic. 

There are countless ways for characters to die in a story, so it wouldn’t really be feasible for me to cover all of the possibilities in this article. It is your job to research the death you have planned for your character to ensure you can portray it correctly. You need to consider how fast the character is dying, if they are wounded or ill, and if the death is tragic, sudden, or expected. 

When you are doing your research, you should look up how it feels to experience what the character is feeling, whether that’s being sick, getting shot, or something else. That might not be a pleasant thing to research, but it is important for ensuring the accuracy of the scene. There are many good interviews on youtube from people who have been injured in different ways, and you could learn a lot based on how they describe their experiences. 

You should also make sure you understand how long it takes for someone to die from the method you select, and how damage to surrounding tissue or organs can impact the length of time it takes for them to die.

Research is key to keeping your death scenes accurate and impactful. If you aren’t sure where to get started, you can check out The 10 Best Ways to Research for a Story for more tips. 

How to Kill your Main Character

Killing your main character isn’t like killing any other kind of character. The main character is the one the story revolves around, so killing them off is a really big deal. 

With most other characters, I would advise you to keep the death realistic, reasonable, and to avoid too much drama so the other characters’ reactions speak for themselves. However, with your main character, feel free to amp up the emotion. This is your protagonist. You can’t let their death be boring! 

Protagonists die most often at the end of the story, so the story has no room to continue after their death. Your main character could go out sacrificing themself for the other characters, the villain could take them out, or they could just fall victim to a simple accident or illness. Maybe your protagonist has been dying this whole time, and has just been trying to achieve their goals before they meet their end. Your story could conclude after the other characters bid their farewells to the protagonist, or maybe it ends abruptly when the protagonist closes their eyes for the last time. 

Not all protagonists have to die at the very end of the story, however. You can technically choose to kill your main character at any point in the story that you’d like. At that point, you could start a new section where a secondary character takes up the protagonist’s goal to bring the story to its conclusion. The rest of the story could also revolve around the other characters trying to sort out their feelings and continue on without the protagonist.

Killing your protagonist works like killing any other character, but you need to give them the space and emotion that they deserve. The main character’s death should be one of the most intense and heartwrenching scenes in the entire story. 

Killing Your Story’s Villain

Before you read this section, you should really read (or at least skim) this article first: How to Write Good Villains in Fiction. That post discusses methods for creating a realistic and sympathetic villain, as well as how to devise a good villainous origin story for them. Creating a good villain in the first place is instrumental in maximizing the emotional impact of their death.

Villains can end up being some of the best characters in a story, and readers can become just as attached to them as they are to the protagonists. As such, their death should carry a similar emotional weight. Sure, the villain’s death means the protagonists have won, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tragic. You want your readers to have mixed feelings regarding the villain’s death—you want them to celebrate the protagonist’s victory, and simultaneously mourn the loss of a good character. 

No matter who is dying in your story, you should always frame it as a tragic event. Yes, the villain was evil. They probably did many horrible things throughout the course of the story. They could have been truly despicable—but they were still a person, and it is always tragic when a person dies. In addition to that, villains aren’t evil for no reason. Maybe your villain faced tragedy, illness, or poverty. Maybe they genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. Maybe they were being forced to do evil deeds by someone else. Maybe they were confused, manipulated, or misunderstood. You need to clue readers in to the fact that it is okay for them to feel sad after a villain dies. 

Writing About Death

When you’re writing about something like death, you should be mindful of the way you are writing about it. No matter who you are killing in your story, you should always emphasize the immense impact death has on other characters. If you kill off a fun side character without much thought, you could have just removed someone’s favorite character from the story and belittled their existence in the narrative altogether. No one likes when their favorite dies, but when their favorite gets killed off and none of the other characters stop to mourn, they might just lose interest in the story.

Be respectful, be realistic, and above all else, be sympathetic. Good luck, writers!