Friday, February 19, 2016

10 Ways to Make the Most Out of a Character Death

I’m always vaguely surprised when I read to the end of a book without having a character die. In this day and age, it seems a matter of course for characters to be dropping right and left like so many mayflies.

Mayflies only live for 24 hours, in case you wanted to know. Which you probably didn’t, but now you do. Read this blog at your own peril.

Anyway, the point is this: Characters die all of the time. Often it’s necessary because a book has become overcrowded. Sometimes it’s done because a character needs extra motivation, or maybe because the readers need to be more engaged emotional. And sometimes it’s just because writers are mean.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to make sure you’re getting your character deaths right. If you’re going to kill off a reader’s favorite character, you better do it in a way that honors said character (NOT like what happened to Fili in The Battle of Five Armies).

Here are some different ways to make the most of killing off a character (or characters, if that’s your style). But first, get in the mood:

Loom over your manuscript, stare at your intended victim and say in a scary, gravelly voice: I am fire. I. AM. DEATH.

Okay. Now you can begin:
1. Give the character a personality. If you create a character specifically to kill him/her off, your construction of him needs to be careful. It’s best to find a way to make him likeable to both the reader and the surrounding characters so as to evoke a lot of emotion when he dies. However, while this is a pretty good strategy, remember to give the character a distinct job in the book other than “pig for slaughter.” If you have this awesome character tagging along for no apparent reason, people are going to know that his days are numbered and thus not be as engaged when he perishes.
   
2. Give the character a bleak, unfulfilled life. These kinds of characters make some of the best deaths. Give your character something that he has always striven for but never quite made...and will never be able to make. This character is living a half-life, searching for something he/she will never have. They’re not suicidal, but it’s generally understood that death is their way out. Snape lived his entire life without Lily, disliked, mistrusted, and misused by many people. He was proud to serve her after her death, but we all knew that he wasn’t particularly happy with his lot. This made his death heartrending because we didn’t want him to die but also knew that it probably needed to take place. The same goes for Maximus in Gladiator (he lived his life wishing for his family and died to rejoin them) and Darth Vader.

3. Let them die a heroic death. They die fighting for something (or someone) they love and believe in. Honestly, if you are going to kill a character in a way that doesn’t completely tick people off, then this is a good way to do it. Sure, they’ll still be ticked off, but not as much as they could be (*cough* Fili *cough* *cough*). Examples of these kinds of deaths include: Dobby (he died a free elf, choosing to save his friends), Finnick Odair, Quicksilver (he died saving a little boy…doesn’t get much more heroic), Boromir, Gabriel from The Patriot (still upset about that one), Snape, and many, many more.

4. Kill them off right after redeeming them. Yeah. Ow. But it works. This character is a bit of a jerk, but something takes place to make him turn. This happened for Boromir, which makes his death all the worse because we saw the glimmer of who he truly was, who he wanted to be, right before he died. This also takes place for Ellidyr in The Black Cauldron. And, of course, let’s not forget Vader, possibly the only character to make something of a comeback after slaughtering innocent children.

5. Give your character a full life. There’s nothing worse than when the character who has everything to live for dies. This one is a good way to make your readership hate you, but it will also make them want to keep reading because they need to make sure that this character didn’t die in vain. So as long as you don’t kill them off in a stupid way (looking at you, Peter Jackson), you should be okay. Examples would be: Remus and Tonks, Primrose Everdeen, and Rudy Steiner. Also, a certain character from All The Light We Cannot SeeI’m not going to name him/her because I know a lot of people haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. See. I can be nice.

6. Kill people off to make a point. Sometimes deaths are helpful to reinforce ideas in your book. Hedwig died to show the end of Harry’s childhood. The Hubermanns from The Book Thief and the unnamed character from All The Light We Cannot See died to make the point that war is indiscriminate and cruel. Beth from Little Women died to show that some people are too good for this world. Tom Robinson died in To Kill a Mockingbird to amplify the horrors of racial prejudice. 

7. Kill a character to give the surviving character drive. This is best used when a character needs extra motivation, or perhaps needs to be pushed over the edge. Often these deaths are fairly senseless in the world of the character, which leads to an anger or hatred that works to define the character. Jason Bourne is content to live in hiding until Marie is killed, which makes him go off on a hunt for answers. The Scarlet Witch loses it when her brother dies, commits a much-deserved revenge killing, and joins the Avengers. Chingachgook from Last of the Mohicans and Benjamin from The Patriot are both driven by the murders of their sons. Harvey Dent snaps when his girlfriend is blown to pieces. Aragorn goes on an orc-slashing frenzy after Haldir is stabbed. 

8. Have one character bring about the death of the other. Remember that deaths can be even more powerful when the surviving character is somehow responsible for it. Anakin killed his own wife, the Giver felt accountable for Rosemary’s drowning, and Cobb struggles with unwittingly causing Mal to commit suicide. This guilt (or, in Anakin’s place, the feeling that redemption is impossible) shapes their later actions.

9. Try pretend deaths. This is a good way to engage emotions, but also dodge getting attacked by fans. However, this is very easy to overdo, or do in a cheesy way. It’s also a good way to lose street cred, because, if you do it often enough, people will never believe you when you kill off characters for real. Some well-executed (*sheepish smile*) pretend deaths to learn from would be: Gandalf, Groot, and Bucky.

10. Kill the dog. Look, if you put a dog in a book, everyone is going to expect it to die. EVERYONE. So unless you want to put in a plot twist that nobody will see coming, your pooch should probably go in the typically heroic fashion of protecting its master.

And that's it. Now go and kill in whatever way seems best to you. 

But first: What character death impacted you the most, either from a book or movie? Which did you think was badly done? And how do you go about getting rid of characters in your own writing? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Related articles:
When and How to Murder Your Darlings
11 Songs To Listen To While Writing Moving Scenes
What To Do When Your Story Bogs Down

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26 comments:

  1. What a helpful article! I'll definitely reference it later. Fili & Kili's death was much worse in the books than in the movies, though (as impossible as that seems) - the storyline literally went "Thorin dies, Bilbo comes to him, they have a heart to heart, when Bilbo's leaving the lonely mountain he suddenly remembers to mention to the reader that 'Oh right, I forgot - K&F died too.'"

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Ah! How funny. I thought the movie death for Fili was worse in the movie than the book. =] I do sometimes wish the book had gone into greater detail, but I would probably be an emotional wreck if it had. =D
      I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the comment.

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  2. This is a kick ass post! I actually think it's rather hard to make a lot of deaths in stories meaningful these days. Some of the most devastating deaths have been in Harry Potter in my opinion. They were all very heart wrenching.

    In your suggestion #1 I was waiting for a "red shirt" reference, since that's basically what you were talking about avoiding there. Aw well.

    I think an article like this is important because a lot of characters die in stories, but most of the time I feel like the deaths lack the impact that they should have. I think if writers think about what you've said here, perhaps we will see more dramatic, heart-wrenching deaths.

    Good job :-)

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    1. Kick ass? YUSS! *tries to flip hair* *realizes it's too short* Thanks for the great comment. =D

      Darn. That was it! I had the nagging feeling that I was overlooking a great reference. Now that you mention it, it was probably the Red Shirt. =/ Ah well. Next time.

      I like your point about needing to give meaning to a character's death rather than just killing people left and right. It seems like far too many books treat death in a brusque, overdone way.

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  3. Great points, Hannah! When I first read LOTR, I was about eight years old, and I was so angry about Boromir's death than I decided that I was going to create a character specifically to kill. That character's death could have been really boring if I had written it as a eight year old, but what ended up happening was that I kept rewriting the story as my writing matured without ever getting to his death. So I ended up writing that character for 6 years before I actually got around to killing him. Fortunately, at that point, I had learned some of your tips (such as points 1, 2,3,7, and 8-- yeah, I was really cruel. :P)
    Personally, I like Fili and Kili's deaths in the book-- I know that we did not get to "see" them die, but I loved the phrase "And Fili and Kili had fallen, defending him with shield and body, as he had been their mother's elder brother." That was just so heartrendingly beautiful.
    I think you have to be careful with #6, though. Some books just start killing all sorts of characters to make a point, and it gets annoying and feels like you have a message being shoved down your throat. Personally, I felt like Mockingjay did this.
    In my experimenting with character's death, I discovered another tip for making a character's death sadder and more powerful. Another way is for the character know that they are going to die and drop occasional hints, but not too much that it alerts the reader. Then when the character dies, the reader can come to the realization that the character anticipated his own fate and walked into it anyways.

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    1. Lol! How interesting! I have a book that I started when I was about 10 and didn't finish until just recently. Glad I'm not the only one who's done something like that. =)

      I did like the way Fili and Kili's death was handled in the books, too. It was only Fili's movie death that bothered me. In the book, he died fighting beside and protecting his kin, which was beautiful. In the movie, he was stabbed in the back while dangling helplessly in the air. WHAT? I'm not sure why they chose to do it that way. =|

      Great point about #6. I couldn't agree more. Deaths to make points can be done once or twice, but not all the time. I did feel like Mockingjay overdid it. I mean, yes, I KNOW war is bad. Stop trying to convince me of something I already understand.

      Also, brilliant idea about the character who knows he's going to die. That would be so gorgeous but so sad.

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    2. I'll agree with that. In my writing I have someone who knows he's going to die and he does drop hints not on purpose but yes. thanks for pointing it out.

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  4. I actually really needed this because I have a character marked for death but it is so obvious that she's a dead man walking. It's been driving me crazy. I have many of these check points covered for her but there are a few that need more work, so thanks for the very helpful article. Awesome as always. :D

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  5. I agree with all your points. I had to pin this post to my writing board because I can foresee needing to go back over it later. :P Some of the character deaths that got to me most were Boromir (in the movie mainly, not quite so bad in the book), Fili (although I hate that death in both film and book), Gabriel (Supernatural), Dean Winchester (Supernatural [one of his deaths in particular]), Loki (the one in Thor: The Dark World), Sherlock Holmes (though only because seeing John crying makes me cry), every Doctor regeneration of ever... yeah, there's a lot. OH AND RORY. Every time Rory died. Okay, okay, I'm done. XD But then I have to think about whether all these deaths are good just because they're painful. I don't want to write a death scene that makes people cry for no reason.
    I can't wait to read your next post! :)

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  6. May I just say, I AGREE WITH YOU WHOLEHEARTEDLY. I am very critical of any characters death. If there is a reason (usually one of yours) behind the death, I am totally willing to forgive *gasp* and forget. (I guess that could also count as denial.) But if there is no reason for it, well. The author should pray they don't meet my wrath.
    Although it was actually The Maze Runner series (by James Dashner) that made me start thinking when you should kill a character, (Dashner does a fabulous job) my favorite example of the Dos and Don'ts of writing has to be the Hunger Games. I could probably give a two hour lecture on writing using examples solely from HG. Or even just on the death's of Rue, Primrose, and Finnick.
    But I have a list two miles long of characters deaths that tore my heart out. Rudy Steiner, gosh I cry every single time. Any character from The Maze Runner, Loki, Thorin, Sherlock. Moriarty, also. Though not sad, fabulously done. (That sounds so wrong. To call a death fabulous.)

    -Adry Grace

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  7. Great advice! Character deaths that readers know are coming but hope to avoid are crushing too! An example occurs (or is predicted to occur) in The Raven King, the last book of Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle. Also, inverting our expectations of who is going to die is tragic, as in The Fault in Our Stars. I actually think a deeply meaningful series that ends without a character death isn't as satisfying...

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  8. This is a great post!! Oh gosh, #2 and #5 are always heartrending for me. Those are both sure ways to make my heart bleed. #9, though, I can't stand. It happens too often, to where it's expected. Or maybe it's just that it's so rare for it to be done well? Gandalf's fake death worked for me, so maybe it can be done right.

    It's funny that you say kill the dog!! Because I think there's an old rule in filmmaking that says "NEVER KILL THE DOG." There are of course many movies that break this rule, but generally speaking those movies are much, much harder for people to accept (or even like). So, if you DO kill the dog, you better do it carefully, because it could potentially ruin your whole story. At least that's what I've heard. ;) Maybe this rule isn't followed so much anymore.

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  9. I have to say, I am not at all comfortable with "Kill The Dog". I know it is almost entirely an emotional response, and therefore not grounded in fact or even professional creativity, but if I read a book or watch a movie that kills the "dog" (whether it really is a dog or other emotional crutch) I get really mad. I think real life is unfair enough to the innocent animals, I don't want to read or watch it in my escape.

    That said, however, I loved this post and enjoyed it thoroughly. It made me think, and I have a few character deaths that definitely need some work.

    I really enjoy your blog, Hannah, and though this is my first time commenting, it will not be my last.

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    1. Yep. I'm not a fan of doggy killing. That last one was more sarcastic than anything else. I think it's best to let the animal live, because that's more of a plot twists and shows that you don't have to slay an innocent pet to keep people emotionally engaged. =)
      Woohoo to your first comment on my blog! Glad you've been enjoying my little corner of the internet. =)

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  10. I skimmed the comments, waiting for someone to sympathize with you about the death of That Certain Character from All the Light We Cannot See. But since no-one did, this is me, sympathizing.

    Also, I've read a grand total of 2 posts on your blog and liked both of them...so you might have yourself a new follower. ;)

    Keep up the good work & may your well of inspiration never run dry.

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    1. Aw. Thank you for your sympathizing. Apparently it's just you and me being sad about The Character Who Must Not Be Named. =]

      I'm so glad to hear that you're enjoying my posts! Thanks for the encouragement.

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  11. Great post.
    You definitely have to be careful with faking it. "Supernatural" has done this to death, pun intended. Dean and Sam have each not-really-died at least twice. When Dean disappeared into Purgatory, it was no longer heartwrenching. It was more like, yawn, how's he gonna get out of this one?
    On the other hand, when George R.R. Martin faked Brand's death, I totally bought it because he'd already proven himself willingly to kill off main characters, even POV characters. I don't really like those books for other reasons, but that is something he does very well.
    Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn" trilogy also has some great examples. At least one main character dies in every book, and at the end of the third one, almost everyone dies, but their deaths literally save the entire world. It doesn't get much more meaningful.
    I disagree with #10 though. There are many more uses for dogs in stories other than cannon fodder. It's actually much easier to fake an animal's death than it is to fake a human's. (In stories, that is. Wow, that sounded bad.) This is mostly because, like you said, killing the dog is such a common plot device that people expect it. Which makes it ridiculously easy to tug on those heartstrings without actually sacrificing the animal. Bringing it back at the end when the dust has settled can be a great way to symbolize hope for the future. An example of this is the end of "Star Trek: Generations". Data and Geordi are sifting through the wreckage of the Enterprise when suddenly Data's cat Spot climbs out of the rubble. Data, who has been struggling with his newly acquired emotions throughout the story, finds himself crying for the first time in his life. It's an incredibly powerful moment.

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    1. Ah. I've never actually watched Supernatural, but I do keep hearing that apparently the characters can die, go to hell, and still come back. I can see how that might get old. =D
      I like your thoughts on the dog deaths. I think the faking would make more sense for a pet, and, like you said, it would certainly be easy to evoke a lot of emotions. I'd never thought of that before you brought it up, though. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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  12. Wow! Amazing advice, as well as unbelievably morbid, lol :D But I agree with you - a well placed and well written death can make all the difference in a novel.

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  13. If you want to see a TV show that does badly done fake deaths repeatedly, try watching the Australian TV series McLeod's Daughters. They're experts at it. Basically the rule is if you don't see the body then they're not dead.

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  14. This is a good post, I think, and rounds up many ways death can be made to matter more. However, in my opinion, a death is usually better the more impact it has on the surviving characters. It made me think of one death I once wrote in a scifi "mahou shoujo" story ("mahou shoujo", meaning "magical girl", is an anime term, think young female superheroes with alter egos and such stuff à la Sailor Moon): a patient, peace-builder goody-two-shoes magical girl (from now on, I'll mark her with the letter F here, since it is the first letter of her name) was shot by the enemy rather early in the story. Seven and eight from this list, true, but I think what made the death "matter" was something else:

    -It upset the dynamics inside the girls' group. One of F's friends (let's call her N, since her name begins with a N), began to question whether she wants to continue protecting the city, when doing so means putting her life on the line almost every night. Which leads to her being at odds with her friend A, who thinks not swallowing your fear would be cowardly and insult the dead friend's memory. The third remaining member of the group, S, faces new problems, since before her death F had usually negotiated peace between N and A. In addition, F's death invoked a thirst of revenge in S and drove S to become the head of a much larger, loosely-knit magical girl league, only for her to discover she didn't really know how to lead it well.

    -It (along with another character's, K's, coma-inducing injury) caused many different characters to think and question. Think and question themselves, their comrades, and the world they live in. It gave scientific-minded genius minor character T an important clue about the origin of magic. It opened old wounds on S. K's best friend C had to think whether keeping K's dark past secret was the right thing to do when it placed the living at risk. A's hatred of H developed into a want to seriously injure or kill H, who she thinks was behind F's death. R, who shared her religion with F, pondered whether deities had turned away from F in her time of need. S weighs her own thirst of revenge against how much F had always wanted to avoid bloodshed. (And now I feel like returning to these characters and writing their story into conclusion, dammit.) I like to think death has a kind of "ripple effect" to it, impacting everything around it, the more the closer. People we knew affect us, even posthumously. Think of Harry Potter's parents, or Rose Quartz from Steven Universe, or Mal from Inception.

    Now, enough of ripples and original story rants. Funerals are wonderful characterization events (and that sounded a lot grimmer than I'd wish it to, sorry), aren't they? I mean, they can really bring characters' true colors to the surface. For example: in the first story arc of W.I.T.C.H., there's the funeral of Yan Lin. Yan Lin's granddaughter, Hay, is one of the main characters, and the other four main characters show up in white clothes (since outsiders should wear white to a Chinese funeral). Yet, soon after, before the funeral has even ended, Elyon, Hay's friend who turned to the dark side, appears in dark clothes (which shouldn't be worn by anyone save the immediate family) and visible to Hay only. Or another example: in the wonderful Shingeki no Kyojin fanfic Vigilantia Pretium Libertatis, chapter 16, Ymir laughs during a funeral, painting her as an inappropriate, couldn't-care-less-about-what-you-think type of character.

    I'd really appreciate to hear what the blog's author or others think of posthumous characters (it's under that label at TvTropes), and/or funeral scenes. And sorry for my mediocre English, it isn't my first language.

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    1. You are so right, Serenity. Unfortunately I have some real life experience with this. I lost a family member a little over a year ago. The loss affected us all differently. It strained some relationships and made others stronger.
      When killing off characters in fiction, I think the most important thing is portraying the reactions of the surviving characters realistically. No two people will be affected in exactly the same way. It's a good opportunity to advance character arcs since death often causes us to reevaluate our lives. Some of us become more determined to live fully and fearlessly, and some of us become more cautious. Some of us seek revenge, and others try to reconnect with the dead person by finishing something they started.
      You pointed out that funeral scenes are a good opportunity to explore individual personalities. They're also a good way to present your characters' culture. Whether it's real, like the Chinese funeral customs you mentioned, or part of your fictional world, funeral and mourning customs can tell you a lot about a culture's attitude towards life and death. Do they believe it's more important to celebrate the person's life, like an Irish wake, or to fully express their grief? Do they give the dead person material gifts to take into the afterlife, or do they believe that the soul transcends the material world? Do they believe in an afterlife at all?
      By the way, your English is very good. Better than some native English speakers I've known.

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  15. Good points! Reading this made me more confident about the way I did in a character in my WIP. The fictional death that most affected me happened in the The Deer Hunter when Nick (Christopher Walken) blew his brains out during Russian roulette. I got so invested in his character that his death was like the loss of someone I knew.

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  16. I have completely binged on most of your articles. Not only do they provide excellent advice, but I feel assurred that I am doing things right, or at least not falling into trends of current writers. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

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  17. #10 But what about Boomer?!
    On a serious note, in my duology that I'm working on, most of the character deaths happen before the story begins. How do you have a character bond with someone who dies before the reader gets to know them? How do you convey "My mother died, and I am still reeling from her death" without actually saying that?

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  18. Thanks for the post! For my current book, i'm planning to fake the death of one of the secondary main characters to reveal the secret that this certain group of people cannot be infected by the zombie virus and also to introduce more characters. Also because of the death, the main character and the other secondary main character are going to get into a fight and have some character development because of the separation (one of them is going to learn to be more independent and the love interest of the other one is going to make a move on her because he wants to help her through the hard time).

    So basically the death is mandatory to move the story along in three character arcs and the main arc.

    Also the main character is going to have a super bad ass, zombie fighting dog and if I kill him it'll break my own heart. No! I cant do it! You wont make me!

    I'm new here, and I absolutely love you blog! I am also still an amateur writer so all of your posts are super helpful to me! thanks!

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