How to Kill a Character

Virtually every week as I’m preparing for my post I ask my husband, “Honey, what should I blog about?” And he typically responds with “I have no idea.”

Until one week in response, he sent me the link to this article.

blog idea

Gee, thanks, honey. That’s SO helpful. Really.

So, this week, as I asked my routine “What should I blog about?” I qualified it with, “And don’t say anything about killing people with ice cream cones!”

At which point my best friend said that you can totally kill people with ice cream cones. You tape their mouths shut and then stuff the ice cream cone up their nose.

Yes, this is what I have to deal with when I’m trying to post a serious and meaningful post that will grip my readers and stretch their minds with my profundity.

But, it did get me to thinking (especially as I’ve been watching old episodes of Castle where he intros the show by saying “There are two kinds of people who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers.”) how do you kill a character? What makes a death interesting and exciting? Do they die a slow, painful, sad death of chronic disease? And do we care because we’re fond of that character? Or do they die a horrific and violent death at the hands of someone (or something as is probably the case with many of our stories)?

I wrote a scene this week that had me reeling at my own ability to murder.  I was taking a break from writing and chatting with a friend on Facebook. He had read the first two chapters of my WIP, and at the time I had told him a little of the plotline and had mentioned that I wasn’t sure whether or not a particular character was going to make it through the story. So I said to him, “Oh, by the way, I decided to murder so-and-so. I’m going to kill them either tonight or tomorrow.”

Taken out of context, I’m sure I got put on an FBI watchlist somewhere, but given the nature of the conversation, it was a perfectly logical statement.

Anyway, I sat down a short while later and began writing out the scene where this character dies, and it was bloody. A nice, jolly, horrible death, that I actually admitted out loud, “Wow, that was awful! I can’t believe I just wrote that!” And yet I love it, because, well, because I wrote it and it’s awesome.

Seriously, though, I’ve killed a handful of good characters, and sometimes I cry over them, because I love the character so much, and other times I realize they just need to die, but always because it’s the best move for the story. At least it is at the time. But the thing about deaths is they have to be unique. You can’t kill everyone the same way, just like you can’t have the same plot or the same character or the same villain or the same setting. Each death must be precise and exquisite. If it is to move the reader at all, it must be thought out and planned and executed (pun intended) with absolute perfection, otherwise it’s just mindless gore, senseless gratuitous violence.

So what about you? How do you kill a character?


About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

13 comments on “How to Kill a Character

  1. While I generally know how every major character I create will die, I don’t intend to write about most of them. Based on reader reactions to the one “good” character I’ve killed on paper so far (a character invented on the spot and used as a red shirt, pretty much), I don’t see my intentions changing any time soon.

    I balk at killing people I love. As a result, my stories don’t tend to take a direction where such deaths are natural and reasonable to the storyline.

    Not to say I don’t admire writers who can kill characters with impunity. I’m just not one of them.

    • I hate killing them, too. I’ve cried more than once writing a death scene. But the kinds of stories I write don’t lend themselves to sweet, sentimental deaths by natural causes.

  2. I love killing them. It feels delicious, if that makes sense.

  3. I love coming up with creative ways to kill characters, but my stories so far haven’t called for a lot of inventive deaths. Still, if you’re stuck and need some ideas for a good murder, or information on particularly nasty forms of torture, I’m your girl.
    Maybe it’s because I like giving people ideas more than using them myself. 😛

  4. The hard part for me has been writing about the moral trauma experienced by the one who does the killing. I’ve only had to deal with it a couple of times so far — once in Book One, where I really didn’t delve into it, and again in Book Two, I think I did a little better this time. I’m kind of not looking forward to Books Three and Four because they are going to be much bloodier, with full-on warfare. I fear I’m not up to the task.

    • That’s a valid point. My really horrible, violent killing was done by a monster, so no remorse or moral trauma was needed. In Dragons, though, in book two I could definitely delve into the mind of my antagonist and deal with the moral ramifications of the actions in book one.

  5. Most of my books have at least one death and a number of them have a “good guy” going down.

    Moral trauma of the killer – yep, I have that going. I may have issues with authority because I have at least 3 separate situations where a parent and child are at odds and at least one of them is out to kill the other.

    I have one character that I tried hard to find a way out of killing him but in the end the story and situation demanded it. That one sometimes upsets people and I had one reader say they almost stopped reading because of it.

    With each book I usually have a group of “will die” and a group of “might die” then I see what happens. The death toll usually jumps with each sequel. For instance, I killed one “good guy” in Dragon Seal, but for the sequel at least 3 carried-over characters (ie they are in book 1) are on my “will die” list. Two of those will be off stage murder by the villain.

    It is funny to watch characters set up to die, where I can tell by the way they are written I know they’ll die. I’ve seen this a lot in movies. It’s like the creators are setting up the viewer to be prepared emotionally for the character’s death. A friend watched me do it with a bunch of sci-fi shows and then labeled me as morbid. However 9 out of 10 characters that I said would die, did indeed die. So I blame the morbidness on the shows.

    For instance, any time you have the climax with a cliff sequence and the hero grabs the villain to “save” them. IF the villain then tries to exploited the hero’s mercy in order to kill the hero, the villain is usually a gonner – Lion King, Beauty & the Beast (disney), that owl Guardian movie, etc. The hero has proven himself merciful and the villain has proven themselves beyond redemption. There’s a “formula” there.

    • I’ve never really thought about who might die from the get-go. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I’m watching something and see if I can figure it out.
      I do hope my deaths are not formulaic, though. I hate it when characters I love die, but at the same time, I appreciate when a writer does it well and I don’t see it coming. Like J.K. Rowling. Someone dies in each of the last several books, and sometimes it’s characters that you don’t want to lose. I hate that they died, but I love that she wasn’t afraid to kill them. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish. This particular character, I didn’t even have on a “might die” list. I just realized as I went along that it might be better, make the stakes higher, and then when I got there I realized, yeah, there’s no way this person is making it through this book.

  6. The most traumatic death of a character I’ve experienced (that I recall at the moment) was when they killed Wash in the movie “Serenity”. He was one of my favorite characters in the TV series (“Firefly”, for the uninitiated) and was like the Dr. McCoy to Kirk and Spock in Star Trek. The third of an awesome threesome.

    But as much as I hated (and still hate) that part of the movie… I can see why Joss did it. He was the perfect one to die. We loved him, so his death hurt. Hurt bad. It meant more than if some other characters died. Kaylee’s or Zoe’s death would have been cliche. If Jayne died we would have cheered (well, you know). The Captain can’t die. Duh.

    So Wash’s death brought the most pain without killing the whole thing. It felt like we truly sacrificed something of worth to gain the victory.

    As a long-time reader, I am of the opinion that in every book the perfect person has to die. The “perfect” character for this death depends on the story and what you’re trying to do with it. Sounds morbid, but maybe it’s something about how stories should reflect what we know of life. And death is a part of this life. (Thanks a lot, Adam and Eve.)

    • I totally agree.
      I was heartbroken by Wash’s death. I still get misty-eyed every time I watch it, even though I know it’s coming. Book, too, although that one wasn’t as emotional.
      The thing is, in a story like that, there’s no way EVERYONE could make it out unscathed. It’s like those cop movies where bad guys with machine guns can’t hit the hero despite that a dozen of them are all firing automatic weapons at him at the same time but as soon as he gets some cover and aims, he hits a bad guy dead-on with every shot from an absurd distance with his little handgun. It’s unrealistic and silly.
      Someone had to die in order for the plot to be remotely believable, and Wash really was the best one for the role, as much as I hate it.
      I can’t claim to be as brilliant of a writer as Joss Whedon (although that is my goal–he’s seriously my hero!), but I hope my deaths are meaningful and emotional and unexpected and exactly what my plot needs.

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