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On Killing Characters

A while ago, I asked you guys for topics that you’d like covered because this is, after all, a writing blog and therefor a bit of writing advice/discussion should be promoted. Here is the first topic we received!

There is a character in a story of mine that I really like but they also must die. What is the best way to kill something you love? Swords?

My friends over at keyboardsmashwriters briefly touched on the idea of character death and how, when used correctly, is a nice and strong impact in your story.

So consider a few things first:

  1. Is it necessary for that character to die?
  2. Think about it.
  3. Is it REALLY necessary?

I will be the first to admit that I killed way too many characters when I first started writing. Main and side characters and nameless, faceless minions alike. And, of course, when I was writing back then, it was perfectly okay to me because a little (or a lot of) death makes a reader cry, right?

Wrong.

Well, mostly wrong.

Over the many years that I have been writing, I’ve begun to understand the importance and consequence that comes when someone near to you dies. Even if you weren’t that close, it still hits you in the gut and leaves you winded and speechless and lost. The means of the death also affects you: old age, car accident, overdosing, self harm, pointless rage.

More seriously than how it will affect your reader when a character they love or love to hate dies, you must consider how it will affect your story and the characters that are still alive — regardless of if they are the ones that did the killing or the loving.

There are no ‘good reasons’ to kill a character. Sometimes, you have this character and, regardless of what kind of story you place him/her in, or how you change their history or their supporting cast, that just has to die. Those characters are rare and they are hard to write because you know no matter how much you develop the character, he/she will more than likely croak. Then there are the bad guys, the ones who terrorize the MC throughout the plot, torture them, turn trusted friends into traitors, destroy families and do it all in the name of ultimate power. These characters cannot be reformed by a simple friendship hug and a crown made out of daisies, because then it becomes too cheesy and the reader is left with a bad taste in their mouth. And of course there is the friend, the lover, the mentor that dies in order to urge the plot on. Their death means development for the MC and, as much as it hurts, becomes necessary.

So now we consider a new set of questions when it comes to killing a character:

  1. What kind of character are we killing?
  2. How are they dying?
  3. How will this affect the MC/cast

First off: What kind of character are we killing?

Think about how important this character is and what the ramifications of his/hear death are (this ties in to #3). But before you decide to go ahead and actually commit to the death, you must carefully think about the character itself and its place in the canon of your story. To write the scene with the proper punch (and to follow up properly with #3), it will be best if you completely understand the character. Know why this character has to die. Know why it has to be THIS character and not another.

Secondly, and more in line with the actual question left by Dan, how are they dying?

Here is another list to therefor consider when actually getting down to the kill:

  1. What kind of weapons are acceptable in this world?
  2. How clean vs messy does this kill have to be?
  3. What kind of person is the one doing the killing?

If you are in a medieval or fantasy setting, swords and blades and arrows are more likely. Modern times? Use a gun or even a small, easily concealable blade. If we think of tropes, women are likely to use poison or a small blade. Magic can be used if it is appropriate for the character and the setting. This will normally be used in slow, cleaner deaths (choking someone from a distance, crushing their heart, etc).

Don’t use a sword in a modern setting unless the story itself calls for it. If it’s a “normal” (ie non-fantasy) story in a modern city, blades are not going to be common. Guns are. (Consider also the city itself; if it’s a big city, people tend to have smaller guns that are easily carried on the person. Small town, bigger guns that are used to keep wildlife off property). Don’t just have your character interested in olden types of sword fighting JUST for the sake of giving them a sword. They can have an artistic one hanging around, for instance (take Jumanji for example: an old cavalry sword hanging on the wall which comes in handy). it will be more of a one-time use weapon, or even an excuse to frame that individual if the death is done in secret.

If a person has never held a gun before, the chances of them being a crackshot and actually hitting something will be slim to none. Be careful of that if your character is in the middle of a skirmish, picks up a gun, and fires. Money says it will be off-target, hitting something unintentional. (Of course, they could also just be really lucky and do make a hit, but make sure you play with the consequences of that).

Which is what we now move on to: CONSEQUENCES! How is this going to affect the MC/cast?

I make a difference between the MC and the cast for who the death will affect because it will go one of two ways: Someone else will do the killing and your MC and others will mourn and react, or your MC him/herself will do the killing, and the rest of the cast will then turn their reaction onto the MC.

Depending on the relationship between the MC and the recently deceased, it will of course hit them in different ways. For instance, when I was told on the two separate occasions my dad’s parents died (his father when I was really young, his mother more recently), my stomach did a little uncomfortable flip and there was a sort of “oh…” moment as it sunk in. I didn’t know either of them too well, and they were really old with their own share of health problems. When I found out that a friend from HS died in a car accident, I was winded and cried for about half an hour then spent the rest of the day with a strange hollow feeling.

As I grew up in the world and as I grew up with writing, I began to see more and more the consequences of death that comes to an individual or a group. Pointless killing began to lessen and I began to explore more of the ramifications behind the character’s death.

It’s going to affect the cast, hands down, even if it is an unnecessary death that you as the writer decided to follow through with because it created plot elsewhere (almost no death is completely unnecessary, but when it is, you know you did something wrong). If a character (not always your MC) was close to whoever died, show that. They will draw in on themselves, or they will explode with fury an demand action. If your character who does the killing has never killed before, show that. Unless they are devoid of any kind of emotional output, it will always make an impact on them. Their mind will go blank and they will stare at their hand, covered in blood, thinking ‘oh god what have I done’. Or they will think ‘this is a strength I have never experienced before, and I want more’.

In one story of mine, when one of the MCs is killed, the other MC in that scene bottles up her emotions inside of her until she can reach safety, while the one that did the killing is sick with himself and tries to push the blame on to her. That scene still makes me sad when I read it over and over again. Good job me. Let’s hope the readers get emotions when reading it, too!

In another story, when the MC kills a lackey to the Bad Guy, only one character actually said “HOLD THE FUCK UP” (not really), and the BG himself was surprised for a second before he thought “yes good”. The MC that did the killing said, I swear to god word for word “all in all, I wasn’t that sad”. That death was poorly executed (harhar sorry pun). The reactions I had from that scene were, of course, not very upset (didn’t help that I hadn’t developed the now-dead character much at all).

If you want to strike a reader with emotions when writing a death scene, give them a reason first to care about the character you are writing. No, the character does not have to be sympathetic. He can be a completely smarmy bastard but you like him anyway and damn why did he have to die? Try not to kill one of your MCs (poorly developed or not) in a random act of violence because then your readers will never forgive you (I’m sorry, Soup, I really am, everyone improves in the rewrite!).

I’ll now turn the floor over to you, dear readers: Please tell us about some of your favorite/least favorite deaths in the books you have read and why they impacted you so. (This will, of course, result in spoilers galore, so be advised and forewarned!) Just send them to our ask box!

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