Killing Characters

This seems to always be a divisive subject amongst writers. Some writers wouldn’t dream of killing off one of their characters, while other writers are more than happy to recreate their own versions of the infamous Red Wedding from Game of Thrones within their own works. Within the realm of fiction, character deaths can extend beyond just those of the villains. Side characters and even some main characters can be subject to meeting an untimely death. These are the characters that readers will mourn, especially if they happen to be a fan favorite. As writers, we know that not every character’s story can end in happily ever after. But killing characters can be a delicate art. You don’t want the death to be pointless, you want it to mean something. Below are somethings to keep in mind when you’re contemplating a potential character death. 

Positive Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Kick off the inciting action or to reveal a hidden secret. Sometimes our main character needs to experience the death of another character in order to get them to begin the proverbial hero’s quest. But at the same time, you don’t want the death to come across as cheap writing or cliched. You want this to be meaningful to the plot. In order for the death to be meaningful to the story’s plot, ask yourself if this inciting action can be kicked off any other way? Or can this hidden secret that is integral to the plot, can that be discovered any other way? If not, then you can proceed with the character’s death.

2) To motivate other characters. Again, death can be a great motivator to both heroes and villains. But you don’t want it to be the sole purpose of their motivation, meaning don’t kill a character just to get your hero or villain started on the path of their character arc and development.

3) To highlight a universal truth within your story’s universe. Sometimes some character deaths have to be sacrificial for the greater good of the story. If death is the only way to highlight a universal truth in your story, then do it. Or if you’re writing a series and you get to a point where there is no other way to illustrate a continuing theme then use a character death. 

4) It’s the only logical way of ending a character arc. There are plenty of ways for your character to come full circle and grow. Death doesn’t always have to be the answer. However, there are times when it is the only answer. As the writer of the story, you will know if this is the only way of wrapping up a character’s arc. 

Negative Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Solely for the purpose of shocking your audience. No, no, no. You will only make your fan base angry. Don’t alienate your fan base.

2) To start some drama. If you’re killing a character just to spice things up within your story, then you really need to re-evaluate your plot. There are definitely tons of other ways to shake things up without having to kill a character. My personal rule is if you feel your story needs something shocking like a death to save it, then you really need to start from scratch again. 

3) Just for the character development of someone else.Yes, sometimes either a hero’s backstory or even a villain’s backstory will include the death of someone close to them in order to get them started on their respective paths. However, killing a character just for the purpose of further developing another character is not necessary. You can achieve the same effect with a less tragic accident. For example, if your story is about two brothers who haven’t spoken in 10 years, you don’t need to reconcile them by having them lose their mom in a firey car crash. Simply having her hospitalized with a broken leg would be enough to get them back in town and have to face one another and eventually reconcile. You still achieve the character development but without the character death. 

4) You’re unsure how to further the character’s storyline. This more applies to minor characters who sometimes serve their purpose in a story, but then we, as writers, don’t know what to do with them. While the topic of what to do with minor characters after they’ve served their purpose is always up for debate, killing them off isn’t advised. It serves no purpose and if they happen to be a well-received minor character, this can end up angering the fandom. 

5) You don’t like them. We’ve all had characters that we don’t like in our stories. And I’m not necessarily talking about villains. Sometimes as writers we create minor characters or even major characters that, as we get into the writing process, come to find we don’t actually like writing them. Either they’re too boring, we’ve gotten sick of writing them, or we simply can’t connect with them. The easiest solution to this is to remove them all together from the story. Make it such that they’ve never existed within our story’s universe. Sometimes I have found that these characters I don’t like are simply in the wrong story and once I find where they fit, they work much better. I’ve also found that if a character is easily removable from the story, then they were irrelevant to it anyways. Of course, problematic characters aren’t always easily removable like this. Sometimes a character needs to be in a story but we, the writers, just can’t stand their story anymore. Don’t kill them off, find another less dramatic way of writing them out.

How to Write Side Characters

When written correctly, side characters can actually be some pretty interesting people. Plus, they add a lot to the story. Yes, we all have to put effort into making our protagonists and antagonists multi-dimensional characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to forget about our side characters. While they might be minor characters in the grand scheme of things, they’re still vital to the telling of the story as they serve many functions such as revealing key details, motivating the protagonist or foiling the protagonist, and sometimes helping to outline certain plots in the story. These secondary characters can either interact with the protagonist through dialogue or through a memory that the main character has of them. 

Whichever way you choose to have your main character interact with your side character(s), it’s important to remember the main function of the side character: to help progress the story forward somehow. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to making sure your side characters are not one-sided.

Don’t get stuck on the little details:

Yes, writing a rich backstory is important to understanding your side character. But not everything has to be in your story. Just include the parts of the character’s backstory that are relevant to the plot and that move it forward. Don’t get stuck on the little details that don’t matter. It’ll only end up confusing your reader. A good tip to bear in mind is to ask yourself “does this add to the main story or distract from it?”

Don’t make them solely good or solely bad:

The best way to add dimension to your characters is to avoid making them one-sided. If they’re completely good or evil they’ll read completely flat. What I like to do for all my characters, including the side characters, is to give them three good virtues and three negative ones and work from there. The way I see it, if you mix black and white you get grey – and grey is where things get interesting. 

Don’t create too many characters:

Creating characters is fun. That is why it’s so easy to get swept up in the desire to write more and more characters, leading to your story to become very convoluted. If you ever read War and Peace, you know just how long that list of characters is. And if you read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you probably had to refresh your memory a couple times while reading as you tried to keep up with all the characters. While Tolstoy somehow made it work in 587,287 words, most of us are probably working with a much smaller word count goal. Therefore we shouldn’t make it too confusing for our readers to keep up with our cast of characters. 

The side characters are there to develop the main character(s):

No matter if you have one side character or five, they all share the same exact purpose: to develop the main character. Side characters can be used to expose key plot points without you necessarily going into exposition mode and “telling” what is happening, but rather “showing” it through the characters. A side character should never be just background noise, each side character should be an active participant in the story and either support your main character or provide an obstacle for them (without necessarily being the antagonist). 

Use them to help bring the world to life:

This is particularly helpful if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Secondary characters can be tools used to help bring the world you built to life. Physical descriptions, personal experiences, these are all ways that the side characters can help to better illustrate the world you’ve created. 

Try to keep them in one space:

In order to make it easier for your readers to keep up with your secondary characters, it’s a good idea to tie them to one location whenever possible. That means that your side character exists in one spot, like the bar, school, the library, etc. and they never venture beyond this point. But remember, even if they only exist as the woman in the coffee shop, they still need to serve a purpose to moving the story forward. It’s easier for your reader to learn character names etc. when they are in one location. But if you do move a secondary character around, do it with purpose. 

Give them a reason for being in a scene:

Speaking of purpose, you should make sure that your secondary character has a purpose for being in a scene. Like I said in the previous point, your side characters should really be kept to one location if it can be helped. But if you do end up moving them around, make sure that there is a reason for them to be in a different scene with your main character. If there is no good reason for your side character to be in the scene then it’ll just read as awkward and confusing.