Over the years I’ve heard hundreds of reasons for killing characters. I’ve read plenty of books and watched films and TV shows that don’t shy away from the same. But I think there’s a lot more to consider when you start killing off characters. Today I’m going to explore the topic of killing off characters and when you should (or should not) do the same.
To demonstrate this I will discuss spoilers for the following books/TV/films; Harry Potter, the 100 (up to season 3), Game of Thrones (up to season 5), the Walking Dead (up to season 6), Star Wars (the original trilogy).
So be warned: SPOILERS WITHIN.
As far as reasons go for killing off characters, you should never do so because you’re bored or you want to ‘spice up your story’. While a death might do so, it could cheapen the character and make the death feel forced. A character’s death – just like their life – must serve a purpose within your story. It might serve the plot or perhaps be a natural end for the character, but they must die for a reason.
A good way to resolve a character’s arc, might even be their death. For some characters their death resolves the series and can in some villain’s cases be their redemption. The greatest example of this is Darth Vader’s decision to save his son, which resulted in his death. With the amount of atrocities that cinema’s most well-known villain had committed, there was no way he could be redeemed in life. While his son was still willing to see the light in him, no act of good or saving of people could ever grant forgiveness in the eyes of the Resistance or even in his daughter, Leia. His death was the only way he could achieve a form of ‘redemption’. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the 100, a character death in season 2 felt more like a natural resolution to his arc. But this wasn’t redemption, this was punishment. Finn quickly became a fan favourite and his love for Clarke was paramount, but when this and his fear led to him slaughtering innocent Grounder villagers, the Grounders demanded ‘blood must have blood’. His death saved his people from a punishment for his actions but also granted Clarke respect in the eyes of the Grounders. Had he survived, his relationship with Clarke could never have been mended and he would have lost his place in the show (considering his main purpose was to serve as her love interest). In this, his character arc was resolved, his story reached a natural end and not only that but his death served a purpose and furthered the plot.
Sometimes deaths are needed to prove a point. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Halllows, a lot of the characters death, particularly of key figures, are intended to explain the grim realities of war. That people die, no matter how much they are loved and that others must still go on without them. However are that many deaths really required to prove a point? Some might argue that it was ‘one too many’; especially in regards to Fred Weasley and the knowledge both Lupin and Tonks never lived to raise their son. In some instances it might have been more effective for one character to have died to illustrate this as oppose to so many beloved characters.
The Walking Dead frequently kills/injures characters to reflect it’s setting, to show that in a zombie apocalypse survival would be so easy – though this sentiment has since lost its traction when it seems to be the same characters getting ‘lucky’ and surviving the bloodshed. They have reached a point where the majority of their original main cast have been killed so that we know those who are surviving are here to stay. There is no concern for their life, no fear they will die, even after one of these key characters got shot in the eye during one of the latest episodes, and yet it was no surprise when the character survived the devastating injury.
If you need to explain the harsh realities of the world that your characters live in, then deaths might just do that. But once you set the idea that the world is risky and anyone could die, you can’t make exception for other characters. There must be a reason that those who survive are the ones that survive.
Game of Thrones is perhaps the most well-known for no character being ‘safe’. In the first season, when the main character’s was about to die, we all assumed he would be saved at the last moment, but instead nothing stopped the axe. This was repeated again in the second season, when more and more key figures and main characters were killed again and again. Often ‘fan favourites’ are the characters killed frequently for the biggest shock value and there is no greater culprit of this than Game of Thrones. Unfortunately because of the constant need to shock the audience and kill the characters off, each death has less impact. Come season 5, most of the fan favourites were already dead, those that remained were ones that they can’t possibly be killed off (Daenerys’ death before reaching Westeros would render her previous scenes pointless and there would have even been no point including her as a character; the same could be said for most of the Starks such as Sansa, Arya and Bran) so instead of killing these characters the show’s taken turns that the books haven’t included (such as the sensitive topic of rape) as a plot device for shock value and to make the characters suffer. With most fan favourites already gone, people aren’t concerned about the welfare or any further deaths revolving around the remaining characters. Death in Game of Thrones is no longer shocking.
The Vampire Diaries started its days on a similar premise of no character being safe, but after a couple of seasons, the characters left were too important to kill and instead they ended killing characters and bringing them back to life. This meant that any deaths in the future never had an impact because the viewers were aware there was a chance the character could return. You have to make sure that death still means something in your series. If it’s too frequent then it isn’t a surprise or shocking and if you start bringing characters back to life, you cheapen the effect. Did their death really have a point if they end up coming back?
This is something that the 100 has been successful at. While quite a few characters have been killed – with at least one main character each season – their death is still surprising. It isn’t too frequent and more surprisingly it is rarely at the climax of the story. Within a few episodes of the first season Wells (one of two main love interests from the book) was shockingly killed, Finn’s death in the second season was also completely unexpected and was earlier in the season. Although the show has since suffered severe backlash for it’s most recent character death, this might have been more a flaw on the writers part for playing up a lesbian/bisexual romance only to kill one of the characters.
If you want to set the idea that no character is safe you can’t be predictable with how you do it, such as killing characters at the climax of the story. Yet at the same time it cannot be completely out of the blue, weave foreshadowing in but don’t make it obvious.
The thing with killing characters is that sometimes they don’t need to die.
Think about why you’re killing them. Are you killing them to prove a point? For shock value? Do you simply want to make your readers cry? These should be the effect of their death, not the reason that you are killing them.
In writing it’s often advised that every chapter or scene should further the plot, this is something that is considered when ‘killing your darlings‘ (cutting scenes on the editing table) and I believe this is also important when killing your characters. Does their death do anything for the story? Are they dying for a reason?
Perhaps it’s a form of redemption, like Darth Vader; punishment, like Finn (the 100); or maybe it’s something else. Perhaps their death is motivation for other characters (though this runs the risk of being an overused trope with vengeance and risk of ‘fridging‘) or maybe it is the inciting incident to the story. It’s possible their story has reached a natural end and it is time for them to leave the story.
So before you kill any of your characters for shock value or just because you think a character needs to die (they don’t by the way), ask yourself this question:
Why do you need to kill this character and why now?