How to Kill a Character Without Ruining the Story

Posted on Aug 14, 2023

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When it comes to telling a story, the death of a character holds immense power. An unexpected passing or killing can evoke emotions that resonate deeply with readers, provoking a wide array of emotions such as shock, anger, upset and even grief. 

Yet, this choice for authors is not without its perils; the demise of a beloved character can just as easily derail a story if mishandled. This is the delicate balance and fine line authors must tread, which we will explore in the following article. 

Regardless of whether you are one of the most seasoned and experienced authors or someone taking their first steps as a writer, the challenge that awaits in killing a character that enhances the plot and not detracts from it is one that requires careful consideration. 

This article will break down some of these key considerations, as well as examples and practical advice you can use in your own writing. We will discuss working beyond clichés and shock value, uncovering the intricate strategies that maintain narrative integrity and ultimately help you write the best story possible.

This guide on how to kill a character covers:

  1. Ensure there is a narrative purpose
  2. Deliver sufficient emotional impact
  3. Balance the death against reader investment
  4. Invest in foreshadowing and buildup
  5. Consider the consequences and aftermath
  6. Be sure to avoid cliches
  7. Create closure and resolution

Ensure there is a narrative purpose

The choice to kill off a character must be driven by a clear narrative purpose. This purpose extends beyond mere shock value; it aligns with the story’s trajectory and themes. Consider J.K. Rowling’s masterful use of this principle in the “Harry Potter” series. The demise of Albus Dumbledore in “The Half-Blood Prince” serves a profound narrative purpose: it propels Harry into a leadership role, deepens the exploration of sacrifice, and challenges the characters’ understanding of good and evil. Dumbledore’s death isn’t just a dramatic twist—it’s an integral pivot point that orchestrates significant shifts in the overarching plot.

Writers must always ask themselves: Does the character’s demise contribute meaningfully to the story’s core messages and character development? If the answer is yes, then that is a great first step to being able to make such a decision.

Deliver sufficient emotional impact

One of the key necessities when considering a character’s death lies in its ability to evoke genuine emotions. Take George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, where the unexpected demise of Ned Stark in “Game of Thrones” is thoroughly shocking. This visceral reaction underscores the power of emotional investment. Writers must gauge the intensity of attachment readers have developed, ensuring that a character’s death resonates authentically.

When crafting a character’s exit, consider the range of emotions it can stir—pain, anger, sorrow—and how these feelings can impact the rest of the story. 

Balance the death against reader investment

Balancing the impact of character death against reader investment is very delicate. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” the death of Boromir holds immense weight due to the connection readers form with his complex and redemptive arc. His sacrifice resonates because Tolkien develops our attachment to his character over the course of the story.

Writers must be attuned to reader sentiment—killing off a beloved character can evoke powerful reactions, but straining this bond risks disengagement. Recognize the narrative potential in both fostering strong attachments and challenging them.

It’s a fine line of reader expectations and unexpected plot twists. By understanding the dynamics between character, reader, and story, writers can aim to strike a balance that keeps the core of the story intact but also has sufficient unpredictability.

Invest in foreshadowing and build up

The art of a well structured character’s death lies in ensuring it is well integrated into the narrative. Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” masterfully employs foreshadowing and build-up to craft a memorable resolution. The interconnectedness of the characters and their histories contributes to the unexpected revelation.

When writing, dropping subtle hints and clues prepares readers for a character’s eventual departure, making it feel retrospectively both inevitable and justified. Foreshadowing not only maintains narrative integrity but also encourages readers to engage in speculative anticipation. 

Consider the consequences and aftermath

Character death reverberates beyond the moment of death itself, setting off a chain reaction of consequences. In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s death triggers a sequence of events that leads to the tragic demise of the titular characters. His death serves as a catalyst for the escalating feud between the Montagues and Capulets, showcasing the domino effect of one life lost.

Similarly, when crafting a character’s demise, writers must explore how their absence catalyzes change. How do surviving characters cope, evolve, or clash? What new conflicts arise in the wake of their departure? The aftermath paints a vivid picture of the impact a single character can have on the entire narrative landscape.

By harnessing these after effects, writers can craft a multi-dimensional story where a death is not an endpoint, but the beginning of unforeseen events.

Be sure to avoid cliches

When it comes to character deaths, steering clear of cliches is paramount. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy breaks away from the predictable by ensuring each death serves a distinct purpose. Rue’s demise doesn’t solely tug heartstrings; it catalyzes Katniss’s determination to challenge the Capitol.

As writers, originality lies in subverting expectations. Avoid stereotypical deaths solely for shock value, instead crafting exits that are unexpected yet authentic. Challenge conventions by exploring alternative circumstances and outcomes.

By doing so, writers can create deeper and longer lasting connections between characters and readers. Through innovative and creative death arcs, characters will then be able to live on in readers minds and the wider culture the stories create.

Create closure and resolution

Character death demands closure, even in the face of finality. In Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” the sacrifice of Sydney Carton resonates not just as an end, but as a beginning; a redemption that finds its culmination in the character’s profound final words.

Writers must provide the same consideration for their characters.

Ensure that loose ends are tied, unanswered questions find their answers, and character arcs come full circle. This resolution fosters a sense of completion, offering readers the satisfaction of a narrative well-rounded. Through a character’s departure, the narrative finds its natural end point, even if that end point is indeed a sad one. 

How to kill a character without ruining the story – final thoughts

In summary, killing off a character is clearly not a decision that any writer should take lightly. There are countless examples of this decision being made and it leaves readers angry with the writer or left with a feeling that the choice was made purely for shock value, a telltale sign that the writer did not have full confidence in the story itself and needed to include a twist purely for the sake of it.

However, if one uses the above as a guideline, there is a high chance that any character death will be justified, and as we have discussed, will enhance their work instead of detract from it. Alongside the above, writers would be well placed to make their own list of character deaths from works they have read and spend some time analyzing it through the above points. By learning from established authors, writers can then have full confidence in their own work and be well placed to write the best story possible.

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