Kill Your Characters, Please!

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Oh, the best part! Killing your characters. I'm going to tell you how to do it cleanly, avoiding cliché, meaningless deaths. Let's break this down into two parts: why you should do it and how to do it. 

I bet you are wondering why killing characters is essential to every storyline. Well, it isn't. Some books don't need death scenes to be bestsellers (ha, yes they do). But killing off characters, if done right, can sell 50 million copies across the U.S. (ahem Hunger Games ahem)(THE BOOK WAS DEATH ITSELF). 

So, now you must be thinking, "Oh, please tell me, Wise and Powerful One, how to gain this fame!"

I will, thank you very much. 

All kidding aside, killing off a main character or a character very involved with the plot can create a real page turner. Don't ever get so attached to a character that you can't harm them. Killing and hurting characters grows them emotionally, and it takes the reader on a journey of self-betterment with them. Through the struggles the characters face first or second-hand, the reader is affected, too. If they really love the character, the loss of him or her will be a devastating blow, and they will re-read those last few lines in disbelief, thinking, "That didn't just happen." Then, they will keep reading to find out what happens next (which is what you want, I hope...).

I know people whine and say, "No one will every think about me when I die!" 

Well, they probably won't. Kidding! But even if that's true for you, don't let it be true for your character; don't let his/her friends and family ever forget him/her. Don't make him/her expendable. 

Now that you know why you should do it, let's talk about how

Do not ever kill a character in the first few chapters. I have read a few books like this, and the reader doesn't know the character personally, therefore the death doesn't make the reader feel any pain. Now, if the author had waited and established that reader-character relationship, letting the reader grow with the character emotionally, the realization of the death would have been really, genuinely painful. 

If you don't give the reader time to relate and understand the character, don't kill them. It'll be a waste. It's like a stranger dying in a car crash. Sure, maybe you'd feel pity. Maybe. Eh. But you definitely wouldn't feel the consuming pain that would crush you if someone you loved dearly was in that car. 

Their death also has to have a purpose; a meaning. Ask yourself, "How will it grow the plot?"

Let the character die in agony, or don't. Let the character bleed out, or don't. A good death can be long or short, painful or painless. The only thing it has to be is powerful. It has to wrench the reader's heart right out of their chest and make them pause, lifting their eyes from the text to collect themselves (dramatic, right?). 

Based on your plot, "powerful" will be different for each story. So try this word: meaningful. To kill off a character, as we established before, you have to let the reader get to know them. Sympathize with them. Root for their cause. But not just the reader; some of the other characters are to experience this, too.

The other characters must grow with the victim as much as the readers do. Whether the other characters love him or hate his guts, they have to feel something when he dies. You have to ask yourself, "What are the other characters losing? How will this be important to them? How will they react?" 

They will lose something, that's for sure. Don't let it be an, "Oh I lost ten cents," moment. You need to have periods where the other characters reflect back on the dead character, thinking wistfully, "What if (insert name) had just survived fifteen more minutes? If only I'd run faster. Everything would be different." This creates a sense of loss for the characters and the reader. It causes them to ask, "What if?" The death must be evident in the plot as it unfolds; it has to impact it. 

If they die and everything just continues the way it was, no one will feel any pain. There will be no loss. Going back to what I said before, there has to be a point for their death. Everyone has to be affected. 

Now, I don't mean to just kill off a character to elicite a certain response from the reader such as sadness, anger, etc. Basically, don't kill a character just to make the reader sad. You have to have a bigger goal than that. Come on, losers! Just kidding HAHAHAHAHAHA OR AM I. 

Death adds realism to a book. People die in real lie, especially in dangerous situations. Your story will be more believable and more well-liked if people suffer. First, it won't be boring anymore (OH, BURN). A story with no loss or pain means no growth and development. Second, people aren't going to be able to put the book down anymore. They've invested in this character, they've fought with them, they've given everything to this person; that makes a character's death more painful and bittersweet. 

Death means THE END. There is no cliche happy ending, no reunion with loved ones. The reader will be thinking, "(insert name) had a wife and two kids! He was minutes away from winning the war; he died right before the other side lifted their white flag. Oh, no. He's really dead. He's actually gone. He'll never see them again." That's the emotion you want. The readers have to feel like they died right alongside (insert name). 

The character's life in the book can't be trivial. You have to give them a fighting chance and then take it away. It's like ripping the tablecloth right out from under a family's meals; quick, shocking, and amazing, in a great or terrible way. 

So if their life matters, then clearly the character has to matter as well. Not just in a reader-character relationship, either. Even if Mr. Clancy was the funniest science teacher in the world, if he was a coward and push-over, no one will care if he dies. 

The character has to be a leader, he has to motivate other characters. He has to stand up for the underdog, he has to be the sanity amid the chaos. Only then will his loss be devastating. Think about it this way: Jimmy is uncool and ugly. But, he befriends a small girl in poverty and defends her from her abusive father. But, after many tearful, heartfelt moments between the two kids, her father gives Jimmy an ultimatum: give him whatever he wants, or the girl dies. He helps her father reluctantly, and then her father shoots Jimmy in the chest. He falls to the floor, clutching his chest, bleeding out in front of the girl. Then he's gone, and she's wailing. 

Jimmy's dead. Who will protect the girl? Her father is advancing, leering, aiming the gun....


See? That's the response you want: "How will the plot go on without (insert name)? They were so crucial! ALL IS LOST!"

One final thought. Death doesn't have to be physical. It can be an emotional death, too. The character can join the dark side and lose themselves to evil. The character's friends try to save him, but it's too late. Or it's not, and he resurfaces, becoming good. If that's too cliche, have him struggle with giving up his dark tendencies. Comment down below if you guys have an interest in me explaining that further.

So. Recap.

Things to avoid when killing characters: pointless deaths, too many deaths, stupid deaths, and killing characters for no reason (think Prim's death in the Hunger Games). 

And, most important in the list of "don't do these things", do not resurrect characters. Don't let them have really been in hiding the whole time. If they're dead, they're dead. 

Point blank period. 

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