When it comes to writing fiction, death is often inevitable. No, I don’t mean writing fiction will kill you, I mean eventually, you will have to write the death of a beloved — or despised — character, and sometimes, your fictional fatalities will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of your novel or series.
So, what can you do to make sure that your characters don’t die in vain? That’s easy! Just ask yourself: Who? When? How? Where? and What?
In life, sometimes we can see a death coming from miles away, and other times, it tackles us from left-field and knocks us on our ass. The same is true for writing. At times, we go into a story already knowing which character (or characters) will die, but still end up blindsided by unexpected plot twists that we never planned for.
When you’re faced with a character death, start by asking yourself: “Who is this character?” Consider them as an individual, separate from the plot for a moment, and look at their lives, aspirations, and personalities. Basically, make sure they’re a believable character in their own right.
And I’m not saying it has to be a main character, either! Side characters can often be beautifully developed, and even if they don’t get much screen time with the audience, they can still have a critical impact on other characters in the story.
For example, in my upcoming novel, Pieces of Pink, the opening line begins with the death of a character who is essential to the protagonist’s life. Although readers will never really get to know him, the repercussions of his loss ripple through the entire novel.
Pro tip: If you are planning to start your novel with a character death, make sure it’s not just for the sake of convenience. For example, if you’re writing about a bunch of kids who moonlight as super heroes, don’t kill off their parents just because it’s easier than explaining how the kids are getting out unnoticed at night, unless it’s critical to the story. For example, in Harry Potter, the deaths of Lily and James are crucial to the next seven books as a whole.
(On a side note, if you need a good example of parents not being killed off for convenience, check out Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only does Buffy’s relationship with her mom add depth to the series, but it also leaves room for an even more powerful loss in season 5.)
Speaking of Buffy’s mom, when you decide to kill a character can be just as important as who that character is. While sometimes, a character death in the beginning of the story is critical, at other times, deaths are more suited to the middle or ending of the book. Here’s a brief summary of how timing a death can impact your novel.
Beginning: If you begin your book with a character death — especially if it’s a character who is important to your protagonist — you have to consider the grieving process. People don’t act like themselves when they’re grieving, so characters shouldn’t either. By starting your story with death, the first way your protagonist will be introduced to the readers is when they’re not really feeling themselves.
Naturally, this is something that occurs in the real world all the time. We often meet people when we or they are in the grieving process, and sometimes it can influence the way our relationships unfold. The same is true in fiction. If you begin your novel with an important death, commit. Show the grief. Make sure you don’t allow your protagonist to slip back into feeling hunky dory within 24-hours of a critical death, because it won’t be relatable, and it won’t feel real.
Middle: On the other hand, if you have an important death scene in the middle of your story, readers will already have a good handle on who the protagonist is as an individual before any grieving process starts. This being said, in some ways, you can actually get away with ending the process a little bit more quickly (if necessary), because it’s easier to contract or expand time once the storyline is already flowing.
End: Deaths at the ends of stories — like deaths in the beginning — can actually be tricky, if you don’t want them to come off as lazy or half-assed. For example, in an epic battle scene, killing off all of the random supporting characters, when you’re just trying to tie up loose ends, can actually make things even sloppier.
On the other hand, if you’re saying goodbye to your protagonist, the end is really your only option (unless your character is a ghost). Either way, it’s important to remember that ending a book with a death means no grieving process for the characters or for the reader, and unless you have a sequel coming out, this can be very dissatisfying and frustrating.
So, when you are trying to determine when to stage an epic death scene, make sure you leave space for appropriate reactions and repercussions.
How your character dies doesn’t really require too much explanation; and chances are, you already know how they’ll meet their demise. Maybe it’s in a car accident, maybe it’s at the tip of any arrow, or maybe it’s by their own hand. But do keep in mind the way your character dies will impact how other characters respond to their deaths. For example:
Natural Causes: If your character dies of natural causes, chances are both the readers and the other characters know it’s coming, and as strange as this sounds, the aftermath likely won’t be as brutal. If a character dies of natural causes, they’ll likely have time to make their peace before they bow out, so there will probably be more general acceptance of the death.
Accidental: In the event of an accidental or sudden death, it’s important to remember that your other characters will likely be shocked by the event. And depending on whether they witness it or simply hear about it afterwards, they’re likely to feel confused, and they’re likely to have regrets.
Murder: In the event of a murder or execution, it’s likely that your characters are going to be after revenge. In addition to the other aspects of grief that your characters face, there’s probably going to be a heightened sense of anger or rage that seeps into the story from the point of death onwards.
Suicide: In my opinion, suicide is one of the most difficult ways a character can die. It’s one thing if they sacrifice themselves to save other characters, but it’s another thing if they take their own life for personal reasons. In the event of self-sacrifice, things will probably play out much more like the accidental deaths or murders. But if a character kills him or herself because of something personal, it’s important to remember that surviving characters will always wonder: Why?
While it may seem silly, setting can actually play an important role in a character’s death. And as we all know, the setting of our stories can be just as much a character as the characters themselves.
In other words, if a character dies on a battlefield, or drowns in the ocean, it’s going to have a different impact on the story than if a character dies in a house. Say, for example, a character dies in the protagonist’s living room. The way the protagonists uses the space after the death may change. They may want to gut the room, or turn it into a shrine, or just avoid it all together.
Even in real life, many people have a tendency to avoid or become fascinated with places where deaths have occurred, so it’s important to keep in mind that the same will likely be true of any remaining characters.
Finally, ask yourself what this death will contribute to the story as a whole. If you don’t have a great answer, or if you can’t come up with one, maybe you should consider whether the death scene is really necessary.
But keep in mind, a good answer doesn’t always have to be something extremely deep or detailed. Sometimes a good answer can be as simple as just knowing deep down that that character’s time is up.
And if you do find yourself facing the death of a beloved character and worrying if the story will be able to survive with out them, fear not. Just like we do in real life, your story will grow and evolve, and you will find a way to breathe new life into your world.