Killing off characters: the shoulds and shouldn’ts


1. Why you should

  • The death is a major plot point
  • It reveals some shocking plot twist
  • It supports your themes/what you’re trying to say with your book
  • Your novel explores the afterlife
  • You are George R.R Martin and the selling point of your work is that everybody dies
  • It suits the genre/mood of your novel

2. Why you shouldn’t

  • The character isn’t serving any purpose (this isn’t the Sims)
  • You want your readers to be shocked for the sake of being shocked
  • You want to be edgy
  • You think your MG story needs more gore
  • You want to romanticise grieving/loss

3. How you should

  • This really depends on your genre and target audience
  • If you’re writing something that isn’t intended to be graphic/traumatic, you can stick to the impact the death has on the other characters. If your novel explores illness, focus on that rather than on the disturbing death scene itself. Perhaps you’re writing a drama/tragic romance – you might want to ease up on the gore here. For these genres, I would suggest focusing on the emotional aspect of the death – the sobbing, the last words, the bright white lights (whatever floats your boat). Think of Mufasa in The Lion King – the actions are suspenseful, but we don’t see him being trampled with his guts spilling everywhere. But it’s still one of the most impactful deaths in fictional history.
  • If you’re writing in a more mature and gritty genre (like thriller, dark fantasy or crime), you can go all out. If there’s blood and guts, you readers probably want to see it in vivid detail to get their violence fix for the day.
  • Whichever genre your novel falls into, you should also go with what feels comfortable to you. Even if you’re writing adult dark fantasy, you don’t have to write graphic violence to make a character death impactful.

4. How you shouldn’t

  • Please don’t let your character have a three-pages-long monologue after they’ve been stabbed in the throat. It’s not realistic and it’s often very boring. Yes, a few well-written last words can have a great impact. Just make sure that your character would realistically be able to speak at that point and that it doesn’t become a cheese fest.
  • Unless you’re aiming for very dark/nihilistic humour, afford your characters some dignity in the way they kick the bucket. (e.g. don’t use the phrase “kick the bucket”). Having someone slip on a banana peel and then choke on a pretzel is a little ridiculous and will make the entire story seem silly. Once again, this really depends on what you’re going for. If your genre is serious and your character is important and beloved, try for emotion rather than whimsy.
  • Don’t let your characters die only to be resurrected again and again and again. Look, I love Supernatural (long may they reign), but even I have to admit that the Winchester brothers’ luck with death has become a bit ridiculous. Doing this takes away from the impact of the death – it removes the fear and suspense, and will leave your readers emotionally stunted.

5. Who you shouldn’t

  • Your only female character in a bid to make the male hero feel something and become a better person
  • Your only LGBTQIA+ character, who is just too pure to live in this terrible world
  • Your only character of colour, who dies to save the white hero
  • Your only disabled character, who can now finally find release from life with disability
  • The one character who has never experienced a sliver of joy and bears the brunt of the tragedy, right when happiness is finally within their reach
  • The main character in the middle of the story – unless you have a REALLY good plan for what happens next

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