Monday, June 16, 2014

When, why and how to kill your characters and who

In real life, death just happens, randomly, unexpectedly and often unspectacularly.

In fiction however death is quite the opposite. It's scarcely random, it is sometimes expected and it is always spectacular.

Why to kill your characters

In real life people die, so in fiction land characters should die. In certain series characters are often faced with constant danger and it's implied that they are risking their lives. However, fictional characters rarely die before it's dramatically appropriate.

So how does the reader feel when characters enter a life-or-death situation? The answer, is not much intensity at all because we fully expect them to live. Maybe the action is intense, but the readers aren't properly fearing for your characters lives.

So if you want the readers to feel like your characters might die in these situations, kill somebody. Which brings me to my next question.

Who to kill

This is the important question, who's gonna die? In many shows that have a high body count you can find the redshirts, the people who die for the sake of dying. If your familiar with Dunbar's number, or monkeysphere, you'll know why killing redshirts does next to nothing for your viewer.

Humans have a limited capacity to care about the death of other humans. Say a bus full of children die halfway around the world and you hear it on the news. People die every second and you don't know any of these children, or even how they look and it probably sounds cruel, but you won't be effected very much at all.

Say somebody that you knew and loved died, family members or friends, this is going to effect you because the person who died is in your monkeysphere. It's not about the quantity of people who are dying, it's about the quality of people who are dying.

So, if you're trying to set the tone, don't kill redshirt member #55, kill someone with a name, someone who matters.

Now I'm not trying to tell you to kill your main character, you probably shouldn't do this too early. Kill someone who is still really important, such as a secondary character. I'm also not telling you not to kill your main character, you just need to kill her at the right time.

When to kill your character

That depends largely on the type of character you're killing.

Redshirts should die early and often. They're the people who are there to set the tone, let the readers know that people are dying.

Secondary characters should die whenever it's dramatically appropriate. You'll want to kill a secondary character to send the message to your audience that people who matter can and will die in your world, so killing someone who matters really early on is a good way to establish this. Be careful with this though, if you send the message that you're going to kill characters you must actually follow though with this.

Of course, near the end of an arc is always a good time to kill characters and at and near the very end of the series.

What about the main character? She can't just up and die whenever you feel like it, it's generally expected that she won't die at all. If you are going to kill her the best bet is to do it near the very end of the series.

And she can't just die to be dying either.

How to kill your character

I won't bother telling you how to kill redshirts because as I explained before they don't matter. But what about one of your main characters?

First and foremost her death must mean something. She dies to save another character's life, she dies taking out the villain or making it possible for the hero to succeed. Or maybe her death just motivates the hero.

When she dies it's gotta be emotionally powerful, often she'll know full well that she's about to die and how she and the other characters react to her imminent death is as important as her actually dying. As she lays dying, she'll often utter final words to another character.

Then there's the actual dying. If your main character is in pursuit of the villain and walks into a warehouse that blows to bits, killing her instantly your audience will likely be less than satisfied to say the least.

However, if your main character dies after an epic battle with your villain while also killing her as well, your audience will more than likely be satisfied with how your chose to kill her.

Here's what not to do

Imagine a scenario when the heroes storm the villains liar and take out all the henchman and one of the major villains is there. They know that another villain is lurking around but that just proceed to talk, tend to each other or simply lollygag. Basically, they're not paying enough attention to the other villain; who comes in and kills one of the heroes while they're not looking.

Even worse than dying due to stupidity? Living due to stupidity. I wasn't talking about stumbling upon something that should kill you but for some reason doesn't, but that counts too. I was talking about when the villain has the hero and instead of killing her, she ties her to some death trap and she proceeds to be save. Or, you know, she just talks her ear off instead of pulling the trigger.

Resurrection. Don't do it, it's a very bad plot device and it's often abused. If someone else has to die for the resurrection to work than it's likely still unacceptable. This is just a cheap way for the hero to lose and still have to pay a price.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to leave some below in the comment section or email me at

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