When should you kill a character? There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Killing a character is a big deal and can change the entire course of your story. Also highly circumstantial, no hard and fast rules exist. So I’ll tell you the general rules of thumb I follow when writing.
Warning: I’ll probably use some examples. If you see the name of the series, the character who dies in that series is soon to follow.
Before you read when I kill characters, keep these rules in mind:
- How will this death change other characters?
- How will this death change the plot?
- How will this death change the story’s tone?
- How will the readers feels about this death?
- What are you trying to accomplish with this death?
Some deaths must happen to move the plot forward. Take A Song of Ice and Fire’s Eddard Stark, for example. His death launches the story into motion. The first book sometimes feels a bit prolog-y in retrospect his death impacts the plot so greatly.
Of course, the character’s death does not need to move the story plot forward; it can also move a character’s emotional plot forward as well, which is why parents so often die in stories, highly emotional for the character, usually not so much for the reader.
Obviously, whenever you kill a character the story and emotional (at least of some characters) plot will change—unless the whole point is to show how nothing changes, which brings me to my next reason to kill a character.
Sometimes I will axe a character because he or she isn’t really doing anything. S/he does not add to the story or the plot and just sort of exists. If this happens, the character has essentially become deadweight. I generally consider two options then: re-think the plot or remove the character from the story. “Removal” doesn’t have to mean death; the character can phase out of the narrative (go on a vacation, get called home etc.). Of course, it can mean death. Still, I hesitate to kill the person unless it adds to the development of another character and sends s/he in the direction I want. Why? Keep reading.
Watch out for this one. It can needlessly anger your readers (as can “pointless death, which is killing a character for the sake of simply raking up the body count); on the flip side, it’s a potent tool that can act like a good slap in the face for readers or characters. Don’t overuse this; at some point readers will start to expect unexpected deaths. Joss Whedon does a fantastic job of shock deaths. (Spoiler ahead) Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Paul Ballard in Dollhouse both suffer this fate.
Remember that shock factor doesn’t have to mean dying in some dramatic blaze-of-glory fashion. You could, if you wanted, have someone walking down the street get hit by a bus.
You can you the amount of character death—or lack thereof—to help set your story or series tone. However, there should be other factors that help set this. I don’t recommend just piling on the bodies to make your story seem more serious or dark. Generally, this just frustrates the reader.
While it sounds a bit like shock factor and plot device (or a refined and better use of tone setter), but I wanted to put it on its own anyways. Why? Because killing a character lets your story (or gives you the option) to completely change its path and tone. A game changing death can also act as a signifier, usually meaning: you know what has hit the fan. It can add an element of tension and drama for both readers and characters too. Take Harry Potter for example. The entire series is said to “mature” or “take a darker side” after one character’s death, successfully transition the series from light-hearted middle grade series to a more serious and dark young adult series. So, if you’re going to do this, make sure you know your purpose for it.
As always, let me know if you have any questions!