How to Avoid a Senseless Character Death
When a character dies, no matter how and for what reason, there is no doubt it should be quite a shock for a reader. Even if a character is living out their last days behind bars, waiting to be executed, a reader will always hold some hope that the perceived doomed fate of the character could change right up until their definitive death. But the shock emitted from a character death should not be the only reason for any writer to kill a character off; a character whose existence is solely reliant on their death will likely be interpreted by a reader as unnecessary, senseless, and even tacky.
Mild spoilers ahead!
To ensure the death of a doomed character is necessary and realistic, and to truly get the desired emotions from your reader, you should be able to answer ‘yes’ to at least one of the following plot changing questions.
Does the death of the character impact upon the remaining characters?
The example of this which springs to mind is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Most of the aristocrat characters, regardless of their age, are consumed with self-image, status in society, the latest gossip, and the furthering of their families’ wealth through ‘good marriage.’ However, later in the story the characters are given a very sudden reality check when the Napoleonic War reaches their home towns. Most of the male characters, many of whom up until that point were enlisted in the army but, due to their inherited rank, had never experienced real combat, are immersed in the horrific and deadly acts of war. Characters who had previously loathed each other are brought together in comradery, risking their own lives to save each other and their country, and many last words uttered on death beds are pleads for forgiveness. The characters who survive are extremely humbled by the deaths of their family members, friends, lovers and rivals, and by the gruesome experience of war, which truly puts the important things in life into perspective.
Does their death fulfil a personal aim within their own character arc?
This point is mostly relevant to self-sacrificing deaths, where the death allows the other characters to perhaps escape or be saved.
One example of this is with a character called Mags in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The reaping of the 75th Hunger Games is taken from the pool of existing Victors (tributes who had fought in the previous 74 games and won). Annie’s name is initially drawn for her district, alongside her lover Finnick, but an elderly Victor called Mags volunteers in Annie’s place. We discover before the start of the games that Mags is considered among her fellow Victors to be a very kind and wonderful person, and due to this we realise she volunteered in place of Annie because she wanted to save her life. During the 75th games one of the main characters, Peeta, is wounded by acidic gas and is no longer physically able to escape. Mags knows Finnick needs to help Peeta, which he cannot do whilst carrying the elderly Mags on his back. She makes Finnick put her down, kisses him goodbye, then disappears into the deadly fog, killing herself and leaving Finnick able to rescue Peeta. It was a truly self-sacrificing death, allowing the lead characters to live and be thankful for her selfless act. It was also very fitting for Mags’ character, since it was extremely believable and foreshadowed when she volunteered herself to save Annie.
Does the death feel like the only thing that could have possibly happened?
In the Stand by Stephen King, a plague has wiped out most of the human population and the few survivors follow their dreams to find themselves splitting into two groups—one following a ‘good’ leader, the other an ‘evil’ being—and prepare for the final battle of Earth.
Harold Lauder, a teenage survivor, is rejected by the girl he has always had a crush on. Even after the plague has struck and he has far less male competition, she still only sees him as a friend and chooses to love another. Harold travels with a group of survivors, including the girl he lusts after and her new lover, to the base of the ‘good’ leader. He longs to feel important, valued, and to be treated with more respect by everyone around him. Then Nadine Cross, a woman drawn to the evil side, infiltrates the camp. She sees that Harold is the weak link of the group and seduces him, and after a short time period uses flattery and promises to lure him to the side of evil. He plants a bomb in the home of one the main ‘good’ characters and it explodes during an important meeting.
Harold drives away on a motorbike with Nadine, but the consequences of what he has done hits home and he questions their actions. This causes them to crash and Harold is badly injured. The unscathed Nadine gets back on the bike and drives away, leaving Harold on the side of the road, because he is no longer of use to her. Realising he has been grossly misled and knowing he cannot morally return to the camp of the good, Harold takes his gun from his pocket and kills himself. His death is saddening due to his naivety, ignorance and lack of life experience, and because of his late realisation that he had been led astray. But his death is also very fitting, due to his long-running negative character traits and the damage he has caused. His death, no matter how shocking, was probably the only reader-acceptable outcome for a character who has caused so much destruction and pain.
If you haven’t been able to answer yes to any of the three questions, then your character is not relevant enough to the plot for their death to feel worth it. You can now choose to either give them a more important role and a stronger link to the story, or erase their existence entirely. After all, good books don’t need to contain any death, but a well-placed character death can be useful in opening up a multitude of story possibilities.
If you do kill off a character, you will also need to consider what role they brought to your story. Were they the comical side-kick, a knowledgeable mentor or a nurturing motherly character? Because once they are gone, another character will usually need to step into their shoes, or at least try to, and continue to bring forward the much needed attributes of the lost character.
© 2017 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.