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On Character Deaths

Anonymous asked: “I came to the point where I think I have to kill a character, but I don’t want to. I tried to think about another solution and all I could come up with was to fake his death, but I don’t know what to do.” 

So many new writers are quick to kill off characters. I don’t mind if you do decide to kill of a character or two, but I do recommend looking into your favorite books as examples to set a standard.

If you planned for a character to die, there are a few things I always think should be considered. 1) What does this death do for the story? It very well might raise the stakes, make characters more aware of the dangers out there. I think if there’s going to be death in a story it should be meaningful to some degree – this is very much a personal opinion, but it will have some impact on the story or at least on the readers, so it’s important to consider – what does this death do to the book? One great example – Lord of the Flies by William Golding – the first death (or murder actually) is loaded with meaning. It means, just in the very least, that this island is not safe and really the thing that they need to fear is each other. 

2) How many deaths is too many? This is a debatable question. Some of it will be decided by genre – in horror is there too many? I don’t know. But really, I think it is a matter of striking a balance. If characters are dying one after the next, it will lose it’s shock value to say the least, but it might be hard to keep readers caring about the characters. It’s harder to feel attached if you’re pretty sure they won’t last. This also goes back to the previous question. Character deaths should do something to the story. 

3) Why does that character have to die? This is usually the question I ask when a writer kills off the protagonist or a main character. You have to try to read your novel as reader and not a writer. As a reader, the issue is usually in when I find a character death annoying. If I didn’t expect a tragedy and I got one anyway, that’s where there’s an issue. With that said, some of my favorite books are tragedies. I can’t say exactly how writers are able to pull it off but sometimes they do – ie: Hamlet, MacBeth, and Of Mice and Men. I’m all about learning by example. 

I don’t tend to have an issue with characters faking their deaths – especially if the death was mysterious or believably could be faked. If you watch a character die and you truly know that they’re gone, it might feel a little deceptive to have a character just come back a few chapters later. 

One last thing I wanted to say, if it’s hard to kill off this character, you’re probably doing something right. Character deaths shouldn’t be always so easy. When they feel like real people to you, you’ll end up treating their death with the amount of weight it deserves. Your characters will mourn the death the way you’re mourning the death. If they have to be the one to die and you can’t turn around and save them, that’s ok. You can let that happen. If you’re going to have them fake their death – there’s got to be motive. Why did they fake their death? Why did those they love need to believe it? A real death will be remembered a lot differently from a faked one. There are probably a dozen more things I could think of when it comes to talking about character deaths, but I’m beginning to ramble, so, until next time. 

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