Friday, August 9, 2013

How to Kill a Character

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

*Warning* There will be a lot of spoilers in this post.

When I got to the third book in my Blood of Kings trilogy, I knew I was going to have to kill off some characters. I mean, I was writing what I hoped was a realistic style of medieval fantasy, and there was going to be a major war. Death is a huge part of war. And it wouldn't have been realistic if all my main characters had lived.

Yes, I was a wimp. I loved my characters and didn't want to kill any of them. But I knew I had to. I probably should have killed more than one main character. Perhaps I'll be braver next time around.

Goose and Maverick
You've probably never seen the movie Top Gun, but it is one of my husband's favorite movies. He's probably seen it more than thirty times. And when I told him what I was writing today, he said, "Goose." [Spoilers for any of you who haven't seen Top Gun and ever wanted to.] But Goose dies. So I asked my husband why he thought Goose was a good example for my blog post. And here's what he said:

"Goose is set up as a likable character, not a hunky character. During the volleyball scene, he's the only one wearing a shirt. He's funny and charming, has a wife and a kid, which creates a stronger emotional connection with viewers."

And Brad was right. Killing off Goose tugged at moviegoers' heartstrings. "Why?" they asked. "Why Goose? He had so much going for him!" Which was why his death was so heartbreaking for viewers and for Maverick. And it taught Maverick that piloting fighter jets wasn't just a game.

That doesn't mean you always kill off the likable guy. But it raises a good point.

The death has to matter.

We wouldn't have cared if Professor Trelawney had died in Harry Potter. But the fact that Dumbledore died was powerful because it meant that no one stood as a protector between Harry and Voldemort anymore. Harry was on his own from then on out.

THINGS TO TRY AND DO
-The death should move the plot forward, motivate the hero, affect other characters. In the movie A Walk to Remember, Jamie's death mattered. It changed Landon's life. It was powerful. We sobbed, yet so many people still love that book/movie and will read/watch it again and again.

-It needs to be done in the most powerful way. I think the ending of The Book Thief worked so well because the narrator spoiled it for us. Without that bit of warning, readers would have been shocked and horrified and thrown the book. But we knew it was coming, which made the "how" of it suspenseful and when it happened we cried.

-It needs to match your plot, genre, and theme. Just like in my third Blood of Kings book, in the final volumes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, people needed to die. The authors had created stories in which death matched the genre, the plot, and the feel of the stories. Leaving death out would have been a mistake. But not every book needs a death. Imagine how odd a death might feel in a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. I'm not saying it couldn't work, but it would have to fit the genre. Don't force a character's death into the story. You can always kill something else the main character cares about, like a relationship or a dream.

-Every death should give way to some kind of new life. Don't miss the chance for characters to mourn and reflect. But don't force a message either. The movie Steel Magnolias does a great job with this. Shelby dies, but her baby lives. And another woman has a baby, and Shelby had been the one to set that couple up. It's a hopeful way to end such a sad film.

THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
-Too many deaths. The Walking Dead is guilty of this. I had to stop watching that show. What is the point of getting attached to characters who are all going to die? It's just too much for me.

-Pointless death. In the movie Speed, Jack's partner Harry had barely recovered from being shot when he followed a lead to the bomber's house and ... ka-boom. But his death does nothing for the plot or to help catch the bad guy. There's no point but to anger Jack. But simply angering your hero isn't enough. Harry deserved to go out in a powerful way.

-The sudden death of a major character or a shock value death. In the film Serenity, a main character is killed suddenly, and it's a jaw-dropping experience for viewers. "No way, no way!" In an interview, director Joss Whedon defended his choice and said that he wanted to create the sense that anyone could die in battle. I have no problem with that. It was how it was done that didn't work. The plot was resolved, and the character died in a meaningless way. It wasn't heroic or sacrificial. And it came from out of nowhere.

-Stupid deaths. This is when a character dies from doing something dumb. Sure, it happens in real life, but readers don't want their characters going out like that. One example that comes to mind is a random soldier in the movie Saving Private Ryan. He gets shot in the head, takes off his helmet to look at the bullet lodged there, and while his helmet is off, he takes another bullet in the head. Dead. And the audience says, "Really?" And, yeah. Maybe that did happen. But readers don't want to see such stupidity, especially if it's a character they love. Boba Fett is another example of this, falling into the Pit of Sarlacc. He was too cool to go out like that. Sad.

-Unworthy death. In the movie Star Trek: Generations, Kirk and Picard work together to thwart the bad guy, and while the explosion stops the villain, Kirk is crushed by debris and dies. It's not a heroic death for such an iconic character. If Kirk is going out, we want to see him sacrifice himself to save the world or something. I mean, come on! This is Captain James T. Kirk, not a red shirt guy.

-You, the author, killing someone to prove a point. Don't do it. It's lame. Suzanne Collins did this in Mockingjay, in my opinion. Prim's death lacked meaning. It was another way the author was hitting the reader over the head with her "war is bad" mantra. We get it. The plot has done the job of giving us that theme. And if Rue was going to die, it needed to be in a better way.

-Cliches. There are so many cliches, sometimes I think it's impossible to avoid them all. But you can try. Here are a few to watch out for: killing the mentor, killing the sidekick, retirony (which is killing a character who had just announced he was going to retire), killing the wife or kid, killing to dog, resurrecting dead characters. Work hard to make the deaths in your story matter. And if someone is dead. Leave them that way.

What are some books or movies that you feel killed a character in a powerful way? And what are some that failed to do so? Leave your answer in the comments.

84 comments:

  1. I've apparently killed enough main characters that one of my most dedicated readers was SURE that I'd kill the best friend in my latest book, LOL.

    I remember in my second book, which I wrote in high school, I killed someone, and my hubby (then boyfriend) got mad because of what you point out here--that it felt like I was doing it for the point of it, not because I HAD to. That taught me this lesson. That it has to matter, it has to mean something, it has to be so crucial to the plot that the character living would weaken the book.

    That said, I have thrown in an already-dying character who staggers onstage long enough to die just to liven things up. ;-)

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    1. Though we'll have to agree to disagree on The Walking Dead. ;-) Love that show. Although I came in second season and then got caught up, so already knowing who wouldn't be around may have softened that for me...

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    2. I enjoyed season one. And I made it part way through season two, but I had to go on Wikipedia and read the spoilers. Then I was okay. But when I read the spoilers for season three. Nope. I'm done with ALL that! LOL

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  2. Good post! I recently cut the only death in my WiP because it didn't add anything to the story. After reading this, I feel even better about that choice.

    Some books that I thought did really well with character deaths are the Harry Potter books ( of course), and the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. Oh, the end of the final book in that trilogy made me cry, but it was done well enough that even though my favorite characters died, I still liked it. And I think that was because their deaths weren't for nothing and they died fighting for a cause they believed in.

    One thing that bothered me about then end of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles was that none of the kids died. They were fighting against adults, and I don't think one of them died. Some adults they barely knew died at the beginning, and those deaths were sad, and believable, but during the final battle not one of the kids died, which felt very unrealistic. And I thought he had done well with the deaths at the end of his Percy Jackson books, so it was a let down on that respect as well.

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    1. Good examples, Lily! Sounds like you get this! :-)

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  3. Great post! So far in my WiP, I haven't killed off any main characters, and frankly, don't plan to as it doesn't quite fit the plot. I've always loathed it when a main character is killed. The story was about HIM!! [Warning! May contain Spoilers]

    Anyway, I agree about Prim's death in Mockingjay. Pointless. Gladiator is a good movie. I loved it up until the end, mainly just because he *dies*. But now, in my opinion, as I think about it anew, his death matters. He stood up to the evil, defeated it, and was reunited with his family in death.

    Another example that came to mind is in the first book of a series called "Binding of the Blade," by L.B. Graham. If you haven't read this, I encourage you to! It was such a great tale! [Spoiler] At the ending of the first book, entitled "Beyond the Summerland"... the MC dies. I was crushed. Because I had spent almost 600 pages getting to know him. (Did I mention it is a rather big book?) But again, this post has helped me realize that his death was vital to the other four books. In order for the building plot to move on, he had to die.

    So, thank you for the enlightenment! This post has been so helpful!
    Blessings,
    Sarah

    sarah-plainandaverage.blogspot.com
    threemaidens.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm so glad, Sarah! It's sometimes hard to process that good things can come from death, but it's possible.

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  4. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS!!! Oh that book was sooooo saaaaad. I both adore and loathe John Green after that. Augustus!
    I was going, "yes...yes...YES!" As I read the Mockingjay part. Prim and Rue! Whyyyy?!
    I really needed this post, as in my next project, I kill off three people. I'm pretty sure they all have meaning and move the plot forward. One you will see coming, but the other two...MWA HA HA HA HA.
    There's this TV show that used to be on called Ghost Whisperer, in which the main character's husband is a paramedic, but in one episode he runs into this house to battle a burglar or something, and MC is standing outside with his policeman friend who is trying to shoot the burglar through the window. The whole time you're thinking "Jim can't die, Jim won't die." And then the policeman misses. And hits Jim instead. And he dies. I was so angry, because I knew -- I just KNEW -- that the only reason they did this was to torture us because there hadn't been enough drama recently. And then they found this strange was to bring him back -- his ghost reanimated someone else's body or something, it was weird -- and I just KNEW that the only reason they did THAT was because the focus groups screamed at them so much. Argh I still get mad about that.
    Another example is a sad death that I hate but can still justify is Jack in Titanic. He was he one with everything going for him, so then people went "Why did HE have to die?!?!"
    Funny, I used to say that, to get back at all the authors an screenwriters who have tortured me by brutally murdering my favourite character, I was going to write a really long series and then in the very last book, kill off the love interest! But I think I'm too lazy. And by that point I'll probably be in love with him myself. I'm such a wimp.

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    1. Wow that comment was long. Sorry about that.

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    2. LOL! Yeah, Jack. I really do think there was room on the board for him. I wanted to yell, "Move over, Rose! You're hogging the board!"

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  5. Okay, The Warrior series,~spoiler alert~ even though it's not supposed to be a 'sad' book pursae, totally demonstrates the whole 'meaningless' death as well. The battle was resolved, and then the MC had finally have to go up against the antagonist that's really been messing with his life for quite some time. The MC kills off that character once and for all, and then lightning strikes, sets a tree on fire, and it falls on him. Worse. Ending. Ever.

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    1. !?! Sounds like it. I haven't read those...

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    2. Younger kid's book series, I believe it's in the bracket of 10-12(though they changed it to like 13-15 or something like that) got hooked on the series when I was younger and was curious where it would end up, so I continued reading it, haha. The point is, I have no clue what the author(s)(Goes by the alias Erin Hunter) was trying to make the readers feel, but I know how I felt. Disappointed because the death didn't even make sense! But this was a really interesting post in which I will have to check back on when ever I plan on killing off a character.

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  6. In my WIP, I killed off a character, and I think it worked pretty well. He got killed being stupid, but you can kinda forgive him for it. :) He got too close to a dragon, trying to save someone else.
    But, here's the embarrassing part: I had an "explaining" scene the night before he died. But I was too lazy to do it then, so I put it off. The character had just turned good, then the explaining, then he died. I didn't like him before he turned good, so I killed him off after he turned good. So then I had to go back and write that last conversation before he died. And I realized who I'd killed off. So he brought himself back from the dead. :)
    Hope that kinda makes sense. :)

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    1. LOL! That's what's great about fantasy. It works because you say it works. Just make sure it works for the reader too. And stupidity works if he dies saving someone, methinks.

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    2. Actually, I went back and edited the scene, and made him pull through it, and edited him back in. That was the biggest "renovation" I've done in this story, and it was because a character made me do it. :)

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  7. I think the worst type of killing off a character is when the author is just a little too lazy to start what they finished or think of a better way to resolve something. I mean this in stories with love triangles (don't get me wrong, I love love triangles). I hate it when the MC has to choose between two guys and one dies, making the other the default choice.

    (SPOLIER)

    OH OH! I just thought of a great example of a dumb way of dying. On Les Misrebles, Gavroche died and how? He was freaking shot picking up bullets or whatever the heck they were! I couldn't believe it. He was such an amazing character and they killed him in the most dishonorable way. But that's just my opinion.

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    1. Lazy authors do not make bestselling books.

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    2. You know Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables, don't you ? I don't think he was lazy or that his books aren't bestsellers. They're classics, which is even better ;)

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    3. Also, Gaveroche did die rather honorably. He died trying to help his fellow soldiers. I admit, though, that his death was most-likely put in to shock readers, or whatever; but if you think about it, he died more honorably than dishonorably, in my opinion.

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  8. I am just getting to the point in my writing where I can bring myself to get rid of a character that I have endeared the readers to. I have gotten rid of villains and characters we didn't know and I have made the MC of my WIP an orphan. But none of that was tear-jerking. With everyone else I have gotten rid of, I have made it so they weren't really dead.
    But as you said, some stories don't need death.
    I'm working on it.

    ~Robyn Hoode

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  9. Great post. I'll have to kill off characters in my story, but I didn't exactly know how to go about it.

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  10. In my first novel, I kept bringing people back to life. I was such a wuss. It was the type of book where you expect people to be dying. Maybe it was just a matter of killing the wrong characters. I kept trying to kill the boyfriend. But never onscreen, that way, he could escape and "rise from the dead." Now I'm working on another novel where people have to die, hopefully I can do it this time...

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  11. I saw the title and thought, "this is going to be good." And it was! And the you made it even better by mentioning Boba Fett. I just watched they movie two nights ago, and even though I knew what was coming, I hated the way he died. The guy has a jet pack for crying out loud! Well, a broken jet pack, but still.

    But then Darth Vader's death was done so well. He died, not only saving his son, but also the entire Rebel Alliance. And he killed the Emperor! I'll admit, I cry every time hear him say " Luke, help me take this mask off... Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes." Such an awesome ending. So sad, but so RIGHT.

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    1. That's *exactly* what I thought when I saw the title. :)

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    2. YES! Darth Vader's death is perfect, and Boba's irritating.
      OK, so is it OK to kill a main character that you're using as a narrator? In my book, I have three narrators, and I kind of realized that I can kill one of them, and now I have this scene in my head... Yeah.(Don't hurt me, Katelyn!) Obviously, it will be from a different character's POV, and it would go nicely with my romance problem. But is it alright to? Like, it won't be a pointless death or anything, but I've never read a book where the killed a POV character.

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    3. I totally forgot Boba Fett had a jet pack. What was UP with that???

      Yes, I cry when Darth dies too. Very well done.

      Sure! You can kill a POV character. Just remember, he won't have any more POVs, so you'll need the other characters to be able to carry off the rest of the plot.

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    4. I cried with Darth Vader's death.

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  12. Usually my characters are murdered or killed in accidents, but they're never MC's, they're secondary characters. I think I'm too afraid to kill off MC's because I get too attached to them.

    And really, I kind of start off the story without knowing who my characters are and go by their reactions to the things around them before I delve into personalities and such. I'm kind of weird that way.

    And I agree about Jack from Titanic, so unfair I love him!!

    (MJ)

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  13. Someone brought up Serenity and now I'm as again. "I am a leaf on the wind..." *sniffle*

    I'd like to add one quick thought to this post; Do your research. If you want to, say, poison a character, look up the poison, it's symptoms, how big a dose it would take to be lethal, how long until it kicks in, that sort of thing. If you want to stab a character, look up that sort of thing. Too often do I see "Oh I got slashed in the arm and now I'm dead." Blech.

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    1. LOL!

      You make a great point, Lindsey. I find that people die too easily in books and movies, and the opposite is also true, especially in movies with car chases. People should have died--or at least have been terribly injured--yet they get up and keep on running. Say what?

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    2. I totally agree! But um... how exactly do you look up something like that?? "If someone gets stabbed in the gut how long will it take them to die?" you know what I mean..?

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  14. DOWNTON ABBEY!!!!!! Oh. My. Gosh. That show practically killed me! So many of my favorite characters died, and, in my opinion, the very last death (at the end of season three) was completely and utterly pointless. Maybe season for will change my view of that, but I doubt it. Prim and Rue's deaths in the hunger games were a really good example. I was soooo mad, especially when Prim died. Finnick's death also ripped out my heart, but it didn't seem quite as pointless or insignificant. I think that Superman's dad dying in Man of Steel is a good example of a death that furthered the plot and the characters.
    I haven't really gotten into thinking about deaths for my WIP, but there probably will have to be some in order to make it more realistic. These will be good things to think about as I am planning and writing. Thanks for posting, Jill!

    -Abby

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    1. Gaaaahhhhh! I forgot all about Finnick! :(

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    2. I knew Finnick would die the moment we found out his wife was pregnant. I was like, "Man! I liked him." :-(

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    3. LOL Mrs. Williamson! xD

      I...thought Gale would die...and actually, I think Rue's death made sense. And was powerful. Seriously, that was the scene that stayed with me after reading that first book. But Prim's? I barely made sense out of what was happening. And when I did, I was maaaaad.

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  15. Safely Home by Randy Alcorn and Riven by Jerry B. Jenkins have the best fictional deaths ever. In my opinion anyway. For Riven especially, I bawled my eyes out for the last fifty pages, then continued to cry after I put the book away. The death was the climax of the story, and it made such good sense that I was completely drawn into despite initially being a bit repulsed by the concept (trying to express it without giving too much away).

    I must agree with everyone on the Hunger Game deaths. Rue's death made sense to the story, but for every death Katniss was either unrealistically stoic or her response was skipped over. The only death I really felt any emotion over was Cecelia (the mother from district 8) during the quarter quell. And she never had a single line. If you're going to kill main characters, make the reader (and the MC!) grieve.

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    1. Good point, Leah. Don't skip the grieving!

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  16. I tried not to read anything "spoilish" in this post (I haven't gotten to Blood of Kings or Harry Potter or The Hunger Games yet!), but I think a bad habit of mine may be killing off too many characters. You have to be balanced; otherwise it doesn't affect the reader as much as it could have.

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  17. First of all, somehow I managed to completely block from my mind which character it was who died in Blood of Kings. Well, the villain, obviously. Hmm... Guess that means time for a re-read! Oh, the humanity! ;)

    I actually disagree on the Prim/Rue thing. Even if their deaths weren't _technically_ necessary to propel the plot forward (and I could argue that Rue's actually was, but...), they _were_ necessary to propel Katniss forward, so she'd do the things she had to do at the end of THG and Mockingjay--and even CF to some extent, but less so that. (Does anyone Katniss care deeply about actually die in CF? I mean, various tributes who she's come to care for _do_ die, but no one to the level she cares for Rue or Prim or even Finnick in Mockingjay...I'm rambling, though.)

    In my WIP, I need to kill a secondary character to convince my poor MC to do something he really doesn't want to do, which sucks for the character who dies, and also for my poor MC. It's the only way to move his story to the next step, even though it will wreck the poor guy. I agonized over the decision to kill SC for days before deciding it was the right choice. And then I was writing merrily along the day before yesterday and realized that the guy I originally had pegged to kill was a boring ball of boringness who meant nothing to me or the MC. Luckily, I'd also just introduced a secondary character who fit the bill perfectly. Unluckily, I love this guy so much and killing him 30000 words from now is going to wreck me and I won't be able to write for days because _grieving_. I must write on and not be distracted by the shiny shiny temptation to go back and edit out that BoringGuy and replace him with GuyIDon'tWantToKill...! (I don't want to THINK about what the character's death is going to do to my poor MC...)

    So yeah. Long story short--I find killing off my own characters traumatic, which is why I only do it when I absolutely need to. I don't think that's _too_ weird. I know CJ Redwine said she cried for days after writing the wagon scene in Defiance (which, if you haven't read yet, you absolutely need to). (The funny thing is that I can do all sorts of other terrible things to my poor characters; it's killing them that's the problem.)

    Also, I ramble. ;)

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    1. I think Rue's death was very well done and necessary. It's Prim's death I didn't like.

      It is traumatic to kill your characters, Diana. I'm sorry you have to kill the guy you like. But I'm glad you were wise enough to realize that killing BoringGuy would have meant nothing to your MC. Good job!

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  18. Oh my gosh. Spirit (Elementals book 3) by Brigid Kemmerer. In her previous books no one died, even when you thought they might. Everything turned out happy even though there were quite a few injuries. And then, at the end of Book 3, WHAM. The FMC died. And you were left going "WHAT!?!?!?! HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME?!?!?!" It sucked. I mean, it suppose it grew the MMC and all, but it didn't really make sense. And it wasn't consistent! If you're going to kill off a MC in a later book in the series, make sure you've done it before so it doesn't come as such a shock to your readers. I was so angry! It just seemed kinda pointless, really. I wasn't surprised at who killed the FMC, but I was surprised at who stood by and watched it happen! I mean, come ON!!!!!!!!

    Argh. Why do writers do this to us??? XD

    In one of my novels, I killed off a few characters. There was one death that could have been quite good. You know, the whole 'dying to save others in a brave death' kinda thing. But then I killed off all the other MCs in the final battle and left only my favorites alive.

    XD It was dumb. If I ever go back and re-write I will totally change that, because it was pointless.

    Great post, Jill! Thanks. :)

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    1. Hmmm... Maybe that author had been reading/watching too much Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead...

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  19. As Stephen King says "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings" This is a great post, I just (after much grappling) killed one of my MC's and it pretty much broke my heart, but I came to the conclusion that the story wouldn't be as good otherwise. Also the list of the all too common (and annoying) deaths was incredibly helful. Thanks!

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  20. GREAT post! I have a question, though...you probably hear this a lot, but Les Miserables is one of the most popular musicals/movies/books in the world. I love it. I'm just wondering why, since most of the characters (likeable or unlikeable) die seemingly pointless deaths. Is this the exception that proves the rule, or is there something I'm missing?
    Thanks for the post, though- I've been struggling with killing off characters lately. :)

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    1. Two things on Les Miserables.

      1. It was written a long, long time ago. So the cliche things weren't cliche at all.

      2. I think the pointless deaths are part of what the author was trying to point out. That people were dying and the govt didn't care. Life was miserable and meaningless--or was it? Even though so many died, there was still slivers of goodness. That sort of thing.

      Yes, in the movie, everything moves super fast, and you're like, "Wait. She's got a disease and is dying already? What?" But that's because it's a play. I've never read the book, but perhaps it's a little slower pace. I'd like to read it.

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    2. Yes, that makes sense, especially as the book itself is a slight 1900 pages in the original, slimmed down to (I think) about 1500 in the translation. (48 books and 365 chapters). I would think it would have time in there somewhere to go at a slower pace.

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  21. Jill, shame on me, but I can't tell how many times I watched the television series before the time I bolted upright and blurted, "Wait a second! Dr. Mark Greene is Goose!" I mean, I was more surprised than when I discovered that Soylent Green is people. Your husband has good taste in movies.

    Someone has probably mentioned this, but the TV series LOST [insert spooky theme here]was intentionally designed to kill off character after character. It became almost predictable. Of course, a couple of characters (like Hurley) were able to talk to ghosts from time to time, so even some of the dead characters stayed in the show, lol!

    And even though I'm a Trekker through and through, that creative team of writers is def guilty of resurrecting dead characters. Spock died of radiation, but of course they shot his corpse onto the Genesis Planet, thus kick-starting his comeback. Scotty was assumed to be dead and gone for decades, but they brought him back in a Next Generation episode and explained that he had jerry-rigged (love that expression!) a transporter into an endless loop in order to keep his body alive until he could be rediscovered (by the next Enterprise, naturally). Of course, creating prequel movies also brought back a younger J.T. Kirk.

    So, depending on your genre and personal wishes, death isn't necessarily the end of a character. You can shoot 'em in the heart, in the head, but they don't stay dead. (Whoa. Sounds like I've morphed into zombie mode! ;)

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    1. P.S. I should have named the television series ER in my first sentence.

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    2. LOL. Yep, same guy.

      I loved Spock's resurrection. I didn't think that was cliche. But that was made in the 80's, so back then it wasn't that cliche, perhaps. And they set it up so nicely with the Genesis planted. I didn't know that thing about Scottie...

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    3. Neither did I. I think TV shows can get away with bringing people back a little more. If they kill a character in season 1, then bring him back in season 3 or 4, it's more of a wow factor for fans...unless you do it with every character in every episode, say like, Rory in Doctor Who.

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    4. Oh yes, they killed off a lot of people in Lost. It was quite sad, but the writers were good enough that I think they pulled it off okay...

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  22. The very last thing you mentioned, leaving characters dead, reminded me of Bryan Davis. He is always killing character (heroes and villains) and then bringing them back to life. The first couple times it added suspense (will they come back!!) but then I stopped caring because everyone died and came back.

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    1. LOL Oh, dear. So, if a character dies in a BD book, know that they will return!

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  23. I just read my comment through and realized it didn't make much sense...let me rephrase it.
    Les Miserables is hugely popular, and yet they kill off most of the characters with seemingly pointless deaths. I love it myself...why do so many people like it, as it seems to violate most of the criteria on this post? Thanks! :)

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    1. People love well-done tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular stories out there. So depressing! It's tragic. It's irony. It's entertaining. Tragedy is a genre of its own, so you can break some of the "kill a character" rules in a tragedy, since you're writing a tragedy. LOL

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  24. Hi, I love this article! I have a question, however. You said that angering the protagonist would not be reason enough to kill a character. Would the psychologically and emotionally disturbing aspects alone justify killing off the main character's family if the family is that which he most cherishes; that which propels him forward and gives him the will to fight toward the ultimate end?

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    1. I personally say go for it. Think of Gladiator, for example; the MC's wife and son being killed is what ultimately propels him to fight to restore the Republic. Also, in the first Spiderman movie, its the MC's uncle's death that propels him to start fighting crime; similarly, its Clark's parent's deaths in Batman Begins that propels him to start his journey towards becoming Batman (Done extremely well in that movie, I might add). It can be done, and done well.

      But it can also be done terribly, and I think that is what Jill was talking about. The thing to avoid is making the family one-denominational caricatures that are obviously there just to die so the MC can continue his story. Like in Star Wars. Luke's aunt and uncle are never really developed, and when they die, its obviously just so that Luke can leave with Obi Won; Luke never mourns for them and they are never mentioned again. Another example would be when Alderaan, Princess Leia's home planet, is blown up by the Empire. Leia never mourns that she just lost her entire family, planet, and home. This loss "propels" her (a better word would be "allows", since her planet's destruction is never explored as the reason that she joins the rebels, nor is any kind of a personal revenge or desire for justice) to go join the rebels, but it feels like, once again, her family and home were a plot point, nothing more. (I'm not trying to hate on Star Wars, here; its actually one of my favorite movies. It does many things very well; but sometimes it doesn't delve as deep as it could have)

      I personally think it's about how you go about it (like many things in writing); if the family feel real, and their deaths really affect the MC, and it propels the plot forward, I say go for it.

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  25. This is exactly what I needed! I just finished killing a character! I really enjoy a tragic death that'll make me cry. My favorite death so far is when Rue dies in the Hunger Games. That one made me cry so hard. However, I'm like you. I really don't like killing my characters. Whenever I kill someone I still at my computer and cry. But like you said it has to match the book. My book bases off an assassin so obviously someone's going to die. it's just so hard to do!!
    Anyways, thanks for the post! Very helpful!

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  26. You missed Finnick... I didn't really like the way his death came about. It was really... empty... he just died. But then, some people don't really have a whole lot of "meaning" in their deaths.

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  27. Neat post. I could see a lot of blood flying in this one... ;)

    I get a lot of flack from my betas (hey, Mime) for "killing off" all my characters. But I ALWAYS have reasons. If it doesn't advance the plot, I don't do it. I don't like meaningless death, in books, tv, or anything. :/

    Heh...well, I'm a huge THG fan. Of course Mockingjay shredded my soul, but I actually think there WAS a point to all those deaths. Without them, I don't think Katniss would have made the final decisions she did -- because she would have had something to fall back on. She had to lose everything in order to go ahead with killing Coin, and then choosing Peeta instead of Gale (which I approve of, too). If Prim had lived, I don't think Katniss would have needed Peeta. I don't think she'd have risked killing Coin either.

    HAHA. Sorry about that!! :P

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  28. Beth in Little Woman? Her death makes me cry EVERY. SINGLE. TIME! It's so well done and so heart-wrenching. She's the sweetest character in the book. And then she dies. I think the author did a good job of building up to the death and then having a grieving period afterwards. But still.
    There's one death in the first book of my trilogy, and then some characters die in the second book, but the POV character doesn't actually see it. I think they all advance the plot. At least, I hope so.
    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Willianson!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  29. Great article! Yes it irks me when people die stupid deaths. For good deaths scenes...I'm thinking Doctor Who. Jennie's death in 10's arms was terribly epic! Not to mention, they might not kill, but Davies wrote off some characters in really crushing ways too: Rose, Donna, and even 10. But I think Doctor Who is also my choice for worst death scenes ever. One word: Rory. 8 deaths. And each time Amy'd sob over him and everything would be so dramatic, bla bla bla. I'm thinking, oh suck it up; he'll be back by the end.

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  30. Thanks for the list you made of things to avoid when killing characters! I'd add one, though: refueling deaths. I do it all the time myself, but I think readers can tell when we kill someone off just to get out of writer's block or get the plot moving again.

    http://creaology.blogspot.com/

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  31. I just had a very long laugh! I recently watched Top Gun : ) (and Mission Impossible-my dad's on a tom cruise kick: ) My family kept laughing at me while I was watching it because I predicted the whole plot including Goose's death.

    Overall, you made me very happy in this post. You mentioned Top Gun, Star Trek, and horrible character deaths. I think deaths is the thing I most often analyze in books and movies : )

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  32. Your guys always have awesome posts!
    I totally agree Prims death was pointless!
    PS I would care if Prof. Trelawney died!

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  33. I have a habit of killing important characters, but they all die to bring out something in the main character. Is it all right to kill main characters? I killed one because only through death it was possible she could complete her mission. I really didn't want to kill her, she was like my favorite character I have ever come up with, but the story I felt wouldn't work without her dying. Oh well, there is after life in that story. Anyway I really enjoyed this post, though I have to disagree with captain Kirks death being worthless. He had to do what he had to do to help the other guy save his friends and stop the bad guy and etc.But anyway great post, was very helpful.

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  34. I actually think some of the most pointless deaths EVER came from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

    I love those books, I really do, but some of my favourite characters (Lupin, for instance, and also Tonks) died off the page with no warning whatsoever and hardly any reaction at all from Harry! And Hedwig! Why kill Hedwig? WHY????

    The best death of a main character for me would have to Callum's in Noughts and Crosses. I cry every time yet that is still one of my favourite books.

    Anyway, thank you for a really useful post!

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    1. When in war, people die, for untold reasons, for nothing, and not only the ones you loved less. It is not fair, it is not justice, it is just death and it is so very sad and hard to understand, because there is nothing to understand.
      I too cried a lot over the HP books, I too wondered why this one died, and this one too I loved so much. And it's exactly how it happens in real life when you are in grief. You are shocked, you hurt, you wonder why and you have no answer.
      Do you see how powerful it is ? How JK Rowling managed to give us a glimpse of what a wizzard war would have been ? I think she is quite amazing in succeding in making us feel that.
      I spent the whole last book holding to the hope that none of the three main characters would die (and Snape, I've always loved him, but...one cannot live long with this burden...). I was so relieved when I understood they would not, but I also thought "well with all what they've been through, it's quite odd they made it alive at the end..."

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  35. Spoilers: I think Finnick's death was unjust. Prim's had more towards the plot. I like Resurrection if their done right. In Smallville, it just got weird. Lol. I'm going to kill of a main character in one of my books. It's going to be hard. :P

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  36. I plan to write a series of four. In the second book, I plan to kill off one of the more insignificant characters to serve a plot, to create suspense and to ultimately blame two of my characters (one of which is the narrator)
    At the end the murderer will be found, but I don't know if it's too soon. I believe it to be a good idea, and I want to use it to help the narrator with some of her self discovery.
    Other than that, I don't intend anyone to die, but the original murderer.

    Also, I thought some of the Harry Potter deaths became ridiculous towards the end; yes, Sirius, Dumbledore and Snape are all perfectly justified, but people like Fred, Tonks and Remus. If she'd expanded on the impact it had upon the remaining characters, I would have found it alright, but I found it excessive to be honest.

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  37. I've found your post really interesting and quite inspiring, but I couldn't disagree more on some points. Especially concerning the necessity of a specific and useful reason for any death. I suppose most of you have encountered death in some way and... really, did you find it meaningful ?
    " It wasn't heroic or sacrificial. And it came from out of nowhere." = a basic and perfectly accurate definition of death in real life. Which makes the thing more realistic than some outrageously heroic death. When death strikes from nowhere and for no apparent reason, someone has to pounder the value and briefness of life itself, which is one of the most powerful message a book can carry.
    I agree that your book should use this death in the sense of showing its impact on the remaining characters, but death itself doesn't need to be epic, or else you take the risk to make it sound too unreal. Death is a natural thing that happens nearly always by surprise, don't forget it.
    I don't deny that reading about some epic deaths can be really amazing, and that the reader "feels better" if justice has been established, if everything is useful and explained, but don't forget that your work as authors is also to shake you reader up a bit ;)

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  38. I love this! I have always been annoyed by meaningless character deaths!

    *Spoilers*
    I am also on the "I don't think Finnick's death was not necessary" side as well. I had to set the book down after I read that part in the story. I get that yes, it furthered the theme, but I was upset when it happened.

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  39. Ooooh, I hope people are still following/commenting on this article (it showed up in my Pinterest feed tonight, so I think there's hope).

    In my WIP, I kill my main character very early in the story. Like, probably 1/4 of the way through the book. And then, after she's dead, the story technically belongs to her daughter, but in reality, the story belongs to all of the remaining characters equally. But the only reason that any of these characters know each other / are connected, is because of this one female character who dies.

    So I have two questions: 1. Can any of you think of a story (movie, book, etc), where the main character dies early? I'd really like to read/see a few so that I can feel better about what I'm doing with my own work.

    2. When I write the book description for the back jacket/Amazon, etc, do I state up front that the main character dies, or should my reader be surprised by it? Because I can arrange a few of the scenes so that Amy dies somewhat later in the book, but it would still have to be in the first half of the story.

    Thanks everybody!

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  40. The "worst death" I ever read was... not written. In a series of fantasy books (sorry I lost the name, but it doesn't really matter, the example is still striking I hope !), there were a fellowship accompanying the main hero, as in many books since Tolkien. One of those secondary characters I liked very much, because he was a tough and silent barbarian and was quite interesting.
    So, they go through a forest to do whatnots, ok. Next chapter : they are getting out of the forest, everything's right but... hmm... someone's missing !? A few lines later it is "explained" briefly that they had an encounter with some bad elves and that my favourite character died there. Wait... what ? I felt someone had stolen me something. I was sad he died, but ok, it happens... but to learn it with a "oh, him ? Oh you know, he died 3 days ago... sorry 'bout that", I found it quite awkward and was disappointed.

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  41. While I agree that not all story lines need a death, and many would be better without one, I think that Wimpy Kid could have one. Not like a random guy walking down the street and stabbing Mom, Dad or Roddrick, but Grandma or an old neighbor. A death like that could create some emotional stuff that a character like Greg would then have to work through.

    In my wip, the plague will take out some people, but not any MCs. And, like many fantasies, there's a war at the end. People will have to die, and while none of the MAIN characters will be victims, at least one close secondary will. Along with the more relate-able of the two villains.

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  42. Thanks for posting this! I found it helpful in a number of ways, and I completely agree with the doing our research part. Often it can be the simplest part, and there's generally not much excuse for the manner of death to turn out bad. I would appreciate some advice on the placement of a death. It's an MC, and his story is a romance (well, their story). At what feels like the natural end, they finally get reunited, and while they're too exhausted to "ride off into the sunset", they watch the sunrise together. But the sun had to set, and I had already figured out his death before creating the happy ending that seemed imminent. Yes, its quick, and... tragic, so it won't serve as a nice epilogue or postlude to the happy ending. At least one of his friends gets his own story, and there's the possibility of developing his children's stories... Neither "They lived happily... for a few years, then he died" nor killing him in someone else's story sounds quite right. Advice greatly appreciated!

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  43. I am.....kinda... sorta.... be killing my FMC. she is my POV character, so after she dies at the end of the book, I am going to transition into 3rd person.

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  44. And here I pitch in with a question that the post is not really giving ideas for. I came across this site through google search on how to kill characters. What I was meaning was i need ways. I need to kill a 6-year old girl for my next project and the only way I've made up so far is falling in a waterfall which gives my main character a lifetime waterfall-phobia and the feeling of guilt she can't ever deal with. I do realize though that is a stupid way. I need some ideas for how to kill that kid so that the bigger sister can get scars on the stomach and face trying to save her. Can anyone give me tips or redirect me to article that'd help? Please? And thanks in advance.

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  45. In one of the books of the secret series this creature, called Mr.cabbageface (weird name, I know) survived hundreds of years just to be killed by an avalanche! It angered my so much!

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  46. I remember reading a book called The Lost Children. It was about homeless children gangs in russia. Anyways, one of the younger boys died when the gang was thrown into an orphanage by some other orphans. I thought the death was dumb. I mean, they live in moscow, there are better ways to kill a homeless child than that.

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