Writing character deaths is a tricky task that many writers grapple with. Due to the huge prevalence of death in fiction, it has increasingly become a theme writers feel they have to include.\r\n\r\nMost notably, literature that gets showered in accolades often includes the tragic deaths of all manner of loveable characters. Parental figures, faithful pets and best friends are the most common victims.\r\n\r\nAwards given to books aimed at younger audiences, such as the Newbery Medal and Michael L. Printz award, often seem to seek out the most poignant, shocking deaths that catapult protagonists into maturity.\r\n\r\nBooks like Bridge To Terabithia and Looking For Alaska are famed for cutting adolescent romance short with sudden death, while Charlotte\u2019s Web made audiences weep over a dying spider.\r\n\r\nGordon Korman, in No More Dead Dogs, jokes that:\r\nThe dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down."\r\nAll of this\u00a0begs a few\u00a0questions. Has death in fiction become a cheap gimmick, included with the sole intention of nabbing awards? Do writers have to include death for their story to have emotional depth?\r\n\r\nWhatever the answer to these questions, it's undeniable that death is a theme with enduring relevance. As long as you take steps to ensure character deaths are written with care, with the grand scheme of your narrative always in mind, its presence in your writing won\u2019t be cheap.\r\n\r\nHere are a few pointers for dealing with death in your fiction.\r\n\r\nDeath may be a bleak topic, but it's one of the most widely explored\u00a0themes in literature. Image via Pixabay\r\nRemember the Significance of Death\r\nAn important step in understanding death in fiction is pondering its significance to audiences, and considering why it's\u00a0one of the most frequently portrayed themes. Human mortality has been reflected upon since the birth of literature, often elevating writing and provoking thought among readers about the nature of life.\r\n\r\nModern writers often see death as a theme of universal value, the ultimate existential dilemma. Without fail, the theme can rouse feelings of anxiety and fear, while also potentially opening up avenues to self-discovery and coming-of-age. Additionally, death has great symbolic importance as part of the natural cycle of birth and decay.\r\n\r\nWith all this to consider, it\u2019s easy to see why death often wins writers\u2019 awards. But it\u2019s important to be honest with\u00a0yourself as a writer, and to consider what the idea of death means in\u00a0the unique context of your story. It\u2019s too metaphysical and powerful a theme to simply shoehorn into a narrative.\r\n\r\nThis brings us to our next piece of advice: ensuring there are valid reasons for including character deaths in your story.\r\n\r\nDeath is an inevitable, delicate and powerful aspect\u00a0of life, and should be handled in fiction accordingly. Image via Pixabay\r\nHave a Reason for Every\u00a0Character Death\r\nThere are many\u00a0reasons why death can be important to a story, and many ways it can add depth to situations. Having\u00a0specific reasons for including death in your story can help you craft\u00a0significant death scenes effectively.\r\n\r\nLet's take a look at some of the reasons you might incorporate a character death into your story.\r\nTension building\r\nThe death of characters can seriously raise the stakes. It throws the characters into a state of immediacy, where danger is imminent and the audience becomes quickly invested due to escalating tension.\r\n\r\nFor example, in the\u00a0Harry Potter series,\u00a0the deaths of major mentor figures Sirius Black and Professor Dumbledore signalled the fact that Harry was on his own, left to face an increasingly deadly foe without the safety of his childhood tethers.\r\n\r\nIncorporating death can also create an atmosphere of dread and mystery. In some instances, it can clearly communicate the wickedness of an antagonist.\r\n\r\nA brief glance at lists of top villains in literature\u00a0demonstrates how compelling villains often leave a bloody trail in their wake, which adds to their menacing personas \u2013\u00a0especially when their true identities are not immediately known but the deaths they cause pack a narrative punch.\r\n\r\nAn ominous, tense or mysterious atmosphere can be created through character deaths in your story. Image via Unsplash\r\nSignificant emotional impact\r\nIf grief, guilt, horror and other feelings associated with death are conveyed successfully, the audience will have a strong emotional response. A great way of learning how to create a\u00a0lasting emotional impression is to look for what others consider great death scenes.\r\n\r\nWhat pulls on heartstrings will always be quite a subjective and varied affair, but steering clear of over-the-top melodrama will be your best bet.\r\n\r\nThe Guardian's article on\u00a0the greatest\u00a0death scenes in literature\u00a0displays\u00a0that readers and writers alike are captivated by scenes which play on universal human emotions such as desperation, denial and existential fatigue.\u00a0Other\u00a0lists of great deaths\u00a0show how death scenes accompanied by graphic detail can also often trigger a visceral response, especially when paired with the emotional trauma of characters.\r\n\r\nStudy what you find striking in death scenes. What makes your heart hurt or beat faster? Additionally, look for what\u00a0you find lacklustre or unconvincing.\r\n\r\nHave you ever read a hokey death scene where a parent dies because the author doesn't know what to do with them, or scenes where crying cancer patients are milked for all their dramatic worth?\r\n\r\nBe careful not to venture into the realm of purple prose.\u00a0Think clearly about what strong feelings you wish to trigger in your audience and learn the art of subtlety.\r\n\r\nCharacter deaths can be a source of\u00a0real\u00a0emotional impact, but only if they're handled with subtlety. Image via Pixabay\r\nCreating change\r\nDeath can be a motivating factor for growth or self-discovery. It can even be an impetus for characters to shift their habits and lifestyle, which can pose interesting challenges and drive the story.\r\n\r\nIn Stephen King's short story\u00a0The Body,\u00a0death has a heavy impact on the\u00a0coming-of-age of the main character, Gordie. He\u00a0is unable to properly grapple with his older brother's death,\u00a0but finds himself on a quest to find the body of a dead neighbourhood boy \u2013 a journey that pushes him into the realm of adulthood as he slowly understands the bleak aspects of life.\r\n\r\nA focus on death\u00a0can also change the way audiences view historical events, and can make us reflect over existential\u00a0questions.\r\n\r\nThe bombings of\u00a0Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted fierce\u00a0debate over whether the event was justified. John Hersey's famed non-fiction book\u00a0Hiroshima\u00a0took a human interest angle that detailed the graphic death and injuries of bombing victims in stark, factual language.\r\n\r\nThe book triggered stronger discussion over the horror of the event, the hopelessness\u00a0of war, and life in the nuclear age.\r\n\r\nExploring death in your writing can be a means of exploring change, growth and self-discovery. Image via Pixabay\r\nWhen to avoid and embrace predictability\r\nGeorge R. R. Martin, author of the\u00a0A Song of Ice and Fire series,\u00a0is famous for the fact that any one of his characters \u2013 no matter how important \u2013 can die. He states:\r\nI've been killing characters my entire career. Maybe I'm just a bloody-minded bastard, I don't know, [but] when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page [and to do that] you need to show right from the beginning that you're playing for keeps.\u201d\r\nThe unpredictability attached to Martin\u2019s character deaths enlivens his stories. But being unpredictable doesn\u2019t mean writing death scenes purely to shock or\u00a0pull cheaply on heartstrings.\r\n\r\nInstead, it means playing with audience expectations, while remaining true to your characterisation and the intent of your overall story.\r\n\r\nThink about\u00a0whether or not there are predictable patterns in your writing, whether you always kill off characters due to aimlessness in your plot, or whether you lean on killing a certain type of character, such as a family member.\r\n\r\nAlso ponder over the predictability of your prose. Do you lean on cliched phrases and flowery descriptions to get an emotional point across? Perhaps incorporating some of\u00a0these tips on how to add realistic details to death scenes can make your scenes seem unique and tangible.\r\n\r\nGeorge R. R. Martin may kill more characters than most writers, but it doesn't mean you have to! Be sure your exploration of death is true to the unique story you're telling. Image via Pixabay\r\n\r\nOne of the greatest joys of reading is not knowing what to expect, and feeling as if the outcome is not only surprising but also credible.\u00a0Conversely, it can also be satisfying if the plot goes to a place you do expect, but is dealt with in a fresh and interesting\u00a0way.\r\n\r\nDeath scenes we do expect can become infinitely more valuable if the aftermath and the way characters react bring us to new places.\r\n\r\nFor instance, in Donna Tartt's acclaimed novel\u00a0The Secret History,\u00a0the murder of a main character is revealed in the first few sentences. Although we know death is coming, we become enraptured by the well-drawn characterisation of the\u00a0doomed murderers and the friend they will inevitably kill.\r\n\r\nIn this way, our expectation of death makes everything that comes before it more engaging, as the author delves into the psychosis of characters and makes us guess what will push them over the edge. This type of emotional tension makes death fresher, as it gains a more foreboding presence.\r\n\r\nWhen the death scene comes, we become gripped with greater emotional tension as we ponder over what will happen next.\u00a0The initial questions are simple. Will they be caught? How will they talk their way out of this?\r\n\r\nWhat follows is what makes the novel special, as the author interweaves\u00a0feelings of intense moral conflict and unexpected grief to prompt characters to behave in erratic and passionate\u00a0ways.\r\n\r\nThis effectively demonstrates the\u00a0full storytelling strength of death as a theme, when it's used in a way that is both predictable but powerful.\r\n\r\nWhen handled effectively, death can be a powerful theme in your writing. Image via Gratisography\r\nAsk yourself: do I need to include character deaths?\r\nJudges in the writing industry often seek the\u00a0sorrow\u00a0and existential angst that death brings. It\u2019s no wonder that many writers gravitate towards this concept, trying to\u00a0portray it in ways nobody has before.\r\n\r\nHowever, as a writer, it's important to ask yourself if you\u2019re merely killing a character because you don\u2019t know how else to elevate your story. By including character deaths,\u00a0are you being true to your vision?\r\n\r\nKeep in mind the significance of death scenes, while also learning death-free ways to deal with situations.\r\n\r\nAristotle states that to master the art of tragedy, one must elicit feelings of both\u00a0horror and pity. These strong feelings don't always require the presence of death and maudlin depictions of grief.\r\n\r\nLisa Genova's\u00a0Still Alice\u00a0is famously heartbreaking but features no death; instead, feelings of pity and sadness are triggered from something as complex and emotionally challenging as the deterioration of one's mind, and by extension, sense of self.\r\n\r\nThe Coen brothers'\u00a0Inside Llewyn Davis\u00a0also\u00a0foregoes death for something that strikes a different, painful chord. It tells the story of a man trapped in overwhelming and constant failure, as he chases his dream of creative success.\r\n\r\nThe feelings of hopelessness, futility, fear, anxiety, and introspection tackled\u00a0in these stories are varied and infinitely\u00a0worth exploring.\r\n\r\n***\r\n\r\nRemember that tragedy, and any other situation with\u00a0emotional depth, doesn\u2019t always require a body count.