6 Times You Shouldn’t Kill Your Characters
January 8, 2020
Spoiler alert: this post contains a number of potential spoilers relating to deaths occurring in various books/movies, including A Song of Ice and Fire/Game Of Thrones, The Book Thief and The Hunger Games.
Part of being a writer is facing the heart-wrenching necessity of killing our darlings. While this practice can refer to many aspects of the creative process – scenes, plotlines, carefully crafted descriptions – bumping off a lovingly created character can be one of the hardest choices to make.
With death being one of two certainties in life, it’s no surprise it plays a significant role in fiction. But that doesn’t mean every character has to die, or that you even need to include a death in your story at all.
So, before you start swinging the axe, take a look at these six times you should refrain from killing your darlings, and how and why such deaths should be avoided.
Few people enjoy pointless death. Killing one of your main characters purely to elicit shock from your readers is a surefire way to get them offside.
After all, you’ve spent all this time developing a character’s backstory, making them real and flawed and endearing to the reader – and then you go and bump them off for no reason? Talk about betrayal.
That’s not to say character deaths shouldn’t happen, or that they shouldn’t be shocking – quite the opposite, actually. But you need to have a significant reason for killing a character you and your readers have both invested time in, and that reason needs be more than ‘I want to see some people cry’.
In order to test whether your proposed death is purely for shock value or not, consider what effect it has on the story at large. Is it propelling the plot? Establishing the villain’s power or wickedness? Or is it the consequence of a character’s previous actions?
Fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire is infamous for ruthlessly killing a number of leading cast members. Speaking on why he so often kills his darlings, author George R.R Martin says it all comes down to authentically representing the real world:
“You should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time. You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies.”
As shocking and unpredictable the deaths in ASOIAF are, they are by no means random slaughter. Each major death is a product of the plot progression, be it an example in villainy or consequence.
Death as an establishment of villainy is not limited to genre fiction where there is a clear struggle between good and evil. A ‘villain’ can also be an abstract concept such as illness or war. The heart-wrenching death of Rudy in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a great example of this.
Whatever shocking end you envision for your darlings, make sure it serves a purpose to avoid angering your readers with acts of senseless, shock-seeking slaughter.
If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction where the concept of resurrection is possible, it may be tempting to bring your slain darlings back from the grave.
Resurrection, reincarnation, reanimation and time travel are all potential ways for writers to get around the pesky permanency of death. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Choosing to bring a character back from the dead is a messy path to walk. While resurrection can be a convenient way to torment and shock readers by (temporarily) killing an integral character, it opens a can of worms in regards to logistics and plot holes.
In fantasy novels, writers go to great lengths to craft believable magic systems based on reason and law. Including the ability to reanimate a corpse or resurrect a fallen hero can sometimes leave magic feeling too powerful and slash the tension you’ve so carefully built.
Furthermore, if this power suddenly manifests without proper integration into the story, you leave yourself open to the pitfalls of plot holes and deus ex machina. The last thing you want is readers scoffing at a climatic scene because the whole thing appears far too convenient.
Should you seek to avoid a character’s demise by playing with alternate universes or time travel, readers may also be left asking, ‘Why didn’t they just go back and avert the whole crisis in the first place?’
Of course, this conundrum is usually dismissed thanks to the Grandfather Paradox, but it still raises questions over the validity of risking the future by reversing time in order to save the life of one person.
If it’s not done right, subverting the finality of death cheapens its impact, which can seriously undermine conflict and leave the tension of the hero’s struggles feeling flat and contrived.
If death and resurrection is important to your plot or thematic underpinnings of your novel (such as the Christian symbolism of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia), then consider ways of keeping it exciting and unpredictable.
Perhaps the resurrection of characters is random and largely unexplained, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire? By establishing the use of such power as being selective (and generally not benefiting main characters), the shock and finality of death is still kept very real.
One thing to consider when writing meaningful character deaths is the need to avoid predictability, and there is nothing more obvious than killing a ‘Red Shirt’. This trope gets its name from the insignificant supporting officers in the Star Trek universe, whose untimely demise on a mission is almost guaranteed.
Minor characters like these are often introduced only to later serve as cannon fodder to the villain’s flex of power. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
If the character’s purpose in the story at large is simply to die, there’s a strong chance that they have not been developed to the point the reader actually cares.
The senseless murder of a secondary character not only fails to inspire an emotional response from your readers; this type of death can ultimately be just as pointless and infuriating as shock for shock’s sake.
Remember Martin’s quote from above? Death doesn’t just happen to minor ranking officers or insignificant characters. You don’t want main characters protected by ‘plot armour’, which is every bit as tension-slashing as overpowered heroes and contrived struggles.
By only ever killing Red Shirts, you perpetuate the idea that important characters (and people) are immortal and everyone else is expendable. Like other tropes, this is unrealistic – and frankly boring.
Establishing a pattern where only the minor characters die leaves readers expecting that the heroes will always pull through, no matter what the circumstances. Thus, emotional investment in their struggles is meaningless.
The last thing you want when writing a highly tense scene with your story’s villain is for your readers to shrug off the drama because they can already predict the outcome.
While this certainly doesn’t mean you can’t kill minor characters, make sure that death isn’t solely limited to these insignificant roles, and you’ll keep readers concerned for the hero’s safety when they should be.
The next few points look at representation and the tendencies for minorities to be the most expendable cast members.
Much like the hero and his magic armour, no character should be immune to the call of death, but you need to think twice before taking a metaphorical knife to your diverse darlings.
Sadly, this time we turn to our master of death George R. R. Martin as an example of what not to do.
All the major characters in A Song of Ice and Fire who identify as LGBTQIA+ (Renly Baratheon, Loras Tyrell and Oberyn Martell) are killed throughout the course of the infamously murderous series. (Well, Loras is technically still alive at the end of A Dance with Dragons, his death is all but certain due to grave injuries received in battle.)
While it’s plausible to pass off these deaths as nothing out of the ordinary because, well, valar morghulis, there is something more sinister at play, and it goes by the name of ‘Bury Your Gays’.
From The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), to Goldfinger (1959) and The Stand (1979), to The Book of Lost Things (2006) and Armada (2015), authors have been including sexually diverse characters – only to kill them off.
While it’s worth noting that not all queer characters are killed because they are queer, the Bury Your Gays trope is very much homophobic in nature, as it reinforces the idea that queer characters are more expendable than their cishet cast mates.
However, take care not to swing too far in the other direction by granting a character death immunity thanks to their sexual orientation or gender identity. If your LGBTQIA+ character really has to die, you can avoid this (and tokenism) by ensuring they are not the only diverse character on your team.
Having LGBTQIA+ peoples represented in your novel should be the norm, but you do need to be conscious of how they are treated to avoid these harmful stereotypes and tropes.
The same can be said for racial diversity, which brings us to our next point.
Often joked about due to its predictability, the movie trope ‘Black Dude Dies First’ is farcically common and overtly offensive to people of colour (POC). While generally linked to horror/slasher films, the act of killing off POC characters in fiction is just as problematic.
When a specifically identified POC character (nearly always flagged as being Other, given the casually racist assumption of ‘white until proven otherwise’ in written media) is killed early in a narrative, it creates a number of issues.
A death early in the novel means the character is likely to be underdeveloped, which creates the idea that POC stories are not as important as white characters’ stories and, as such, do not need to be fleshed out beyond a tokenistic stereotype.
The main problem with this is that flat characters are not memorable to readers. The resulting lack of emotional connection to an underdeveloped POC’s death is the harmful suggestion that the character (and POC at large) is not worthy of empathy.
A tempting solution used by some writers is to forcibly create a stronger response by describing the death in an excessively gruesome or detailed manner. While graphic description can result in a visceral reaction from your readers, what is actually happening is the glorification of violence.
POC character death also has a tendency to occur as a means of propelling the white hero’s character arc forward. Whether it’s serving as a call to action or a path-changing epiphany, using a POC death as a motivational tool is another dangerous plot device to avoid.
While Rue’s death in The Hunger Games inspires a rebellion and drives Katniss’ story, the importance of the developed POC girl’s character and the respectful treatment of her passing helps Suzanne Collins’s popular YA series avoid falling into this trope trap.
As with LGBTQIA+ characters, if a POC character in your novel is required to die, then ensure they are developed and not the only minority character in your main cast.
And if you don’t plan on giving your white characters exceptionally brutal deaths, do not subject your POC characters to it.
Female characters have a terrible habit of finding themselves ‘stuffed into fridges’. This shocking plot device sees women killed, raped, maimed or otherwise disempowered as a means to move the male protagonist’s story forward.
The term ‘fridging’ stems from comic book origin, where Green Lantern’s dead girlfriend was literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find. Further research has gone on to discover this trope in a range of popular media, from film and TV shows to literature and manga.
Unlike the ‘shock for shock’s sake’ death, fridging arguably serves the purpose of rallying the protagonist. However, the destruction of another (usually female) character to achieve this is a lazy way to elicit a cheap emotional response from your cast and readers.
Not only is fridging sexist, it devalues the character in much the same way as using POC characters as plot pawns or cannon fodder.
Gail Simone, who coined the term fridging, explained the importance of keeping female characters out of harm’s way in an email shared on her site, Women in Refrigerators:
“I hope some female characters make it through … so that the girls reading the comics still have someone they like that they can identify with.”
Gail’s concerns, though focused on comic books, are applicable to all pop culture and fiction. If female readers are constantly seeing their heroines killed or viciously injured for the purpose of male character development, why would they continue reading?
Before putting a female character on the chopping block, consider ways your protagonist may be motivated without the need for death or violence.
While it might not carry the shock a death would (which, as we discussed earlier, is not always a good reason to kill a character anyway), the end result is still the same: driving your protagonist to take action.
As is the case with all under-represented groups in fiction, it’s about balance. Ensure that there are a number of strong, developed female characters among the surviving cast at book’s end and you’ll keep yourself safe from unintentional sexism.
Death is a part of life, and as writers we know it’s inevitable to part with our darlings at some point or other.
But when the time comes to pull the plug, take a moment to think about the potential implications of the character’s death in and outside the context of the story.