Alternatives To Killing Your Characters


Writers these days seem to be fonder than ever of killing characters - but is it always the best choice? Not necessarily. This page is going to explore some reasons why killing characters might not be the wisest choice, and offer some alternatives.



Why let your characters live?

Killing characters has become something of a cliche. Back thirty to twenty years ago, killing off a main character (especially on TV) was far less common, so it tended to be a lot more shocking. Furthermore, it allowed stories to venture into territories that were rarely explored, giving audiences a taste of something different. But nowadays, some writers/works treat death as the default or only option for getting rid of a character no longer important to the story, so it no longer has the same value.

It can be aggravating and depressing. People want to see the characters they love get happy endings, and characters who finally get happy endings after ages of struggle can make people feel more hopeful for themselves. On the other hand, constantly killing characters off just brings people down.

It might be insensitive. The "Bury Your Gays" trope is still popping up regularly. Constantly killing off characters belonging to any marginalized group and never letting them stick around on a permanent basis or just live happily ever after is frustrating and discouraging to people who want to see this part of their identity represented and see characters like themselves get happy endings.

Letting them live might be more interesting. What would happen if the newly-redeemed villain wasn't suddenly killed off and had to make a new life out there? What if the love interest didn't die? What if the mentor wasn't suddenly slain? Would it really be so bad? Or would it allow something completely unexpected to happen?

You might be chopping the head off a golden goose. You do yourself no favors by killing a character who was really good for driving plots or kept a large portion of your fans interested in the story. You may find yourself having to rely on some contrivance to bring the character back, or be stuck with an irreparably-damaged story.

You just want the character gone temporarily. Resurrecting your characters from the dead tends to cheapen death in a story, and it can sometimes come off as a bit contrived, so using something non-lethal for characters you never intended to kill off permanently can be a good way to go.


Some things you can do instead of killing your characters

Settle down to a regular life. If a character has been an adventurer, mercenary, superhero, or something similar thus far, what if your character finally just settles down to something a bit more conventional, maybe follows up on some passions or interests that there was just never time for before?

Transfer to another department. Maybe the boss decides one of your characters needs to be working someplace else, or maybe there's just a better work opportunity over there.

Taking a desk job. If your story focuses heavily on characters who work out in the field, having one take a desk job can remove the character from focus.

Take a teaching position. This one may or may not overlap with taking a desk job, but in any case it can get a character out of the way!

Seek education. Maybe a character decides to go to an out-of-state college, or to seek training from some academy or other.

Go on an independent adventure/quest. You could have a character go off for some sort of personal adventure of quest, whether it's to go and catalog butterfly species or seek out an answer to a difficult question.

Imprisonment. This could make a dramatic, even heart-wrenching sendoff for a protagonist that could very well launch into a new plot arc later (EG, rescuing the character, proving the character's innocence, etc). It can also be a good way to get antagonists out of the picture.

Rehab/therapy. Something that more antagonists could stand to go to, honestly. (Did you know that rehab is actually very effective for first-time offenders?)

Just don't focus on them. Let these characters exist off in the background doing their own thing while you focus on others.

(This list intentionally does not suggest tropes like ascending to a higher plane of existence, since that's basically just death with a sci-fi/fantasy paint job; nor does it suggest comas or stasis, since for all characters in comas or stasis can actually accomplish or grow, they're as good as dead.)

See also:

Tips & Advice On Killing Main Characters
Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It
On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast



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