Tips & Advice On Killing Main Characters
Are you wondering whether you should kill off a character? Or have you already decided to kill off a character, but you're not really sure how to go about it? Or are you wondering how you might handle the surviving characters? Here are some things to know and consider.
Table of Contents
- First of all, is it the right time to kill a main character?
- Aim to foreshadow the death and/or have the death connect to the plot.
- Aim to create the right emotions in your audience, and give your audience time to feel these emotions.
- Make sure that the audience feels the reality of the character's death.
- More tips for handling the characters affected by the death.
- In summary!
First of all, is it the right time to kill a main character?
It might be the right time if...
The character has reached the end of a goal you set up. EG, Your character has accomplished some life's work and it's time now to give this character's arc a sense of finality, and having the character simply retire or move away wouldn't really make sense or work for your story.
The character has run out of potential. There's nothing new or interesting you can do with this character anymore, and having the character simply retire or move away wouldn't make sense or work.
The character's presence is holding the story or a character back in some way. Killing off the right character at the right time can move the plot forward or spark necessary character development. (For example, killing a mentor can force the mentee to learn to be more self-reliant.)
You want to establish that this is a setting where anyone can die. Killing off a main character can drive home that this is the kind of world where people can and do die, and that the rest of the characters do indeed face great risk in what they do.
Letting the character live after the conclusion of an arc wouldn't have more emotional impact. If a character's arc concludes in losing something considered important (be it a loved one, belief, cause, etc.), or by making some sort of major turnaround, letting that character actually live can potentially be far more poignant - because we know that this character is going to have to face a very difficult and even heart-wrenching journey. In a case like this, it might actually be a better idea to simply write the character out of the story if it's at all possible.
In addition to any of the above, you're confident you won't need the character later. If you're not sure, you might be better off having the character leave or disappear for awhile, or develop in a different direction.
And in addition to the above, you're confident you aren't going to be overdoing the death count. Killing off too many characters, particularly if the story you're writing doesn't belong to a genre where high death counts are to be expected (EG, horror, war, or suspense) or where there's no particularly good reason the character should die in your setting, can leave your audience feeling numb or drained. (See On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast for more on this.) Also, if you suddenly go from having your characters get away from everything unscathed to having characters die left and right while the threats they face haven't actually gotten any worse or more competent, or if you suddenly start killing so many characters that the story takes an abrupt shift in tone, you're almost certainly overdoing it.
You're otherwise fairly confident that it will be a good idea. Check out "Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself! for more factors you might take into consideration.
Aim to foreshadow the death and/or have the death connect to the plot.
A sudden death out of nowhere that has nothing to do with the actual plot runs the risk of looking contrived or unnecessary, even if it does ultimately serve a purpose to your story. So try to have the character's death foreshadowed, and/or have it connect to the plot in some way.
For example, rather than having a character be killed by a random ruffian, you might have that character die doing something related to trying to defeat the villain or be killed by one of the villain's agents. Or you might have the character die trying to protect someone, or die trying to complete a dangerous job (that we know ahead of time will almost certainly be lethal).
Rather than having a character die in a random accident, you might show ahead of time that the character has reckless habits that could get one killed, or show that a critical piece of equipment the character uses is faulty. Rather than having a character suddenly keel over dead, you might show that the character is unwell in some way or exhibits symptoms of whatever it is that ends up being deadly, or show the character engaging in behavior that could be a risk factor for it.
Basically, aim to have the death feel like a natural consequence or conclusion to what's already going on, rather than something that you just threw in out of nowhere.
Aim to create the right emotions in your audience, and give your audience time to feel these emotions.
The most powerful and effective death scenes are written so that the audience feels the impact of the death, has time in the story to mourn for themselves, and lets them see that the other characters are feeling the same way they do. Always remember that when you kill a character whom the audience loves, or when you kill someone who is important to a character the audience loves, the audience is grieving, too. So give the audience time to mourn. Let them see that the characters feel as badly as they do. Your audience isn't going to get over it in thirty seconds, so neither should your characters.
Optimally, if you kill a main character off, or kill a character who meant a lot to a main character, you will show the bereaved...
- Behaving in accordance with emotions resulting from the death. (Bereaved people might feel any combination of confused, angry, betrayed, let down, lost, uncertain, scared, hopeless, lonely, numb, empty, apathetic, aware of their own mortality, etc.)
- Displaying other behavior associated with grief (EG, crying, listlessness, a shortened temper, increased or decreased appetite, etc.).
- Talking about how the death makes them feel.
- Talking about what the deceased character meant to them.
- Talking about memories of the deceased character.
Not every character has to do every one of the items on this list, but they should at least do something that reflects how they feel inside. Exactly how much would be appropriate for any given character tends to depend on how much focus a given character is typically given, and how close to the deceased a given character was. A relatively minor character who wasn't intimately close to the deceased might just need to be shown looking sad while fidgeting with a pencil for a few seconds, but a main character who was close needs a lot more.
Of course, exactly how long you can or should put on focusing on the characters and their reactions will also depend on how much time you have to tell your story. If your story is going to be on the long side, you probably can probably put quite a lot of focus on it without detracting too much from the main story.
TV shows with long arcs (IE, half a season or more), are a good example of something that typically has plenty of time on its hands. Some shows like this have made the death of a main character into a major part of an episode's story, or have made an entire plot built up around the death and/or the other characters' reactions to it. Some examples of this include Stargate SG-1's Meridian, Threads, and Heroes (Part 2); and Buffy The Vampire Slayer's The Body and Forever.
If you're working with something where you can't dedicate very much time and story to a character's death or to everyone else's reactions and feelings over it, you need to make the short time you have count. So here are some examples of shorter, but still very powerful moments.
Rue's death in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games is a good example of how this can be done: we see both Katniss and Rue cry as they speak their final words to each other; then Katniss cries for awhile longer, then kisses Rue's forehead in a farewell gesture. Then she is shown looking drained and sad as she gathers flowers in the woods, which she makes into a bouquet to place in Rue's hand and spreads around her body. Then Katniss is shown giving a salute from Rue's home district to the Capitol's cameras (as the Capitol arranged the circumstances that lead to Rue's death); then we see the people of Rue's home district, forced to watch the whole thing by the Capitol, riot. The whole thing plays out over the course of about five minutes; none of it is rushed over.
Another good example is the death of Artax in The Neverending Story movie. The protagonist Atreyu and his horse Artax walk through the Swamps of Sadness - where if the sadness overtakes you, you will sink into the swamp never to be seen again. As Atreyu leads Artax through the swamp, he jerks to a halt as the reins go taut - then looks back with a worried, even fearful expression to see that Artax is simply standing still. Despite his fear, he speaks to Artax softly to try and get him to follow - but the horse doesn't move. Then when he realizes Artax is sinking, he panickedly and tearfully begs and pleads for Artax to move - up until the point he sinks beneath the swamp. In the next scene, Atreyu is shown sitting hunched over in the swamp, crying over Artax's death. Then even as he gets up and continues his journey, we see that he's still crying. This takes perhaps a couple of minutes - not as long as Rue's death, but the important thing is that we clearly and unambiguously see and hear how distraught Atreyu is. Furthermore, Artax's death is brought up later in the story when Atreyu becomes angry after coming to believe his quest was for nothing - thus we see that he didn't just get over it, but rather he was more likely just repressing it so he could focus on his quest.
Whether in a visual medium or in text, the same concept applies equally to both: you want to capture these emotions and convey them to your audience while spending enough time on them that they have time to really feel them. If text is your medium, this does not mean padding out your prose or using big, long words to lengthen the passage - because doing this can distract your readers or blunt the impact of the moment. Rather, make sure that what you're writing conveys and shows what your characters are feeling, and that the depth and scope of what they feel is made clear in your text.
Something else you might do if you're short on time or if it's not feasible to make an entire plot around the death is to weave the characters' reactions into the story at large. Perhaps they go about carrying on with their business or dealing with whatever crisis is afoot - occasionally pausing to talk about the dead character and how they feel, as well as showing their emotions through their actions.
Make sure that the audience feels the reality of the character's death.
However you go about writing the death, it's very important to make sure that the reality and impact of the character's death is driven home for your audience - otherwise, it won't affect them very much emotionally, or may even leave them confused or frustrated with the story.
One thing you might do is show/describe the character experiencing sudden dread or fear as the realization that death is impending and unavoidable sets in. Or, if the character is unaware of the impending death, show/describe another character experiencing dread or fear as it becomes clear that the other is about to die.
Many stories utilize fake, mistaken, or temporary deaths, so depending on the type of story and how the death plays out, the audience might expect that this is the case. They won't really feel sad over the character's death, as they'll be wondering how long it'll be before the character turns up alive again.
One way to prevent this problem by showing an unmistakably dead body - one that obviously cannot be brought back using any sufficiently advanced technology your characters may have or can be presumed to have. In any story where a character has been brought back or saved from seemingly similar conditions before, make sure it's clearly established or explained why the deceased cannot be brought back in this case.
In settings where fake/mistaken deaths are not to be expected, showing a funeral can also work - but only in settings or genres where fake/mistaken deaths are not to be expected!
Finally, showing the bereaved engaging in gross, ugly sobbing after and/or during the death can be a powerful way to drive the impact home. On the other hand, calm, composed, "pretty" crying (EG, the "single tear fell down her cheek" variety) does not have nearly as strong an impact. Remember that for the bereaved, there is nothing particularly poetic or romantic about what's going on. At most, the only good thing about it might be that the deceased is no longer suffering.
More tips for handling the characters affected by the death.
Making a character not display any signs of grief in order to make that character look "strong" is not a good way to go. While it might be tempting to make a character not display any grief in order to make the character look tough, hardbitten, or "above" or "better" than such "frivolous" or "indulgent" emotions, this is something that you probably don't want to do. Rather than your characters looking "strong," what you'll actually end up doing is making them look cold, heartless, and even sociopathic. At the very least, it means that your character is repressing quite a lot of emotion - which is not healthy.
The "five stages of grief" should not be treated as a road map. In reality, people may experience the stages in any given order, and may flip-flop between different stages in a very short time. Someone might be in denial one minute, then angry the next, then feel depressed, then move back to denial, and so on.
People tend to deal with grief in bursts. Someone going through grief can might feel sad cry for awhile, then get collected enough to carry on with life for a bit, and even be smiling and laughing before long - then get hit with another wave of sadness. (And it's not unusual to see the bereaved socializing very normally at post-funeral dinners and the like.) Furthermore, people typically have the ability to suppress their grief long enough to get through whatever basic tasks their daily lives require.
Different people react to grief differently. Some people might immediately react with immediate sadness; some might just go numb for awhile. Some might eat more while others might lose their appetites. Some might seek solace in a distracting hobby, while others might seek comfort from others.
Crying people are not going to be especially pretty. There's going to be redness around the eyes and nose - which will be all the more noticeable the lighter a person's skin is. There will be bloodshot eyes. There will be snot and sniffling, and possibly even chapping on their noses if they've been blowing a lot. And if they've been crying long and hard, they're going to look exhausted and drained.
Extreme reactions do not necessarily mean that the one having them cared about the deceased more than anyone else. You know that thing where the bereaved falls into a deep mourning, withdraws from social interaction, possibly refuses to eat more than the bare minimum needed to survive... and goes on like this for days or even weeks? Extreme reactions like these are often used to demonstrate that the love or loyalty the bereaved had for the deceased went far beyond anyone else's, but in reality it more likely means that the bereaved is just really bad at coping and/or has a mental issue that's been exacerbated by the loss and could probably use some professional help. (And it is not a sign of weakness nor a sign of disloyalty to the deceased to seek professional help and to try to recover from the loss!)
- Make sure first that it's the right time - and the right time can be when the character has reached the end of a goal, has no more potential, when the character's death would move the plot forward or force character development, and when it fits and establishes the kind of setting you've got. On top of this, you should be confident that you won't need the character anymore, and that you're not overdoing the death count.
- Try to foreshadow the death and/or have the death relate to the plot in some way. Avoid random deaths.
- Let the audience see how other characters feel about the death. And don't immediately shove the character's death to the side - slow things down a little and give the audience time to mourn alongside the characters. If you're limited on time, take as much advantage of the time you have as possible.
- Make sure that the audience feels the reality of the character's death by making it absolutely clear that the character is dead and cannot come back. Let them see the other characters mourn, and aim to make that mourning realistic rather than romantically stylized.
- Don't try to make a character look "strong" by having that character display no emotion. That's not how it works.
- The five stages of grief are not a road map - people don't always experience the "stages" in order, and they can go through the same stage more than once.
- Different people react differently to grief. Variate your characters' reactions to make them feel more real.
- Crying people are not going to be very pretty at all - there's going to be snot and redness, and almost certainly no shining tears falling down porcelain cheeks.
- Extreme reactions don't prove that the one having them cared more about a deceased character than anyone else - it more likely means that this character is in need of professional help. And there is nothing wrong or weak in seeking it, either.
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