At some point, every author has to face the possibility of committing murder by killing off one of their characters. When it's done well, you can bring an audience to tears. When it's handled incorrectly, you can receive death threats on Twitter. Committing murder is serious business, even if you're only doing it on the page.
Death by Fiction
You don't have to write mysteries to contemplate murder when you're writing a book. Ask J. K. Rowling. She writes fantastical children's books, but she's definitely guilty of fictioncide. Where there is life, there is also death. Instead of ignoring this universal truth, some authors embrace it and use it as a plot device. In some stories, death has to happen to get a certain point across or make something important happen.
But it's not something you can introduce without advance preparation, and even then you have to walk a pretty careful line. Death is very emotional, even when it's the death of a fictional character.
1,000 Ways to Kill
Before you kill, think. There are lots of different considerations you're going to have to make before you delete someone from the pages of your book for ever.
- Do I know this character? Don't kill for killing's sake. Kill a character that's already been introduced in the book or else it's just empty. If the character doesn't matter, fine, but in most cases you're going to want to create an emotional reaction. You can't do that unless I already know this character, and have preexisting feelings for them.
- How did they die? The death scene is often pivotal in any book. Make sure you do it justice. If the reader is going to witness the death through the eyes of one or more characters, don't make it too gruesome. It's okay for parts of a book to be difficult to read because of heightened emotions, but don't make it impossible to read. You don't want readers closing your book and never picking it up again because the death scene is too brutal. If the characters are experiencing the death second-hand, because they're learning about it from another source, you may have to work harder to establish the emotion of the scene. Here's something to remember: if you don't cry when you're writing it, I'm not likely to cry when I'm reading it.
- Why does it matter? There should be some consequences from the death. If a character dies, every other character can't carry on with business as usual like it doesn't matter. There has to be some ripple effect, something has to happen as a result, or else the death really has no place being in the book.
It's never an easy decision to kill a character, but sometimes it is necessary for the story. Make sure you do it right. If it's too traumatic to readers, they may hate you and your book. Soften the effects of the death, and make it clear that something good has come out of this death, in order to balance out the trauma of the event. If the character being killed is an evil and hated one, try to introduce some humanity and sadness into the death. You don't want readers celebrating death in a bloodthirsty fashion. Even when villains die, it should feel a little bit sad.