This will be the beginning of a mini series of posts about various aspects of character death in a story. In the coming posts, I’ll try to cover as much as I can – writer’s choices, plot impact, character impact, setting, and even avoiding death. I plan to release these posts every Sunday from now on. Now, let’s get this started.
This first ‘episode’ will be about the decisions writers face when it comes to ‘sentencing’ characters to death. For this time, I don’t mean specifically that a character will be executed for his crimes (I’ll touch that separately in one of the other posts) but the decision that a character will die. Since many aspects will be expanded on in the future posts, this one will be more of an overview about what to expect.
Make it count
What I say now will be quite obvious: if characters are to die, there needs to be enough of them, because you can’t kill what’s not alive (let’s leave zombies out of the equation). What I mean is that when it comes to meaningful (named) characters, the amount of deaths will likely be related to the character count. A story with merely a dozen characters is unlikely to have as much as a story when there’s over a hundred of them. In addition, (sub)genres will have an impact: darker stories will be in favor of higher kill count. The target audience matters here.
Each character in a story should have his or her purpose. It’s possible that a character’s purpose is nothing else than to die at the right moment. When done well, a minor character’s death might have a large impact for several reasons – the character might’ve known something important and did not share it before dying, thus making it harder for those who remain. Or they had some special skill that would help a lot in the coming conflict but now that shortcut is gone, forcing the heroes to change their approach.
What I wanted to say is that, in most cases, the death of a character should have a reason. That’s usually one of the aspects I mentioned above (and will cover in the future) though most often it’ll be to force a reaction from other character(s). Said reaction can take many shapes – emotional breakdown, rage, lust for vengeance, increased determination/motivation, change in approach…
Hence, what often works poorly is a character dying for no purpose at all. Even what might seem as “bad luck” death should be a conclusion to a chain of events – if a character gets run over by a bus, there should be a reason why he/she was on that exact spot in that exact time, even if it’s just because it was a part of his/her routine. Random death might seem out of place and used for pure shock value (just as sex used for the sake of sex without deeper reason).
Another obvious point is the difference between protagonists and antagonists: the ‘big bad’ will often not hesitate to send an underling to its death if it helps the villain’s plans – and even if the help is short term. This does not happen (much) among the protagonists, often because the different values said characters have.
Here, I don’t mean the various ways of killing a character. What I mean is the way to track and organize these story aspects as a writer. While it’s not necessary (especially if your story has a small cast), complex stories might benefit from having some way to track which characters died, when they died, and why.
For me, what works is a simple “character spreadsheet” that lists their names, physical traits, skills, titles, allegiance, and status. The last of them being used for the mentioned purpose, split into several categories: survives whole series, alive (meaning the character survival is not set in stone), no danger (used for characters that are in the background and thus face no direct danger), dead (listing the chapter of their death), and captured/MIA (listing the range of chapters of their capture). There might be more complex methods (such as using diagrams/timeline) or just plain old method of sticky notes.
I hope you enjoyed this intro and like what I’ll share in the next post on this topic. For now, you’re welcome to share your thoughts on the topic.