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Don't Fear The Reaper | Writing Character Deaths

Character deaths in fiction carry a lot of weight. These scenes are often the most poignant and emotional for readers, and often bring protagonists to their breaking point or propel them into action. Execution is everything.

As discussed in last week's upload, there is plenty to consider when deciding who among your cast is being brought to an end, and that's also true for the actual death.

Few moments in fiction carry the weight of a character death, and the execution of those scenes can be daunting. After you've chosen someone to send to the chopping block, wielding the fatal blow is not to be taken lightly.

When writing a character's death, here are a few tips I like to bear in mind.

How It's Done

Once a character has been sentenced to death, the question then becomes how they will die.

There are multiple aspects to this one-word question, so let's break it down.

Firstly, there's the cause of death to consider. How does this happen?

Whether your character dies of natural causes or illness, is a casualty in an accident, or is purposefully taken out, writers should have a rough idea of how this happens even if the decision to do away with a member of your story's cast is more spontaneous.

Depending on the direction and tone of your story, this might be relatively easy to figure out. A romance probably wouldn't have a protagonist's sister murdered by a serial killer, whereas a mystery novel may not revolve around a man simply dying in his sleep unless foul play was involved.

Understanding how this happens can guide not only the death of the deceased character, but the aftermath as your characters mourn.

Then, there's also the matter of how the death happens.

For example, say your protagonist's brother dies of an illness. What symptoms did they experience? Was it prolonged and lengthy or entirely sudden?

In an instance where the character dies in a car accident, it might be worth considering road and weather conditions, if they were the only car involved or were hit, and whether or not one party was intoxicated or distracted. Learning they died after swerving to avoid a deer and hitting a telephone pole might affect their loved ones differently than finding out they hit another car because they were texting.

Additionally, where there is malicious intent, establish the motive. If the deceased is a murder victim, what drives the killer?

In the real world, we don't always know the reasons behind a loved one's death. As writers, however, we have access not only to that knowledge, but complete control over it.

Onstage of Off-Screen

While the method is something you need to work out, you also need to decide if this is a death you'll be including in a scene or one that will happen offstage. Basically, whether or not you want your readers to be present for the death.

This can be decided by a few things. For one, the genre you're writing in. Horror writers are expected to bring their readers on a thrill ride that won't see everyone making it out alive or in one piece, so letting their audience get in on the gruesome details as they go down is one of the most significant genre conventions.

However, writers of romance might prefer the alternative of letting the death happen off-screen and having the protagonist find out via a friend or a phone call since readers of this genre are picking up the book to have their hearts racing but not their bones chilling.

Genre is just a guideline, though! I've read a few romances where an ill character passes onstage, and I've seen a few horror writers kill characters offstage to create a sense of vagueness and suspense because you don't know if they actually died. It really depends on the scenario and the story you are writing.

At the time of this post, I've only ever killed one character onstage. Other deaths have occurred offstage, with characters finding out later.

Make It Make Sense

When it's time to kill off a character, you want to do it in a way that is memorable, but in a good way.

Seeing a beloved character fall victim to the author's pen can feel like a punch in the stomach, but there have been a few character deaths I've read that felt like a complete betrayal to me because of the way they happened.

If the death doesn't make sense for what rules the story has established, it might not sit well with your audience.

Granted, there is an unpredictability with death, especially if we're looking at scenarios like accidents and attacks. But with fiction, you have the ability to know when a death is on the horizon and build up to it subtly.

A character dying out of nowhere is a frequent plot twist, but doing it too suddenly can leave a bad taste in the readers mouth. In my experience, I tend to feel this way when there has been no established reason for this death to take place like a threat from the antagonist or some indication of illness, or in a way that doesn't make sense based on what we know about the world and its characters, like someone shooting a rival when they aren't known to own a gun or have the means to acquire one yet it just happens because the story needs tension.

For readers, a favorite character dying in a way that doesn't suit them or doesn't fit within the course of the narrative can make the loss even more devastating—and not in the way the writer wants.

Plot Armor

One of my greatest pet peeves in writing is Plot Armor, and I would be remiss if I failed to include it in a post about killing characters.

This is a term used to describe a character surviving dangerous situations and injuries that should frankly kill them. Instead, they miraculously walk away with only minor wounds if any at all. Usually, their making it out alive can be attributed to their being the protagonist or another significant character. The necessity of their role in the story gives them the proverbial armor that protects them.

My posts on Glee's Quinn Fabray and the final episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead series should leave no doubt of my frustration with Plot Armor, specifically when a character who should have very clearly died makes it out alive.

For one thing, Plot Armor can lower or even eliminate the stakes of a story. If a character is in a perilous situation and successfully walks away unscathed, that indicates they're untouchable and immune to danger simply because they're the main character. So the next time they get themselves into a sticky situation, readers may not feel the sense of dread they experienced prior because it's been established the character is not at any major risk of harm.

Plot Armor also detracts from realism. While fiction is not fact, a scene in which our character falls out of a window seven stories high and brushes it off won't feel right. If they do in fact survive, at least have them suffer plausible injuries.

Sometimes, however, Plot Armor can be excused. This tends to be primarily in works of fantasy or science fiction.

When your characters are fitted for Plot Armor, make sure there is reason for it established within the world and rules of your story—other than their status as the protagonist—and allow them to have their weaknesses.

After all, even though Superman is inhuman and not limited to the constraints of human physics, he's not immune to Kryptonite.

The Walking Dead Syndrome

For every writer struggling to sentence characters to death, there is a writer all to eager to take a stab at it. Rather than show reluctance in killing their characters, they lack restraint. Their WIPs might follow the route of a Shakespearean tragedy which has the majority of the cast dead by the end of it all.

Some stories call for high death counts. If you're writing about warring clans or pitting your characters against a swarm of aliens, chances are they won't be settling things peacefully. But even these scenarios can fall victim to what I call The Walking Dead Syndrome.

One of the primary reasons I fell off the TWD fan-wagon was the rising number of character deaths. Ironic, given the name of the show and its taking place in the zombie apocalypse with characters facing off against hoards of the undead.

My problem wasn't that characters were dying. That's to be expected. It was the frequency of deaths in later seasons that ultimately killed the show for me.

Early on, there were a few major character deaths, with those of Sophia, Hershel, and Merle being among the most resonating for me even now because of how they made me feel the first time I watched those scenes, but they were relatively rare compared to minor characters. Typically, you'd see character deaths occur in mid-season finales and at the end of the season, but you wouldn't always know who would be getting bit or biting the dust. When these episodes aired, there had been enough time invested in these characters that viewers were left feeling the loss (in most cases, anyway).

Then you would have character deaths that seemed to come out of nowhere. Tyreese's farewell episode absolutely broke me because it was the season premiere and right off the heels of Beth's being killed. This was the first TWD death that actually had me in tears.

Later seasons don't possess the same magic for me. By this point, most of the original cast had exited the show, whether that meant their character dying or simply being written off. There were a few newcomers that caught my attention, but my interest soon fizzled because they didn't last.

There was a predictability about the show that wasn't there at first. A new character would be introduced and be secondary for a while, popping up here and there. Then they would suddenly find themselves at the center of the story with an episode dedicated to them and their backstory, and be killed off soon after.

It became harder for me to care about these characters because as soon as we started learning about who they were, they would be written off the show.

The key takeaway from The Walking Dead as far as major character deaths go, write them sparingly. Killing off too many characters in quick succession might make it harder for your readers to invest in them. Death scenes can be great means of driving emotions, but apathy probably isn't among the ones you intend to evoke.

Realistic Depictions

Every writer knows the adage of fearing the FBI will conduct an investigation into them as a result of their internet history. Research is a crucial part of the craft, and it's definitely something you should do when it comes time to kill a character—though you may want to proceed with caution as it can lead you to some gruesome and morbid corners of the internet depending on what you're looking into.

Realistic details help the scene more vivid and tense by putting the reader in the moment.

If your character suffers a fatal wound, describe the injury and its effect. Walk the reader through what the narrator observes or what the injured character experiences.

You don't need to be an expert in human anatomy, but you should have an idea of the probable outcome of any damage inflicted.

Additionally, try to find specific details pertaining to the cause of death. Look into the shape or depth of a wound left by the kind of knife your character is stabbed with or how much of the poison in question would be needed to kill a character based on their stature and overall health and how soon it would take effect.

These details may get grizzly, but death isn't always pretty.

Writing an offstage death means you're able to limit the details somewhat more than if your character's demise occurs onscreen. In either case, though, realism will help drive the emotion and impact home.

Calm Down, Doogie Howser!

A common problem for writers is the deep desire to include absolutely everything they find while researching in their fiction. But that's what you're writing: fiction.

Overloading your narration with these findings can have it reading like a textbook, and that's most likely something you would do better to avoid when writing a character death. Get into the nitty-gritty but don't get overly specific with the details.

Readers likely won't be up to date on their medical terminology. As such, it's usually better to refrain from loading your narration with terminology that can make it convoluted.

Not only can this be confusing and risk sending your readers to a graphic side of Google if they go ahead and look things up, it can break the tension of a scene.

If you're writing a character's death, like any scene, you want to create an image in your reader's mind. While you may be describing injuries in detail, it's likely better to stay away from getting too technical and specific.

Saying a character suffers a lacerated subclavian artery and has lost about 1,6oo ml of blood is precise but can be draining for your readers to make sense of. However, blood gushing from the character's throat and pooling around them is going to get the same point across without as much complication.

As with most writing-related things, there are exceptions to this concept. If you're writing a story set in a hospital or featuring a doctor as its protagonist or a character living with a medical condition, you might have an easier time weaving this kind of language into the work without issue.

Unless you are writing a character who is a medical professional or someone who would logically have this knowledge, lay off the jargon.

Respect The Line

As a disclaimer, this next section touches on suicide.

Sometimes, it may be better to hold back when writing a death and limit the details.

Netflix's 13 Reasons Why was highly controversial because of its handling of social issues and mental health. Based on the novel by Jay Asher, the first season revolved around Clay in the wake of a classmate's death. Prior to taking her own life, Hannah recorded a series of tapes, each focusing on a different person and their role in the events leading to her fateful decision.

While the show tackled many issues poorly, Hannah's suicide inspired the most outcry from audiences and critics. The scene in its original form was graphic and visceral, not sparing any details of the teenager's final moments. However, following the backlash, the scene was trimmed down significantly.

Much of the criticism came from mental health advocates and medical experts who believe 13 Reasons Why romanticizes taking one's own life and the way the intense depiction of Hannah's death affects those struggling with mental health. This partly relates to guidelines set by suicide prevention experts and journalists.

These recommendations strongly advise against depicting suicide in graphic detail, which 13 Reasons Why disregarded in its aim to start conversations about mental health.

You must absolutely be careful when handling deaths of this nature. Be sure to look into guidelines from experts and enlist sensitivity readers who can guide your handling of the matter.

Sometimes, less detail is better. Be sensible in writing about sensitive subjects.

Survivors In The Aftermath

Oftentimes, whatever aggravation I feel towards a beloved character dying often relates to the way it happens and how the moment is treated.

As a reader, I tend to become most irritated when a character I've formed a bond to dies and only a bare minimum of mourning follows. This comes across as sweeping things under the rug and moving on too quickly.

There are going to be times where your surviving characters won't have the opportunity to grieve in the moment. If they're caught in a battle and your protagonist's friend is slain, the group might have to prioritize defeating the enemy or finding cover before allowing themselves to mourn. If they're anything like some characters I've written over the years, they could be predisposed to tamp their emotions down and carry on with the task at hand before allowing themselves to feel things privately. Maybe your character has grown so used to it after a series of losses they don't know how to open up and be vulnerable.

Delaying one's bereavement makes reasonable sense in some scenarios. However, if the protagonist loses someone significant, be it family, a friend, a lover, or anyone else they and the reader have grown close to over the course of the story, there needs to be some acknowledgment of that. Without taking that time to pause, your reader may feel like their death is being glossed over.

Allow your characters to slow down and assess their feelings towards the death. Depending on the scenario, the surviving characters could feel guilty because they failed to prevent the death or may have had a hand in it. There might be a feeling of regret because of unfinished business and things left unsaid. Memories might come back out of nowhere, inviting another flood of emotions. Your protagonist might even feel the need to avenge their loved one's death.

This is not only applicable to loved ones. In the event the deceased was the antagonist, it's probable that your protagonist will feel something. They might feel victorious or at least relieved to have brought their reign of terror to an end, and might have to sort out feelings of being treated as a hero and celebrated upon returning home. Contrarily, they may quickly be met with consequences from the deceased's allies and other bad guys who are none too happy with the loss—which might leave your protagonist wondering if they did the right thing after all.

Everyone handles death differently. But it needs to be handled.

You don't need to write pages upon pages of eulogies for every character you send to their grave, but it's a good idea to devote a few to the aftermath.

Don't Dwell Upon The Dead

While you should let your characters mourn in the wake of a death, it's important to balance this with progressing the story.

Slowing down the pace for reflection is worthwhile, but you shouldn't come to a complete standstill because, perhaps putting too bluntly, life goes on. While losing a loved one can make you feel like the world is coming to a screeching halt, the truth is that things continue to happen around you, and the same is true for your characters.

I've read stories where a character is grieving a loss and that consumes the narration. Every other conflict and relationship falls to the wayside. Nothing happens. And that's not as much fun to read.

Death is a theme commonly woven into fiction, and it's one I make use of time and time again because it is so universal. Characters sorting through their emotions and gradually healing after such a loss rank highly on my list of favorites to read and write about because it can be comforting and inspiring to witness their journey.

The keyword here is journey.

Keep the story moving as your surviving characters grieve the loss. Let them grow as they learn to go on.

The Grieving Process

This is a topic I'm planning to cover in a broader depth at some point, but I did want to write a bit about it here.

When writing scenes following the death of a character, you might find it helpful to explore how your characters grieve.

The five stages of grief helps to identify our emotions after a loved one has died.

No two people grieve in the exact same manner, but the general summary of the process is as follows:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

Speaking from experience, there is no set length or deadline for each phase, and it can be cyclical and occur out of order. You may also find that one character grieves differently for different people. They might stay in the depression stage for a longer time after a grandparent dies, but experience more anger at the loss of their best friend.

Incorporating the stages of grief can not only guide your story after a character death, but make it easier for readers to relate to on an emotional level because most of us have been there.

Death can be a difficult subject to talk about, and equally challenging to write about. While the decision to kill a character might come to the author instantly, a lot of work can go into crafting their final moments.

Whether you intend for the character to die with the reader looking on or allow them to perish offstage, it's a delicate process. Taking the time to give your characters a proper sendoff, though, may be the thing that makes your story stay with the reader long after.



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