Death is an inevitable part of life, and one that many writers weave into their fiction. It can be cathartic to open up about personal experiences through fiction that are otherwise difficult to talk about, and create a space where readers feel they are not alone when confronted with mortality and the brevity of life.
There's a surprising amount of death talk in the writing world, from Murdering Your Darlings being the name given to the sometimes difficult task of cutting unnecessary material from a work to the typically humorous threat of a writer putting you in their next book and killing you off if you annoy them one too many times. Yet writing about death in fiction isn't a simple matter, and it comes with a few things to keep in mind.
When deciding whether or not to sentence a character to death, here are a few things I tend to consider.
Just as a quick disclaimer, portions of this post go into topics like murder and violence that may not be suitable for all. Reader discretion is advised.
Genre is something that definitely needs to be considered when handling death in fiction. In some, character deaths are expected, but others might have readers taken aback when a character meets their end in what could be considered an inappropriate fashion.
In horror, there's a likelihood that most of your cast won't make it out alive. Many mysteries and thrillers describe the scene of a crime and examining a body. Readers pick up those stories knowing full well that violence, grit, and death are par for the course.
But not all mysteries are created equal. Cozy mysteries tend to revolve around more delicate investigations, so to speak. When there is murder involved, the crime scene is typically not as bloody and messy. Instead, these deaths tend to be cleaner methods like falling from buildings or poisons, with any wounds on the victim seldom made the focus of the case as opposed to clues like a serial killer stabbing their victims in the chest postmortem as a sort of calling card.
Violent and gruesome deaths would feel completely out of left field in a romcom. Limiting the details of a serial killer's handiwork in a horror novel might leave readers feeling like you've glossed over it.
Understanding the conventions of your genre is important for a number of reasons, including being able to anticipate what your reader expects and what they might deem inappropriate.
Age Of The Reader
As it seems to be the established mode of this blog, the next point on the list to consider is the age of your ideal reader. While your genre may help you decide whether or not and how to include character deaths in your fiction, it's also important to think about your audience.
When addressing death, the way we talk to adults about it differs greatly from when we discuss it with children.
For adults, there tends to be a directness about the matter, perhaps with details pertaining to the death depending on the situation. While you might hear someone say a loved one died or was killed, there are also some synonyms like passing away. You might hear "lost their battle" or "succumbed to" or "didn't make it" if it were a medical death. On the other hand, I've heard someone bit the dust, stroked out, or kicked the bucket, but I typically find these to be a bit crude and inappropriate in most scenarios.
With children, conversations tend to be different and can vary depending on the circumstances. Older children may be told the person died, using the same language as adults, but younger children may not be at a point where they understand death and therefore are informed using softer terms. A common way of explaining the situation, though many advise avoiding it, is telling the child that the deceased "went to sleep." You might also hear that the person who died "went to Heaven" or "is in a better place."
Knowing the typical age of your intended audience can help you determine how to include death in your fiction. If you're writing a children's book about a grandparent's death and learning about the grieving process, going into the specifics of the death's cause may not be appropriate. Alternatively, a book aimed at adults in which a character is said to have gone to Heaven after being struck by a drunk driver might feel off.
You cannot predict the sensitivities of every individual reader, but it is important to consider the age range of your intended audience and use it as a guide for handling character deaths.
Age Of The Character
The age of the character you're killing might also impact the way you choose to handle their deaths.
I listen to podcasts about serial killers more frequently than one might expect of me, and those stories can get pretty nasty. Even though there is a disclaimer at the start of every episode, there have been a few descriptions that have had me caught off guard, having me wince and leaving my stomach churning.
The deaths of children are the ones that do this to me the most. No matter the method taken, the thought of someone violently attacking a child is disturbing to say the least.
Child deaths require tact when handling them in fiction. As such, depicting the death of a child on the page is something you may want to approach differently. This is not to say you shouldn't include the death of a child if it impacts the plot, but know the process is different from killing an adult character.
What Is The Aim?
Despite the craft's freedom, writers need to be deliberate when it's time for a character to meet their demise.
When a character is on the chopping block, ask yourself why. Why are you killing off this character? What purpose does it serve?
Many novels have plots revolving around the necessity to bring down the antagonist, which can mean result in death. Here, this can bring a sense of closure for the plot and begin to wrap up loose ends, perhaps as new problems arise for the protagonist as they face the consequences of killing the enemy or that a new threat looms on the horizon that is worse than the one they've just faced.
There are times where the death of a protagonist's loved one raises the stakes, propels them into action, or serves as a bitter reminder of the antagonist's reach and power. But just as often, a character's demise may negatively impact your story and the reader's experience with it.
Killing off a character for shock value alone may not have the reception you desire, as many readers will know it was your intention. This is especially true when a character's death has no build-up and limited impact on the protagonist going forwards.
Instead, sacrifice characters whose demise would have the most impact, and do so at a point when it would most likely inspire the emotions you want to achieve.
Like all scenes, a character's death needs to have a purpose.
And one potential purpose of character death?
Dead Weight Walking
Some stories feature large casts of characters ranging in importance. You have characters like the protagonist and antagonist at the forefront, supporting characters like a mentor figure or the main character's best friend who supplies healthy amounts of comic relief and a shoulder to cry on, and then some characters the writer wants to keep around even though their role is very limited.
With this last group, once these characters have served their purpose, they're either just there or off doing their own thing. Think of this bunch like the cast in Until Dawn that aren't Sam or Mike. Characters like Chris, Ashley, and Emily have specific points in the game at which they can die. If the player successfully navigates these segments and keeps these characters alive, you don't get to play as them again. In subsequent cut scenes, they may utter a line or two but don't contribute much more until the final sequence of the game in which the player needs to get the survivors out of the cabin one by one or risk killing everyone who remains.
Basically speaking, they're dead weight.
Writers are known for creating characters they grow attached to, but when it comes down to making significant cuts come the editing phases, the axe tends to swing in the direction of this dead weight.
Getting rid of a character who doesn't bring much to the table is often one of the first major change to occur in the editing process. However, rather than removing them quietly and removing their presence as if they were never there, some writers will let them stick around long enough to be killed off later on. This does whittle down the cast size, but it's not always the best approach.
If the character's death doesn't service the plot or motivate the surviving characters in any capacity, reassess their overall contribution to the work and whether or not they need to be part of it at all.
When deciding which of your characters to do away with, think about whose death would be the most impactful on the protagonist moving forwards.
Introducing a new character at a seemingly random point only for them to meet their demise soon after doesn't give readers a chance to form an attachment to them—and it likely doesn't give your protagonist much opportunity to do so, either.
When a character becomes a candidate for death, think about the aftermath. How does the protagonist grieve, if at all? How does it push them forwards or give them pause?
Having a sense of what life looks like after theirs ends can give you direction when it comes to the story, and help you determine if that character is the right one to sacrifice.
Don't let them die for nothing.
Killing off characters might be fun for some writers and a punch in the gut for others, and your feelings towards the process can vary depending on the character. Regardless, it's not always as simple as a stroke of the pen. As with many things in writing, there are layers and calculations behind the scenes that influence who ultimately meets their doom.
Once you've sentenced a character to death, there's the matter of how.
And that's what we'll be covering next week.