Which characters do you kill, when do you kill them, and why?
There are two primary reasons writers kill a character:
- To create a mystery (what we deal with on this website, for the most part)
- To make an emotional impact (whether negative or positive)
Some writers will kill minor characters as a way to expel them from the plot, but good writers know that even offing a minor character is a clever way to pluck the some heartstrings.
Killing off a random character is one of the easiest ways to create a tangled mystery. Murder guarantees some kind of plot line. In most noir stories, a murder sparks the interest of the hard-boiled detective, and she sets off to find the killer and make a buck from his latest client, which she will likely spend on hard liquor and a new fedora.
This type of death is most effective at the beginning of the story, and typical noir thrillers give little to no information about the deceased. Readers uncover the mystery as the protagonist does, keeping the simple but suspenseful plot line intact.
The same conventions go for killing a character to create a revenge arc, that way the revenge arc has adequate time to play out throughout the story, and the focus can fall to the relationship between your dead and living characters, and how your protagonist deals with death, justice, and vengeance and how those perceptions may change over time.
Murder for mystery is quite easy—it’s murder for emotion where the problems arise. Killing the wrong character can completely fall flat and ruin the emotional impact of a dramatic moment. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Spoilers for the aforementioned movie from this point on) as an example. Barbossa’s death was supposed to be set as an incredibly dramatic moment, the emotional culmination of the movie for other characters and of all five movies for the viewers—this is a character we’ve come to known and love after fifteen years and countless hours of screen time. But the impact of his death completely fell flat, because we’ve seen him die and come back at least once already. The first time we meet him in Curse of the Black Pearl, he’s the living dead. Then he comes back to life for ten seconds before Sparrow kills him. We all think he’s dead in the climax of movie one, but then—surprise! He’s risen from the grave, courtesy of Tia Dalma in movie two.
His death isn’t emotional, because it doesn’t feel final. It might be emotional for the other characters on screen, but pretty much everyone in Pirates of the Caribbean has died and come back at some point, so we don’t feel like his death is the end of the character. Will Turner’s fate in At World’s End has much more impact, because it feels like a final sentence. Unlike death, it doesn’t seem that Will can un-curse himself.
Spoiler: he does, in movie five, because this franchise pulls in gobs of money with every storyline they pretend to cease and ultimately pick back up.
But wait—Gandalf dies in much the same manner as Barbossa, and then returns from the grave as well, and I bawl every single time. Because watching Gandalf die has a heavy finality to it. When Gandalf dies, he dies. He may come back in The Two Towers, but it’s not the second or third time he’s pulled this stunt.
Killing a character with a history of rising from the dead doesn’t tug at readers’ heartstrings. Killing a character in a story where death is not final defeats the purpose of killing your character. You lose the emotional punch. The only time it works in such a setting is when it’s entire purpose is to signify the character’s growth and development. And sure, you can argue that’s the case with Hector Barbossa, and his death scene succeeds in that respect, but the editing, the emotional follow-up, even the musical score, suggest the writers’ motivations were more emotionally than structurally driven.
The other problem when killing a character for emotional impact is more relevant to the gallavanting detective women who inspire my own writing.
Killing for man-pain is when writers kill a significant female character solely to jump start the male characters’ story arc, in a way that suggests the only way men can ever grow and develop is when someone kills the women they’re in love with or with whom they have a close association. Television writers often turn women into props, so when they die their significance as characters is only expressed through how the men around aggressively brood in their absence.
Case example: In lieu of a million better ways to facilitate Tony Dinozzo’s exit from NCIS, the writers chose to kill off Ziva David, an already absent character, just to emotionally jump-start Dinozzo. Because she’d exited the show two seasons earlier, her significance to the story after her death was only ever expressed in her relationship to Dinozzo and how she made HIM feel, instead of her value as a character in herself.
I could also point to Jenny Shepard, but I feel I might have exhausted the subject in my earlier rant. I presume they were going for the Boromir effect, but they failed horrendously and if nothing else let her die being the kick-ass spy she is.
Instead, I would like to point out some well-written, well handled character deaths in television mysteries. If it wasn’t already obvious, spoilers for everything from here on out:
Barb’s death in Stranger Things facilitates Nancy Byers’ character development but also happens late enough into the story that viewers have grown fond of her as a character outside her relationship to Nancy and Steve. We all relate to her, because we’ve all been in her situation. She’s a lovable character, and we’re all hurt to see her die.
Paul Spector’s death in season 3 of The Fall gives everyone a bleak, painful combination of anger and horrid satisfaction, and it perfectly captures the mood of the entire show. The Fall is a great example of timing the villain’s demise perfectly, in order to give the satisfaction of a concrete ending and also a sense of discomfort at death itself.
I’ll say only this on the matter of killing your villain: Harry Potter would have been really boring if Voldemort had died in book 4.