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 create 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 sometimes, killing off a minor character can also be a clever way to pluck some heartstrings.
Killing off a stranger is one of the easiest ways to set up a tangled mystery. Murder guarantees some kind of plot line. In most mystery thrillers, a murder sparks the interest of the hard-boiled detective, and she sets off to find the killer and make a buck from her 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 a story, where they set off the main plot thread, and typical noir thrillers give little to no information about the deceased. Readers uncover the mystery as the protagonist does, maintaining a simple but suspenseful plot line.
The same conventions apply to killing a character to inspire a revenge arc, because the revenge arc needs adequate time to play out through the story, and the focus can fall to the relationship between your dead and living characters. How does your protagonist deal with death, justice, and vengeance, and how might that change over time?
Murder for mystery is quite easy—it’s murder for emotion where the problems arise. Killing the wrong character can fall utterly flat and ruin the emotional impact of a dramatic moment. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales as an example.
(Spoilers for the movie from this point on)
Hector Barbossa’s death was staged as the emotional culmination of the movie for our main characters and for the viewers—after fifteen years and countless hours of screen time, Barbossa is a character we’ve come to know and love; however, his death lacked emotional weight for the audience, because we’ve already seen him rise from the grave. 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 Jack 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 Pirates of the Caribbean takes place in a universe where death means nothing. It might be emotional for the other characters on screen, but nearly 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 carries greater emotional weight, because it feels like a final sentence. Unlike death, it doesn’t seem that Will can un-curse himself.
[Spoiler: He does get un-cursed in the fifth movie, because this franchise pulls in bushels of money for every dead horse they beat.]
But wait—in Lord if the Rings, Gandalf dies in much the same manner as Barbossa, and then returns from the grave as well, and we bawl every single time. How is his death any different? 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. Gandalf’s death and resurrection not only drives the fellowship forward, it serves the additional purpose of transforming the old wizard from wizened Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White, a war general and formidable opponent to the evil Saruman.
You can successfully kill off a character in a story where death is not final, if his death serves a purpose other than an emotional punch in the gut. Sure, you can argue that’s the case with Hector Barbossa, and his death scene completes his long lost daughter’s story arc, but the editing, the emotional follow-up, even the musical score, suggest the writers’ motivations were more emotionally than structurally driven. Additionally, the writers had so little screen time to develop a relationship between father and daughter that Carina Barbossa’s personal loss is not a significant as it might have been.
Which brings us to the emotionally-driven, problematic reason many writers kill off their female leads:
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 for a man to grow and develop is for a woman he loves to die. Television writers often turn women into props, so when they die their significance as characters is only expressed through how the men around them aggressively brood in their absence. This issue is especially pervasive in network television, and especially relevant to the gallivanting detective women who inspire my own writing.
Case in point: 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, also of NCIS, but I feel I’ve exhausted that subject in my earlier rant.
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 plight as a high school outcast, because we’ve all been in her situation. She’s a lovable character, and we’re 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 encapsulates 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 but the realism of an imperfect, bitter ending.
On the matter of killing your villain, I’ll say only this: Harry Potter would have been really boring if Voldemort had died in book four.