How to Kill Characters With Impact

"You are writing children's books. You need to be a ruthless killer." —J.K. Rowling (via this fabulous interview on BBC
Photo credit: bionicteaching on Flickr
A somewhat morbid topic, today.

Depending on the genre, it's not uncommon for writers to begin a novel knowing that not all characters will survive to see the final pages. Writing an effective character death, however, is more than just describing how they meet their unfortunate end—you have to make the readers care. But how?

Let's take a look at some examples:

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't read any of the below books (or seen their movies, for that matter), please skip over their examples, unless you'd like to see some major plot spoilers.

  • The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): Yes, I know I use this example a lot, but it was particularly fitting for this post. Needless to say, a lot of characters die over the course of The Hunger Games trilogy, and some character deaths left more impact than others. The first few unnamed tributes who die around the cornucopia at the very beginning of the hunger games have forgettable deaths—Katniss doesn't even know their names, and as horrible as it sounds, when they die the readers don't particularly care. This is the case for many of the less important tributes that Katniss isn't emotionally connected with.

    But then Rue passes away, and everything changes. Rue's death matters to Katniss, and so it matters to us. She's more than just another tribute—Katniss had taken a protective role over her, so when Rue dies, Katniss is devastated, and it certainly does not go forgotten amongst the readers.

  • The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien): Like The Hunger Games, to say that a lot of characters die throughout the course of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a bit of an understatement. In books like these with a lot of character deaths, it is especially important to make certain deaths matter. Near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf is pulled into the abyss of the cavern (and thus, supposedly dies), he leaves the fellowship deeply impacted by his absence. Gandalf was the wisest and in many ways strongest of the fellowship, so when he is lost, the fellowship loses a great deal of hope with him. His death matters.

  • Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling): There were quite a few powerful character deaths throughout the course of the Harry Potter series, but the one that affected me the most was that of Sirius Black. Sirius was by no means a perfect godfather to Harry, but he represented hope for change and a better life for Harry. For the first time, Harry had the opportunity to live away from the Dursleys, to live with a wizard who understood him, cared for him and actually valued him. Even more so—Sirius was a link to the parents that Harry never knew.

    So when he died, readers were stunned. Harry was entirely ripped apart by Sirius' death, and even J.K. Rowling admitted that she cried after writing it. Why? Because his death left great emotional impact—it mattered. 

I think the pattern here is clear—reader cared about these various character deaths because their deaths left an impact. These weren't arbitrary characters— they were important to the protagonists of their respective novels, and thus important to the readers.

The key to making your readers care about a character death is a) to choose characters who have connected with the readers and b) make those deaths mean something—not just to the plot, but to the surviving characters.

If it matters to the protagonist, chances are it's going to matter to the readers. Allow your character deaths to leave a large impact and your readers will remember it.

What do you think goes into an effective character death? Any tips for writing the end of a character?


Khai said...

I haven't even reached the "death" scene in my WiP yet as it happens much later in the book and yet I know it is so incredibly important, as you have pointed out in your great examples above.
Regarding the death scene in Harry Potter that you mention, I was actually pretty stunned at the quick and rapid deaths that occur toward the end during the Battle of Hogwarts. As a reader, I felt a bit cheated, but at the same time the chaos of the battle was expressed well (notwithstanding long infodumps from Dumbledore).
Great post, Ava.

J. A. Bennett said...

The thing that made Sirius's death so powerful to me is that I never expected it. Finally Harry had something good in his life and he was ripped from that. I read all of book six waiting for his return, and it never happened. Sad day!

Ava Jae said...

I was definitely saddened by the many deaths at the end of the last book, but on the other hand I knew it would be entirely unrealistic if all of our beloved characters survived the war against Voldemort. As far as character deaths go, I think J.K. Rowling handled them very well.

Thank you, Khai!

Ava Jae said...

I know exactly what you mean! I kept expecting Sirius to be revived. Even after it didn't happen in book six, I had the faintest hope that it might happen in book seven, but alas...

Kyle van Rensburg said...

I skipped over the Hunger Games, as I have yet to read it. :P

For me, deaths that have the most emotional impact are the one's that leave horrific scars on your characters. I came up with a death for my second draft (Which I have yet to get to. :P) that leaves rather horrible psychological scars on other people.

I hope I don't sound like a psychopath, but this topic is morbid anyways, so....XD

One thing I am interested in is the death of the Antagonist. How do you make it feel right. Not anticlimactic, but also not a fate that feels too bad for the character.

Effective antagonist deaths are hard to pull off, which is why I tip my hat to anybody that get's it right. :P

Emily Mead said...

Deaths seem to affect me when I write more than when I read...probably because I created the characters. I agree with you, and all the deaths up there mattered to me (slightly less for Gandalf, because I knew he was alive, know what I mean). And even though I think we shouldn't kill characters we love for the sake of it, it IS important to make the necessary deaths matter ;)

Ava Jae said...

Well, firstly, you don't sound like a psychopath at all--you sound like a writer. And I understand what you mean about the psychological scars--the events that affect our characters greatly are the ones that leave the most impact on our readers as well.

Interesting point about the death of the antagonist. I think you're right that they can be difficult to pull off--it certainly requires a balance so that it doesn't turn out melodramatic.

Ava Jae said...

I know what you mean about deaths affecting you while you write, and I suspect that you're right that it has partially to do with the fact that they're our characters. I suspect the other factor is that we have full control over what happens to our characters, so killing them off can be more difficult that reading about them dying.

And you're also right about not killing characters just to kill characters--good point.

Nigel Mitchell said...

This is a great topic. I love authors who aren't afraid to kill their characters, especially the most popular ones. George R Martin and Joss Whedon also come to mind. If it's used well and not as a shock gimmick, I think it also serves to add tension. Suddenly the reader no longer feels the comfort of "well, he/she can't die, he/she is a major character." Now anyone is fair game.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Nigel! I haven't read Game of Thrones, but I've heard all about GRRM's tendency to kill off characters who would traditionally be considered safe. It can definitely be an effective method for adding extra tension, because as you said, suddenly no one is safe.

Cheyenne said...

All of those deaths above were major to me. But I have to add Dumbledore... It just doesn't seem right to exclude him. I do have a question on how to make my characters death matter like you mentioned. It's kind of early in the book, only chapter five. It's still important though because it causes deep emotional scars on my main character who killed him. The victim is a 50 something male who tries to rape my main character Matthew's little sister. He walks in on it and starts beating this man up. No intention to kill him but it happens that way. This rapist was only introduced in chapter 3 and so we don't know him that well. I want readers to hate this man for what he did, not care for him or even sympathize with him. Until later in the boom at least! Do you have any tips on how to do that effectively? And make it remembered?

Ava Jae said...

Dumbledore is a big death, too, I just mentioned Sirius because I was more attached to him, but you're totally right that he was a major death.
As for your question, I think you've answered your own question. It sounds to me like the key to make your character's death important isn't to make the readers care about him, but to show the impact it has on your MC. Your readers (hopefully) care about your MC, so when the character's death affects him greatly, it will also affect our readers.
That being said, I don't think readers are going to feel badly about that particular character's death, though it doesn't sound like that's your goal. Your key will be showing the importance of the death by showing how it affects your MC.
Hope this helps! I wish you all the best with your writing!

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