On Major Character Deaths

Photo credit: kev-shine on Flickr
So as I work on various projects, watch Game of Thrones, and read books that I suspect will have major character deaths (and finish a book that did have an important character death that destroyed me), I've been thinking lately about how we kill characters off—and what it means when we do.

Now, I've already posted about how to kill characters with impact, so I'm not going to reiterate that again. But instead I'm thinking about the why—why we choose to kill characters, how we choose what characters to kill, and what it means when we pick one character over the other. I've been thinking about how certain marginalized groups are frequently killed off first on TV, and I've been thinking about all the factors that go into deciding why one character should be killed off over another or why certain characters need to die at all.

I've thinking about controversial decisions in which major characters have been killed (like the protagonist of one major YA series not all that long ago). And I've been thinking about why some readers freak out and trash one book if a protagonist or major character dies, but not another book with another major character death. What makes one character death better than the other? What makes one death acceptable and one not so much?

There are a lot of factors to think about when killing off characters, especially if said characters come from marginalized groups with high fictionalized body counts. You need to think about what it means for this particular character to die. You need to think about why it's essential for that character, and not another, to be killed off. You need to think about what it'll mean to the readers that this character survives, but this other one doesn't.

I personally don't have a problem with major characters, even protagonists, dying (aside from, you know, the emotional trauma)—it's just a sign to me that no character is safe in that particular author's works, which if anything just makes future reading of their books more terrifying...in a good way. But I think the key to pulling off major character deaths is to make sure you have a good reason for it besides bottling reader tears for science. It has to mean something for the overall plot and the story itself—it has to be so integral to the story that anything else couldn't work as effectively.

Of course, it can be really tough to figure out what's essential and what isn't in your own work sometimes, which is yet another reason why critique partners are 100% necessary in the writing process. And even then you may get conflicting opinions—writing is super subjective!—so you'll have to listen to your gut. But I think the thing to remember, when considering a major character death (or several), is to make sure there's a reason for it so it doesn't read as an arbitrary attempt at shocking readers and to be sure that you pull it off in a way that is thoughtful and meaningful.

Easier said than done, of course. But when done well, and done with purpose, it can be an incredibly effective way to make sure your story leaves a mark.

What do you think about major character deaths?

Twitter-sized bite: 
Author @Ava_Jae talks killing major characters with purpose & making sure the death fits the story. (Click to tweet)

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