I love all my original characters. They’re like my family, and I know them better than anyone else. I know all their biggest fears and dreams. For that same reason, it feels like a betrayal when I’m planning on murdering one of them.
However, I have thought it over, and there’s no other escape. The character needs to die.
As easy as it sounds, there’s too much to consider.
Have you ever wondered how to kill a character in a story?
In this article, I’ll summarize six tips you need to know when you’ve reached the point of no return. How do you kill a character in a book?
How to Kill Off a Character
1. Decide Your Character’s Death Early On
When I write, I tend to decide right from the start which characters will die and how.
Maybe you want to kill the main character, the hero’s sidekick, a villain, or a secondary character. Whoever you plan to kill, keep in mind all deaths are different.
Killing a secondary character might not be as traumatic as killing a main character. However, killing a main character could leave plot points unresolved, and that’s not ideal either.
Whatever the choice, killing off a character will trigger a chain reaction of emotions in the other characters and the audience, be it disappointment or triumph.
Making up your mind from the start that a character will die is crucial!
2. Give Foreshadowing
It’s always a good idea to leave readers guessing what will happen next!
Foreshadowing is leaving clues to the reader to tell them something will happen. You can leave subtle hints with dialogue, symbolism, or visions.
The best way to use foreshadowing is by doing it early on in the story.
Sometimes, I’ve experienced that a movie or book drops hints at the beginning, and by the time the actions occur, I’ve almost forgotten there were hints. That’s the best type of foreshadowing.
Give enough space between the hints and the actual event. You will surprise your readers!
3. Death Should Have a Purpose
Make a list of reasons why you want to kill the character. Maybe death moves the plot forward or teaches the characters a lesson. Sometimes, you may want to kill a character if they have already achieved their mission. Those are good reasons for killing a character.
If you’re killing your character just because you want to get rid of them, then ask yourself if that character should be there in the first place.
Another poor reason to kill a character is to make your readers feel sad or to add drama. There are multiple ways to achieve this in your story that don’t necessarily include killing a character!
4. Establish How Your Character Will Die
Once, while I was doing research, I found a character death ideas list of more than a hundred ways to kill a character. I found it funny because some included “being crushed by a stack of library books” and “alien abduction.”
Being original in a story is essential, but don’t be afraid of using common ways to die, like dying in battle or by already diagnosed disease. Those make more sense than being crushed by a heavy object suddenly and for no reason.
Still, there are ways more dramatic than others, like sacrificing for the team or being killed off by the villain.
Establishing early on how your character dies will help you decide the tone of the scene and describe the aftermath.
5. Decide the Tone of the Scene
Ask yourself how you want your readers to feel and how you will let them know the character has died.
Knowing someone else died by a letter or another character telling the news is way more abrupt than describing the scene in vivid detail.
Not all characters benefit from the same death scene, and you need to put on your readers’ shoes to know which would be better.
I’ve read lots of death scenes. I guarantee you, the ones that left me bawling my eyes out were the ones where I couldn’t even register what had happened. In the end, it’s up to you!
6. Describe the Aftermath
In a story, all characters should have a purpose. If you kill a character, as secondary as they might be, it needs to bring a reaction from the other characters.
It’s a helpful way to show more of your character’s personality. If the death was of a loved one, which characters would react with rage and sadness? Which ones will try to act like they’re okay? Which one is more likely to have a breakdown later on?
If the dead character is essential to the plot, keep in mind that there will be a void that needs to be replaced.
7. Consider Giving Your Character a Second Chance
“My characters who come back from death are the worse for wear; in some ways, they’re not even the same characters anymore.” — George R. R. Martin.
If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, the death of a character might not mean the end.
Depending on the genre you’re writing in, there are different ways to make your character come back. In fantasy, they could reincarnate, turn into a ghost, or into a mythological creature.
In science fiction, a classic one is when someone goes back in time to prevent their death.
George Martin is famous for making his characters come back to life. Yet, they don’t always come back completely. Because if that were the case, what’s the point of making them die in the first place?
Keep in mind your reader may feel betrayed if this happens. You made them mourn the death of a character, and they just come back! It’s not fair.
Wondering how to properly kill off a character can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
Next time you think about killing one of your characters, keep the tips on this article near you. Remember to decide which character will die, establish how they will die, and describe the aftermath.
After writing the scene, take a walk and go for ice cream. You deserve it!