Thoughts on Killing Off a Character

Guest post
by Sophie Schiller

In my novel, “Spy Island”, the protagonist, a girl named Abigail, is compelled to cross the Caribbean Sea by steamer during WWI to live with her spinster aunt. On the journey, she strikes up a friendship with Ian, an Irish sailor. I incorporated those witty Irish expressions and that unmistakable Irish humor that wraps around you like a Shamrock wool blanket.

Ian’s Irish red hair burned the pages of my manuscript. His Cheshire cat grin, his twinkling eyes, his Gaelic sense of humor and manner of speaking, and his vulnerability captivated my Writing Class. And now we come to the “killing off part”. Out of a sense of duty and patriotism, Ian stalks a wanted German spy and turns up dead—a corpse lying in a pool of blood—on the boat deck.

The ladies in my Writing Group bristled at this notion. They demanded a rewrite. “But it’s crucial to the development of my story,” I argued. “If Ian doesn’t die, Abigail has no reason to hunt down German spies.” They shook their heads. “Change it!” they demanded. Again my brow wrinkled. Change it? And so, pen in hand, I kept the ominous pool of blood but removed the corpse. They were satisfied. But the question remains. When is it appropriate to kill off a character?

In Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the death of the beautiful, young Chrissie, is the inciting incident for the entire novel. Her death and the subsequent death of a schoolboy are what arouse the feelings of horror and revenge in the protagonist. Likewise, in Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay, the tenuous fate of little boy locked up in the closet gives his sister a vital purpose. She must escape and save him. Other times, the death of a character gives a novel a natural ending. Think Rainwater by Sandra Brown, Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick, or Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. In these cases, the death of one of the main characters signals either a peaceful closure or an ignoble ending.

According to Codey Amprim in Killing off Characters-Knowing When to Drop the Guillotine, there are three conditions to killing off a character:

1) Moving the plot forward. There must be a valid reason for killing off the character and not just as a convenient way of removing him from the story. Make sure a valid outcome arises from his death.

2) Are you killing the character merely for dramatic purposes? Are you trying to shock or frighten your reader like in a horror novel, or does his death enhance or improve the story?

3) Before killing off the character, consider the bond between you, the character and the audience. According to Amprim, some writers become so attached to their characters that they make sure their life is like an aspirin commercial: they’re always bundled before they go out and their insurance premiums are always paid. In certain cases, that is a form of torture to the reader because they read to vicariously experience danger through those characters. There are valid and appropriate reasons for killing off certain characters, but withholding the axe may hurt more.

In the final analysis, killing off a character finishes off that part of the story. If his death doesn’t cause an unnatural break in the narrative flow or doesn’t leave gaping holes in the plot, readers will generally forgive you. But tread carefully. In the words of one blogger, make sure his death doesn’t make them want to throw your book across the room.

Sophie Schiller grew up in the West Indies amid aging pirates and retired German spies. She was educated at American University, Washington, DC and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Spy Island is her first novel. Learn more about Sophie from her blog and her Amazon author page.

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24 thoughts on “Thoughts on Killing Off a Character”

  1. Thank you for an informative post. I killed off a primary character in my first novel, but it was mandatory to move the story forward. So many wonderful doors opened from that single action. I write fantasy and a little magic can always bring someone back need be. Your Ian sounds like a wonderful character, and I can imagine Abigail, her emotions, and maybe a little revenge? The next step— buy “Spy Island”; now I need to know.

  2. Currently in the process of killing off a primary character in the second book of my rockstar series. For me her death is the set up for the rest of the four following books as to how the emotions of her death affect the rest of my cast of characters.

  3. Good post. I had to kill off a major character from my first book in the second book in my trilogy. It was absolutely essential to the story. I had to transition the readers loyalty to the next protagonist. Just the same, I got quite a bit of flack over it from certain readers. The fact that it made them cry, however, meant I had created a character they cared about. And that is what’s most important to me. I will never bow to pressure from others when I believe it is in the best interest of the book to eliminate a character. After all, people die. That’s life, and a book has to remain believable.

  4. Excellent – I’m in the second rewrite of my forthcoming novel and one of my characters dies violently. You have made me question my decision. I’ve stuck to it, but now I know exactly why there had to be blood on the floor. Thanks – this was useful.

  5. I’ve killed a character or two, and it can be really hard, esp. if you get attached to them. In my first book, a baby died; I found my face wet after I got done writing that scene. It was incredibly emotional. But necessary to move the story forward.

      1. Thank you, Sophie! I’m indeed referring to ‘Tell A Thousand Lies.’

        Indian television is overrun with commercials from the manufacturers of skin lightening creams, called fairness creams, that promise everything from good grades to nirvana, if only you use their particular brand of product. Some of these ads are very racist.

        This appalled me enough that I wrote a tagline, then a whole novel, with this as the theme.

        The tagline in question – Fairness Cream: Finding Solutions to Life’s Vexing Problems, One Application at a Time

        1. I’ve heard of the same social phenomenon happening in the island of Jamaica. It seems that skin bleaching has reached epidemic proportions there because people are convinced that a lighter skin tone will help them achieve greater success and solve their problems. Apparently, these people are unaware that the world’s highest suicide rates are in Scandinavia! (The moral: Happiness is a state of mind independent of the fairness of one’s skin.) But thank you for bringing this social dilemma to the forefront. As one wise Jamaican lady said, “I don’t believe in bleaching because people who bleach don’t appreciate or love themselves. And if you love and appreciate yourself, you will not want to change.”

          1. Thanks for sharing that quote, Sophie. That’s the whole point – commercials and glamour mags are teaching young girls that unless you are a certain size and a certain colour, you don’t matter. 🙁

  6. I become very attached to my characters, and it really hurts when it becomes obvious that they have to die, but that’s just the way it is. I don’t plan things that way, they just happen and there’s a sense of inevitability about it. I think you have to be true to the story.

  7. I think the only problem is if people don’t care that the character died. For anything else, as you’ve said, you have to do what’s right for the story in your head. Either way, some readers will like it and some won’t. I threw My Sister’s Keeper across the room at the end, but the book continued to sell and it was even turned into a movie — with a different ending.

  8. In my book Man on the Edge, I killed off the initial and continuing protagonist on the very last page. He was likeable-but troubled-and got in the way of closing the story (600 pages)so he had to go. I made him heroic in a wasted mission.
    (Irritated my few readers).

  9. In one of my series, I found that the character I had created in the first story was destined for suicide. It was just the way her life and character worked out. I ducked responsibility and killed her off (heroically) in the prologue to the second book, thus passing the torch to the next main character.
    Not sure if it was a good idea or not. Guess I’ll have to wait for reader responses.

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