Today’s topic doesn’t apply to you nonfiction writers, so just keep on working your outline and meeting your word count goals. You’re doing great!
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Let’s talk about character death.
When properly done, the death of a character causes deep emotional impact to readers. It leaves them shaken and contemplative about the meaning of that character’s life, the nature of mortality, and other big-concept ideas.
Done poorly, character deaths leave them going “meh.”
If you do kill off a character (or characters) in your book, here are a few tips to help you make the most of it:
1. Nobody cares when non-developed characters die.
If the bad guy kill some minor characters who just showed up a few pages ago, readers will not care. They don’t know these characters, so they have no reason to feel invested in their lives. You can use high body counts to develop the characters of the people doing the killing or reacting to the brutality. Just don’t expect readers to weep over the body of “saleswoman #3.”
2. The more useful a character is, the more upsetting their death scene.
When a character dies, and the reader has bonded with them, and the character is the only one in the group with a particularly useful skill, it’s just heartbreaking. The reader literally doesn’t know how the rest of the team is going to move on without the dead character. This is part of why Aerith’s death in the video game Final Fantasy VII was so traumatizing for players. She was likeable and we emotionally invested in her, but she was also the only one on the team who had really useful healing powers. How were we supposed to keep going without our white mage? Naturally we kept playing to find out.
3. If a character is resurrected, all future character deaths immediately lose impact.
Death causes distress because it’s permanent. If your universe includes rules that allow people to come back from the dead, most of that distress vanishes. After all, why weep for the dead when you know they’re just going to come back a few chapters later?
One way to avoid this is to establish clear rules about how resurrection works. Maybe it can only be done once. Maybe it only works under very specific circumstances. Maybe the character comes back slightly changed, so something was still lost. Make the rules clear, and then obey them. If you change the rules even once, readers will assume you’ll do it again, and no character deaths will have any meaning anymore.
4. The SECOND character death is often the most meaningful.
So you’ve gone eighty percent of the book (or eighty percent of a multi-book series) and haven’t killed any characters yet. Then…boom. One of the protagonists dies, and you built up the moment so well that it has the maximum possible impact. Your readers grip the pages harder, re-read the sentence, and whisper “no…” in quiet horror.
Once that shock settles in, they continue to read, still mourning the loss of that character. However, they also feel a subconscious belief that the worst is now over. After all, a character flat-out died! Years of TV, film, and novels have conditioned us to believe that in most genres, only one main character dies in any given storyline.
Which is why, when a SECOND main character drops dead in a chapter or two, it can have even more impact than the first death. The first death is shocking, yes, but readers and viewers are familiar with that kind of tragic death scene. It will spur the remaining heroes to vengeance, change their outlook on life, or otherwise provide a significant plot element that drives the story forward.
The second death is pointless. It adds nothing to the plot that wasn’t already contributed by the first death. It happens simply because people die sometimes. It drives home the reality of mortality (that’s a good band name) and the unpredictable nature of life. And that is both terrifying and powerful.
5. Implied deaths lose their impact over time.
The first time you imply that a character is dead, your readers will probably feel sad about it. When the character comes back, they’ll feel pleased.
Now you can never do this again in your story.
The second time someone is believed to be dead without making it extremely clear that they’re gone, the reader will think, “Well, that other character was supposed to be dead, but wasn’t. I think the same thing is happening now.” Then when the second character returns from implied doom, the reader feels nothing. They simply shrug and say, “Called it.”
Basically, don’t abuse implied deaths. And honestly, this trope is so common that you may want to avoid it altogether.
6. If you’re writing in a genre where people usually die, the “how” is more important than the “who.”
The exception to number three above (the power of second deaths) is when you’re writing in a genre where readers expect most of the cast to perish over the course of the book. The first death makes them think, “It begins!” Every death after that only leads to questions of who’s next. Even if you kill the entire cast, you probably won’t achieve the same emotional impact of deaths in a genre where they aren’t part of the scheduled programming.
This means that the nature of the deaths—how suspenseful they are, whether they’re foreshadowed or come as a surprise, whether the characters go down fighting or running, etc.—is where you get your real impact. Vary these to keep the reader on their toes; don’t settle into writing the same death scene for every character. With talent and hard work, you can make a character death just as meaningful through the “how” as you can through the “who.”
7. When no character is safe, the reader will read the book differently.
We talked a little bit about how a second character death can have more impact than the first one, but the number of character deaths (and when they happen) plays a big part in their emotional impact. One character death is a surprise. Two is a shock. Three and four are saddening and horrifying. You can keep going with this until your entire cast is dead.
At some point along that spectrum, between two bodies and all-out massacre, the reader realizes, “Any character can die at any time for any reason.” This has an awesome effect if the reader has bonded with the characters before that realization. He or she reads the rest of the book with baited breath, hoping their favorite protagonists make it out alive. This creates suspense and a sense of deep personal investment.
However, characters who show up right before this realization, or at any time after it, usually don’t receive the same kind of love. The reader knows that any given character might not survive the book, so they hesitate to emotionally invest in someone who might be gone by the next chapter. As a writer, you have to work way harder to get readers to care about characters if you introduce them after you’ve made it clear that no one is safe. It’s still possible; it’s just something to keep in mind when deciding the order of events in your book.
8. Nobody believes that the main character can die.
If your book centers around one major protagonist, no one will believe they’re dead unless you make it very clear that you’re at the end of the book/series. This is simply practical; if your book follows Bob Smith and he “dies” on page 100 out of 350, he’s obviously going to come back so that something can happen in those remaining 250 pages. The same thing happens if your book is part of a series. The protagonist has to survive so that the series can continue. This is especially true if you write in first person.
There’s not really anything you can do about this. It’s just a fact to keep in mind when writing: Implied death of the main character will almost never work. Your readers are just too smart to believe it.
As with any written element, your death scenes need to be well-written and well-structured in order to have a real impact on the reader. The dying characters need to be well-developed and well-liked, and generally everything should be “well.” Writing a good death scene isn’t as simple as just following these tips, but they should help you avoid some of the major cliches and get the most impact out of your characters’ deaths.
What character death in a book, movie, or TV show impacted you the most? Share it in a comment, and remember to tag spoilers for any recent or currently running series! (My most traumatizing character death experience was Wash in the movie Serenity.)
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis