Have you ever been reading a book, and a character dies, and you’re completely thrown out of the story? It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and it is the worst.
If you haven’t guessed by this point, this post is not about the old adage to trim down your novel by cutting words, characters, scenes, subplots, etc, though incidentally I’ve gotten pretty good at that. After talking about creating and developing strong characters, this post is about killing them. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series on writing characters, you can go read about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters and about character development in general.
Fair warning, I will be using lots of examples in this post, so there will be some spoilers ahead, specifically from the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, the Lunar Chronicles, The Book Thief, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books, and the Mortal Instruments. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, where possible, but you have been warned, so read on at your own peril (but honestly, if you don’t know who dies in Harry Potter by this point, you deserve to be spoiled).
So let’s start with looking at some character deaths that drove me nuts.
First, Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey. The climactic sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a huge battle, so naturally people are going to die. Lots of people are going to die. I accept that. Among my writing buddies, I am personally known for killing whole bunches of characters ruthlessly. That is not my problem with some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter. We’ve already lost Hedwig, Dobby, and Fred in this book alone. Oh, and by the way, Harry’s about to go sacrifice his own life. And then we find out, just by seeing their bodies, that Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey are dead. I get that this is the cost of war. But we don’t see them die, and then their deaths pale in comparison to the idea of Harry’s sacrifice. Personally, this combination doesn’t work for me.
To give one more example of a death that doesn’t work for me, let’s look at the end of Mockingjay, when out of nowhere, Prim is in the middle of a war zone and gets blown up. I will admit that the movie did a much better job with this and cleared up a lot of the confusion about what happened (in the movie, it may in fact be something I accept), but in the book, it was not okay. First of all, Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first book in order to save Prim, and by killing Prim, it really makes you wonder, well what was the point of all of this? Furthermore, in the books, Prim is never developed as a character—she is always just an object for Katniss to protect. We are sad when she dies because Katniss is sad, but we are not forced to mourn her in her own right. Finally, though again I think the movie clears this up nicely, there is nothing gained by Prim’s death. She doesn’t save anyone or accomplish anything by dying, and we already very clearly have seen the cost of war *takes a minute to wail “Finnick!”*. And then Katniss votes for one more Hunger Games, for Prim, which invalidates everything even more.
These are just some examples of how a character death can fail. In these cases, and I’ve found in almost all cases when I’m annoyed by a character death, it’s because either the character wasn’t sufficiently developed (Prim) or because the character’s death was not given enough attention in the book (Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey). For the record, I’d also like to say that I really don’t like it when the book ends with the main character dying, even if it’s a noble self-sacrifice. It is never okay with me.
There are plenty of examples of character deaths that work well for me, though, and I’d like to talk about why. First, look at Dumbledore. He is Harry’s mentor, so it’s kind of a given that he has to die at some point. In order for the hero to go off and kick butt, or at least to go camping for a year in search of butt to kick (I say this with love because I actually have no issues with the camping trip that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the mentor needs to get out of the way. Yet Dumbledore’s death works well because it is the culmination of a really dramatic scene. Harry and Dumbledore have stolen the Horcrux and made it back to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is sick, but Harry is confident he’ll be all right once he gets help. But then Snape, you awful person you, and oh yeah the Horcrux isn’t real. Plus, let’s not forget that there’s nothing like the drama of Dumbledore being blasted off the tallest tower. Finally, though we feel like we know enough about Dumbledore to mourn his death, there are also mysteries surrounding his death and also what he didn’t tell Harry in his life.
Next, think about one of the first deaths in The Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder’s younger stepsister Peony, who dies from the plague Cinder has discovered she is immune to. Peony isn’t Cinder’s mentor in any way, but she is the one person tying Cinder to her step-family. Though we haven’t spent much time with these characters yet, we already love Peony, not just because Cinder loves Peony but because we’ve gotten to know her ourselves. Finally, the sheer tragedy of it is just beautiful. Cinder is so, so close to saving her life, but she is just moments too late. I love it.
For similar reasons, I think all the deaths in Tamora Pierce’s books Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen work really well. We know the characters and we love the characters, their deaths push the plot and other characters forward, and with one exception, we see it all. Even the important death we don’t see on-screen is done really well, because we have to witness the other characters’ anxiety and grief while they wait for news. I also have no problem with everybody dying at the end of The Book Thief, though I know people who do, and in other World War II books with similar endings, I have been annoyed at the mass slaughter committed by the author to illustrate the tragedy of war.
I think how readers feel about character death can be so subjective. It depends on the reader and the book. Some of the situations that I described as not working for me might work for someone else, or might work better in a different book or different context. I prefer happy endings to tragic ones, or at least endings on the positive spectrum as far as endings go, but I recognize that not everyone shares this preference, and I have certainly been won over by books that don’t have happy endings. I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules on how to effectively write a character death. I’ve killed a hundred characters in one move, and I’ve also killed an important character off-screen, though I can’t objectively say if any of those deaths work. There are all kinds of reasons for and ways to kill characters, whether because the character is a mentor or someone tying the protagonist down, or because the character’s life is part of the cost of war. Honestly, when I’m going into the last book in a series, I feel this awful and wonderful trepidation knowing that in some way, for the story to be significant, someone important has to die, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to die because I love them all so much. Of course, if it’s a long series, people have probably already died, so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for someone to die in the last book. Also, I’m definitely a fan of fates worse than death, such as Simon’s choice at the end of the Mortal Instruments series.
But while I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on what makes a character death effective, I will say that for me it’s important that the character is sufficiently developed, that their death is given enough attention in the book, and that it is significant in some way to moving the plot and characters forward. I feel like it’s very similar to what I said a few days ago about developing your characters in general: people want to read about other people. Your characters lives should feel so real that your readers love them, cheer for them, and weep for them, and so should their deaths.