When to Kill a Character

Do you remember the first character death that affected you? Mine was Cecilia’s and Robbie’s deaths in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I could only dream of writing deaths that can affect a reader so deeply – that was over 6 years ago and I still feel the breath stop in my throat. The strategic and calculated nature of the killings and the protagonist’s (and reader’s!) attachment to the characters made their deaths advance the story and provide motive for the protagonist. Now, if the deaths didn’t serve any purpose, well.. they wouldn’t be effective. Let’s look at a short list of reasons to commit murder (that don’t come with a life sentence):

Good Reasons to Kill a Character

  • Plot advancement: Is there a character that’s stagnating the plot?
  • Fulfill the doomed character’s personal goal: Characters other than the protagonist have an arc too!
  • To Motivate other characters: Do you have a character whose death would challenge the protagonist’s journey?
  • To recompense for the character’s actions up to this point: For the karmically inclined writers.
  • To emphasize the theme: Maybe everyone dies. Maybe it’s a distinction of your genre. Who knows.
  • To create realism within the story world: Everything too happy? Sprinkle a little death into your story.

Bad Reasons to Kill a Character

  • For shock’s sake: We don’t want our books to be predictable but killing off random characters to prevent predictability can lead to a lot of loose ends.
  • For sadness’ sake: You can want to make the reader step away from your book wishing there was more but your story has to be compelling enough without the death. Use the above suggestions if you’re really set on it.
  • For death’s sake: You’ve always wanted to write a death so you’ll just kill a character. Each death should do something for the story.

A Possibly Bad Reason to Kill a Character

  • To remove an extraneous character: If they’re extraneous, should they be in the story anyway? Re-evaluate the character’s purpose before wasting your good killing ideas on characters whose deaths won’t ever matter.

Which character deaths have shook you to your very core?


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