Killed off – Character death in fiction

I was writing a scene last night that I wanted to take place somewhere near the end of the book.  The main character was facing a situation that was suicidal.  In hadn’t started out that way.  In my loose outline, the threat was there, but it wasn’t amped up to the point of certain death.  I wrote myself into a box.  In order to stop some greater disaster from occurring, he would have to die.

I had a couple things I could do… I could tone down the event.  Back it up to where it was in the outline.  I didn’t want to do things because this lessened the tension.  Or I could find somebody else to die for the main character.  (I recognize that I also could have had the main character die, but that’s not a possibility in the story).

There was another character who I actually had written a skeleton of a death scene for already back when I first wrote the story.  I had actually designed this character to die.  The scene was past outline, but not yet fleshed out with detail.  It was everything I cinematically wanted:  Heroic last stand against an impossible army.  He boldly turns to face the threat and stands firm against it, winning the much needed time for the hero and company to escape.

There was a big problem with this scene.  As I wrote the character and wanted to build him into somebody likeable so that my readers will really feel his loss, he evolved into somebody pretty incompetent, but hard working.  I realized quickly that there was a huge gap between the enjoyable character I had written, and the character that appeared in this skeletal (no pun intended) death scene.

So I decided to try writing the scene I began this post with using the character already slated for death.  The scene became that much more heart-felt because the reader doesn’t know if the character is capable of fulfilling the task that is needed while the hero takes care of something else that this supporting character would never be capable of handling.

It makes the scene that much more poignant, and I feel like my readers have to wonder whether or not he’s going to be successful in this, given how many other things he hasn’t been able to do.  Victory.

This situation got me thinking about death scenes in general.  I think of my favorite moments where a character died in a story (don’t want to reveal them here so as not to spoil any stories) and I have bittersweet memories.  For most, I wouldn’t have wanted them to die… But for just about all, I wouldn’t have changed it.

Sometimes, it just happens.  You write things as you see them developing or unfolding in your mind’s eye, things escalate, and your story demands an offering.  These are unintentional, and can sometimes be anti-climactic, but I think they can deliver a very poignant moment.

The intentional kills are interesting to me.  Why makes us go into a story deciding in advance that a character is going to die?

I can think of a few reasons

  • You need a plot device. Killing somebody close to a POV character can spur your protagonist into action regardless of whether or not it is happening at the beginning, middle, or end of your story.
  • You need to indicate the situation is serious. Deaths create risk for the main character.  By killing others, especially characters that the reader assume are protected, you have made it very plain that the situation just got real.
  • You need to get rid of the character. Maybe the character has the “win” button to a scene later and there’s no reason the character would withhold it.  So… Let’s get rid of the character.
  • You just want to have a touching moment. Sometimes no action is required.  You just want to create a sense of loss.  This may end up causing a #1, but it may just be something the other characters hold onto.

These of course are focused on protagonists and supporting characters.  There are plenty of reasons to kill a villain or monster that could just amount to “so the good guys win.”

Have you ever killed a character in something you’ve written?  Was it intentional, or did it just happen?

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