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3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Kill Your Characters

February 4, 2021

Your protagonist has reached the last scene of Act 1. He’s on the brink of a big decision, and you imagine readers holding their breath, desperately hoping he’ll choose wisely. Alas, he has a Character Arc™ he must follow, so he makes a terrible mistake. But the consequences can’t land on his own head or the aftermath won’t be gut-wrenching enough. So his foolishness jeopardizes someone he cares about, and Act 2 opens with a burial.

 

Killing a side character isn’t bad storytelling. But some writers (particularly those in the fantasy genre) tend to rely on death to catalyze character growth, which makes it predictable. Even worse, it trivializes the loss of a human being. As Christian authors, our stories ought to preserve and emphasize the value of life, and we can’t do that if we’re crucifying characters purely to keep the plot moving.

 

1. Character Growth Is a Goal, Not an Altar

Death should never be just a plot point for the protagonist. If you need to torment him, knocking off a character who’s close to him may be the obvious tactic, but it isn’t your only one. The story must call for death, or it will be gratuitous.

 

Death is so effective at facilitating growth because it’s one of the deepest sorrows a person can experience. And that reveals an important distinction: pain is the trigger for growth, not death. The latter seems like a reliable option because it’s reliably sad. But you can break your protagonist through a myriad of situations besides harm to a loved one.

 

For example, the central plot of Finding Nemo doesn’t involve death, but it tackles loss, separation, and danger. All these sources of pain work in tandem as Nemo leaves fear behind and develops confidence. Without revolving around character death, the movie tells a compelling, entertaining story.

 

2. Character Growth Requires Foils, Not Ghosts

Many stories that feature unnecessary deaths end up “resurrecting” the deceased character at a later point. That’s usually because she’s a foil for the protagonist and hasn’t completely fulfilled her role. Readers may not notice (or mind) that the author has manipulated the barrier between life and death, because they’re fond of the character and enjoy seeing her reappear. But even if their response is positive, it doesn’t prevent the death from being cheapened.

 

Your typical Disney movie injects a dead character back into the narrative through dreams, spirit encounters, or flashbacks. The Good Dinosaur, Brother Bear, and The Lion King all contain instances of this. Once again, death isn’t problematic as long as it’s warranted. But if it isn’t, you’re forced to artificially raise characters from the grave. Visions and ghosts don’t belong in every story.

 

3. Character Growth Results from Pain, Not Death

In real life, death is the ultimate sacrifice. It’s irreversible—and such a foreign and unnerving event that we feel small and powerless in the face of it. When we translate it into storytelling, we naturally conclude that it’s the bedrock of tragedy. Nothing else can compare. While that’s true in many respects, death has two drawbacks that can weaken its impact in fiction.

 

A Character’s Death Fills a Limited Number of Pages

The thrust of a story—the unraveling thread that readers pull on—doesn’t end when a supporting character’s heart stops beating. No matter how artfully you incorporate the death, the story is meant to continue, which turns even the most shocking causality into temporary anguish.

 

But if you’ve ever wrestled with grief, or spoken to anyone who has, you realize that it’s continual. We weren’t designed for death, and it scars us permanently. Although you can counteract the brevity of a death scene by showing the protagonist’s healing process, that also has constraints, as I’ll discuss next.

 

Grief Slows the Story Down

Don’t misunderstand. When a character dies, you must give the rest of the cast a chance to react. A pause is appropriate. I’m reminded of the moment in the Lord of the Rings film when Gandalf falls into the mines of Moria: the next few shots are in slow motion, lending extra weight to the horror of the incident.

 

Depending on the needs and pacing of your story, the characters may or may not grieve immediately. But they definitely won’t have the space to grieve fully. Every time you rehash their misery, it becomes less and less evocative and more and more cumbersome. In your efforts to honor the characters and accurately portray their grief, you risk harping on it until you’ve worn readers out. Looking at you, Mockingjay.

 

Now that I’ve explained how death potentially compromises the quality and direction of a story, you’re probably wondering: What’s the alternative? How can you propel a character arc forward if you need pain for fuel? The answer isn’t as complicated as you might expect.

 

Non-Lethal Tragedies That Transform Characters

Maybe an accident incapacitates one of the protagonist’s limbs. Maybe he goes blind. Maybe psychological trauma plagues him. Any hardship that he deals with every day (especially if it’s his fault) will have a strong influence on his arc. You can integrate it organically and haunt him with the past, minus the actual ghosts. As you describe his thoughts and actions, his disastrous history will automatically linger in readers’ minds, because the evidence that surrounds him serves as a silent reminder.

 

Over and over again, the anime Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood demonstrates the poignancy of non-lethal tragedies. Sometimes funerals do occur, and that’s okay. But far more often, other types of physical and emotional trials shape the characters and drive them forward. Because the past is connected to the present, the writers never need to resort to artifice.

 

Death Is Not Your Greatest Weapon

If we believe that death is the best torture device at our disposal, we’ll overuse it. We assume it will heighten the stakes and drag our protagonists into the darkest of valleys, where the soil is fertile for growth. But if that’s the extent of our focus, we’re missing out on a much more potent strategy to achieve the same goal.

 

Don’t get me wrong. This article isn’t a rant against character deaths—many of which happen to be my favorite story scenes. Though death is an arrow we ought to keep in our quiver, it isn’t our only weapon, nor is it always our sharpest one. The less frequently we wield it, the more meaningful it will be.

 

Remember, if you want to put your characters through the crucible, destroy something they can never recover. And then make them live in that reality. That’s when diamonds begin to form.

6 Comments

  1. Melissa J. Troutman

    Great article, thank you!

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Michael Gnizak

    Excellent. Death is so over uses and almost glorified with writers, and it’s so final. It’s like an easy way out of the struggle too.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      I’m glad you appreciated this, Michael!

  3. Joshua Scheele

    Fantastic Article! It has given me a lot to think about for my story. It is a bit difficult to not have good people die in a world where everyone must fight to survive in a war-torn land. I have been struggling if that would be realistic if they all make it through. They will be victorious in the end but every victory has its cost and sacrifices. I honestly hate death scenes but respect them to the fullest if they show the quality of the character as to why they do and die for sake of others. Those scenes of selfless sacrifice have always stuck with me since I first read John 15:13 “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I hope to make this a constant theme with all my good characters who seek to live in peace, honor, and faith but are ready to die for each other’s right to live. So far only off-screen or minor/brief characters die in my story in battle or tragedy which might help provide a feeling of how broken the world is. Most importantly why it is so important to keep fighting the good fight so no more will have to die. Though I would prefer they did not die at all. lol

    I definitely have thought of compromising my characters so they will have to retire from the frontlines of the story. If something or ability is taken from someone that they dearly hold onto or that defines their life, it can often be like an internal death in their mind and soul where they have given up. In many cases looking at the misery of the character, it can seem like death would have been a more merciful thing. This definitely could be a powerful tool. The most memorable scene for me is when the character loses his whole world and is overcome by despair. However, they find victory through unconditional love and support from friends and family, they find new purpose and are reborn.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      I’m glad you enjoyed this article, Joshua! I appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts about this! It’s a complex issue, and sometimes character death is the right choice for your story. It all depends on the story you’re trying to tell, and the consequences of that death for the rest of the cast. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with. You’re right that it’s not entirely realistic for no one important to the story to die. So that may mean we have to make the choice to kill off a character.

      The most important point of this article is that we can use all sorts of pain to push our characters to experience growth. Character death isn’t always the best option for that, even though it seems to be one that we writers rely on a little too heavily at times. I love your point that having a character lose everything that made up their identity can be much like experiencing a death, and force them to rebuild themselves in a brand-new way.

      Some of the most powerful stories I have read feature character death. The Book Thief is one prominent example. The reason why I love that story so much is precisely because the death was given appropriate significance and meaning, instead of being a throwaway or statistic just to create character development in the rest of the cast.

      I wish you well in your writing journey. Keep asking the big questions and keep writing!

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