“I have no plans to die today,” said every main character ever. In most modern media, being a main character is a free ticket through the story. Convenient for characters, but boring for readers. That’s what I talked about last month: killing characters and convincing readers that disaster could happen at any moment in your novel.
However, killing characters can be risky. Readers are (hopefully) emotionally invested in your story. Readers often view characters as their fictional “friends.” If your characters are strong, readers will love them, which makes a death heart wrenching. But if the technique is abused or mishandled, readers will turn against you. After all, why should they like the person who murdered their beloved friends? Our difficult task is to redirect readers’ anger toward the villain.
You want people to keep reading after their friend dies instead of slamming your book down and leaving a scathing review on Goodreads. The story’s outcome needs to matter to them. But how do you trigger this response?
1. Don’t Eliminate the Only Cool Character
A few months ago I tried to enjoy Ted Dekker’s A.D. 30 series. I like some of Dekker’s other novels, so my low opinion of this series was nothing personal. I pushed through the first book to get to the climax of the second, because I wanted to experience the first Passion Week. I thought the prose of a talented novelist might bring it home differently than the Gospels. Instead, the story bored me, I felt preached at more than ever before, and I couldn’t wait to abandon the cast of flat characters. Only good old Judah held my attention. He was strong, witty, and damaged but not broken. In a cast of forgettable faces, I was always excited when he appeared.
About a hundred pages into the second book, Judah died.
Normally I’m impressed when a character is killed. It means the author isn’t messing around. But, when Judah died, I sat back and thought, Why am I even reading this now? I didn’t care about anyone else in the story. When Dekker killed Judah, he severed my last emotional connection to the story.
You need to avoid alienating readers. Whenever you plan to kill a beloved main character, you must have other interesting characters in place who will lure your audience forward.
2. Give the Death a Purpose
Fun fact (that most of you have probably heard): the original ending to Return of the Jedi involved the Millennium Falcon blowing up with the Death Star 2.0 and the upstart crew dying. Technically, that would have been a character death much like those I’ve been advocating, but it would have ruined the film. The characters would have died without a reason. Boom. That’s over.
A character’s death must have significance. If Han and the Falcon’s crew had flown into the Death Star knowing they weren’t coming out again, the alternate ending wouldn’t have seemed pointless. Noble sacrifices are meaningful, and even though they hurt, they aren’t abrasive. They don’t feel empty.
Foreshadowing is another method to give a death worth. Gandalf repeatedly warned the Fellowship about the dangers of Moria. The skeletons, the orc arrows, and even the darkness and the rattling of the well indicated that evil was lurking. Good foreshadowing subtly sets up a cost in readers’ minds: to escape Moria, the characters must risk their lives. Once that’s established, the Bridge of Khazad-Dum doesn’t seem pointless. The cost has to be paid or the story is cheap, and when someone pays it, readers are moved, not put off.
3. Respect the Dead
Let’s discuss the number one way to tick readers off. Kill their favorite characters, then demonstrate no respect for the dead. Authors and screenwriters frequently rub character deaths in readers’ faces and it infuriates me. I’ll touch on three common mistakes so you understand how to prevent them.
Kindling a New Flame
The main character is consumed by his love for a girl who is the center of his life. Then she dies. Next day, he finds a new attractive female who becomes the love of his life.
What? I don’t get it. This trope is so rampant and so unrealistic.
(For anyone who is wondering, this is why I set down Dekker’s A.D. 33 about two hundred pages in.)
Your character gets one love interest. If he/she dies, your character becomes a loner. If it’s absolutely necessary that your character get romantically entangled again, then promptly kill the first love interest and put as much time between her and her successor as possible.
But mostly, just don’t do this.
Forgetting the Dead
Anybody remember that little dwarf named Fili? Peter Jackson didn’t. Fili died, but he wasn’t part of a grand scheme or awkward love triangle, so readers had no reason to mourn.
I didn’t even like Fili that much, but I felt bad for him. Allies and side characters often die, but then the plot moves past them and they’re forgotten.
Do the characters who died for your story a favor: don’t act as if they never existed.
Awakening the Dead
Have you ever had a friend who was leaving town for a long time? You said a tearful goodbye at his farewell party, then again at church, when you helped him pack, and at the airport parking garage, lobby, and gate. It gets old and awkward. Bringing characters back to life has a similar effect on readers. It not only causes readers to distrust you (nobody’s really going to die because this is MARVEL) but also distances them from the resurrected character. When a character dies, readers say goodbye. If the character returns, readers’ feelings toward him will have changed.
Resurrected characters are shells of their former selves. Safeguard your story and your characters: let the dead rest in peace.
Tying Everything Together
Now that you know how to avoid aggravating readers, your characters should be shaking in their boots. I’ll wrap this up with a quick reminder: a character death will be one of the most poignant scenes in your book. You need to pack as much meaning into it as you can. Tie in your theme, a major plot twist, character development, or a promise of more craziness to come. When you kill a character, you’ll grip readers’ full attention. Use that to draw them in, not rile them and send them back to the library.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong co-author, Megan.