How to Kill Characters without Enraging Readers

August 13, 2018

“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.

24 Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy

    Bam. You said it. 😀 I’ve been looking forward to this article for forever and it did not disappoint. *thumbs up*

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Wow… glad I met the expectations. Didn’t realize I was on the clock. #gotluckythistime

  2. Jenna Terese

    I really learned from this post. I’ve seen a lot of articles like ‘how to successfully kill a character’ but I really liked this one because of the tips on how to kill a character WITHOUT frustrating the reader. Thanks Brandon! 😀

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Sure thing, I was hoping to fill a void I’d noticed!

  3. Sarah

    Thank you Brandon for the insight into how to write a good death/kill scene. I wrote a story in which on of my main characters died and so when I just read your post I tried to see if my character’s death did what it should. I think that it did, but we’ll see when it gets published. (hope my story death will be moving and won’t cause riots) 🙂

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Cool, I hope this helped a lot. Good luck in the publishing world.

  4. Sandrina

    This is awesome! I have been checking every day to see when this would come on! So should a character never come back to life?

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Oh my, every day? I’m honored. I hope it didn’t disappoint.
      As for can you never bring some one back to life? Well I mean… you can………

      The problem with bringing a character to life is two-fold. First off, you will lose your reader’s trust. They won’t believe anything that goes bad is actually bad after someone comes back to life. That can be avoided if you put a heavy price on the resurrection. For example, I recently read a book where a girl’s seriously friend-zoned friend was dying and asked her to marry him. She said yes in the moment, knowing that he was going to be gone in a minute. In the end he survived (magic and stuff, yo) and that was a heavy price for the character.
      The other issue though is that your reader will say goodbye to a character when they die, and reestablishing contact will be difficult for them. I don’t know of a good solution for that, but it will help to shorten the time between “death” and bringing the character back.

    • Sandrina

      It didn’t disappoint! And yes what you said makes sense. I remember when I was ten I read a series (spy dog or something!) where the bad guy kept coming back to life which was sooooo frustrating! (The guy survived falling out of an airplane without a parachute for crying out loud!) I never like it when the villains keep dying and coming back to life. As for what you said about the characters, that makes a lot of sense! Thanks!

    • Parker Hankins

      WHAT?!??! Sandrina, you appear EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Sandrina

      Oh! Hey Parker! Yep so do you. I’ll be getting back to you, real soon!!! Don’t tell me you’re planning on killing one of your characters!

  5. Kendra Lynne

    YES, I love this post. Often character deaths just feel like artificial story-filler, as if the author could find nothing better to do at that point in the story except kill off a character. When a character death is unexpected, meaningful, AND plot-continuing, I’d say the author has captured perfection. Such as in Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls with the death of Billy’s dogs. Its heart wrenching and leaves me sobbing every time I read it, but it doesn’t feel meaningless. It doesn’t leave me angry at the author.

    Poor Fili… I always feel so heartless when I’m unable to mourn his death fully. But it does impact me how Thorin’s line is being destroyed by one of his worst enemies.

    I never knew that about The Return of the Jedi… wow. That movie would have been completely ruined for me if Han Solo (and everyone else) had been killed.

    Anyway, great post! Well said.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Hi Kendra, I’m totally with you in regards to Where The Red Fern Grows. Man! That book just gets you. You’re touched by the dogs love for Billy and their sacrifice and deaths just gets you in the heart.

    • Kendra Lynne

      YES! Exactly. It really does.

  6. Rachel Rogers

    “In most modern media, being a main character is a free ticket through the story.”
    …and then there’s the BBC… Guard your family! Hide your pets! *ominous announcer voice* No one is safe…

    As for the new romance thing…YES, it is *so* unrealistic when a character’s love-of-my-life dies and then suddenly they’ve found true love again and everything is peachy. I don’t know that they have to become a loner, although some characters certainly would, but there should at least be a huge amount of conflict that results if a new potential love interest comes on the scene. Bad timing, bittersweet memories, still being in love with the person they lost, etc. make for great plot tools.

    Reply
  7. Warden

    Great article!

    Reply
  8. Parker Hankins

    Thanks for this post!! I’ve thought of murdering a character but I’ve been apprehensive because I didn’t want to enrage readers. Now I know how!!!!

    Reply
    • Elixa Parr

      XD!
      Good for you, Hankins! Lol!
      I get ya.
      XD!

    • Onika

      Yeah, I know where you’re coming from. Many a brooding morning I have spent contemplating the demise of an unsuspecting character, but for the same reason I’d settle for a chapter of utter misery for them.

  9. Onika

    Excellently put! It always takes me by surprise when main characters actually die in stories. In most movies/books I watch/read (coughMarvelcough), I don’t sweat over the fate of the main characters, because I KNOW that they’ll all be alive and kicking in the end. Another irritating rut is killing off the sidekick because somebody has to die at a certain point in the story, and you don’t want any of the main characters to die. So hey, let’s just kill off a sidekick, because they’re not important or interesting anyway.
    It always enrages me every time the dead love interest gets replaced basically the next day. It completely disregards the emotional investment in the dead love interest, and also creates a grudge against the newcomer.
    Thank you for this article! It is filled with brilliant information!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      YES. ESPECIALLY the Easily Replaced Love Interest (@BBCRobinHood)
      that is the worst

  10. Emma Caton

    This article was SO amazing! It gave me a lot of great insight. I would like some advice, though…
    I’m writing a story, and I’m telling my sister about my story as I write. She really doesn’t like one thing, though. So, there’s this one character, I’m calling him Dude for now (I’m having trouble coming up with a name for him 😛 ), and he’s the first person from the “fantasy world” that my protagonist meets. He’s a so-so character, and he’s not so important to the story, other than being salty and adding tension/humor to things and explaining a lot about how the “fantasy world” works. I feel really bad about this, though, because… I’m planning to kill him. Yes, yes, I read the part of this article about Fili, but I don’t know who else to kill off! I was thinking of killing off someone else, but it makes much more sense for that character to become an antagonist, so… I’m stuck. Should I go with NOT killing anyone for now? Should I kill a more important character? Should I not kill anyone now and try to develop an attachment between reader and Dude and kill him THEN? So many questions! I hope you can help me.

    Reply
  11. Mary C.

    Wow! This told me more than how to write a death and not lose readers! It also told me not to give my MC another love interest, which I was contemplating. Full story is, her lover dies and sI was trying to decide whether to give her another interest, although her first one was perfect for her, or not, because her lover was the ONE for her. Now I know what to do. : ) Thanks, Brandon!!

    Reply
  12. Joelle Stone

    W.O.W. So helpful! Very well done, Mr. Miller! I have been struggling with deciding how many characters should die and when without going with “Kill them all! *maniacal laughter*” or “NO!! THEY CAN’T DIE!! *hysterical sobs*” Trying to find an easy middle isn’t that easy. XD But this will certainly help! Definitely getting bookmarked. 😉

    Reply

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