This post is the twentieth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
No matter what type of novel you are writing – thriller, mystery, romance – there may come a time when you need to kill off one or more of your characters. From serial killers to mysterious deaths to killing out of jealousy or survival, murder or death can add to the conflict of your story. And what better way to have your antagonist instill fear than to kill off a few people. Or it could be your protagonist doing the killing to preserve his or her life or that of a loved one.
But no matter who is doing the killing, you still must follow the rules. As with any character action, there needs to be a reason behind it. No one – not even serial killers – kill without a reason. It may not be an obvious reason such as self defense but even mass murderers have a reason for what they do. It is not “just because” or because they are “evil.”
And if they are going to kill off a character in your story, you need to make sure there is a good reason for the character to die. It could be to advance the plot, spurring your protagonist into motion. Or it could be to add realism. No one expects to read a war drama without anyone dying. But it just shouldn’t be because of “shock” value or you need something to happen.
Now killing off a character you have spent time developing can be hard. It can be equally hard for readers when a favorite character dies.
It is much easier to kill off a minor character. Many times, you and the reader are not as attached to them. I always think of a minor character as the first person killed in a horror movie. They are not usually well developed. No one has had a chance to really get to know and like this character before they die. Because readers can spot these insignificant expendable characters I don’t encourage you to add characters just for the purposes of killing them off.
Now killing off a minor character might be easy, but it is something entirely different to kill a main character. Remember, you shouldn’t kill a character just because you or someone else thinks you should. You should only kill off a character if it will advance the story. This could mean that this person’s death contributes to the development of another character or advances the plot in some way. Don’t do this on a whim. Make sure you think of the consequence losing a main character will do to your story and the remaining characters and make sure the cost is worth it.
If you are willing to kill off main characters, you can have your readers expecting the unexpected. They will know that everyone is at risk and that can add tension to your story.
So don’t be afraid to kill of a character but make sure you are doing it for the right reason – to advance your story.