Killing Off a Character

I’ve just started work on a new project — new series, new world, new everything.  I’m actually very excited about it.  Yesterday I finished the first chapter of the first book.  I mentioned this to my wife last night and then added in passing, “Yeah, the first chapter is done and I haven’t killed off any characters yet.”  To which she replied, “Wow!  Have you ever done that before?”

I started to assure her that of course I had done this before, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I probably have never written the first chapter of a first book in a new series and NOT killed off at least one character.  And in fact, if you take into account all of my completed novels (including the one that’s due out in January, the one that I just submitted, and another that hasn’t been contracted yet) I’ve killed off a character in the first chapter of more than half of them, accounting for some six or seven books.  Actually I have something of a reputation for this among my readers.  They joke with me about it, telling me that they rarely get too attached to anyone they meet in the early sections of my books because they know that there’s a good chance that the nice person in chapter one won’t be around long enough to see chapter four or five.

What does this say about me?  As a writer, I mean.  I’m sure it says lots about me from a psychological standpoint but I really don’t want to go there.  Why am I so ruthless with my characters early on?  Is there a point to it, or is it just a quirk of my writing?

Well, I can tell you that as far as I’m concerned there is a point to it.  Several, in fact.  First off, I like to start my books with action, with something that will grab my reader by the collar and drag him or her into the story.  And let’s face it:  there’s nothing like a good murder to kick off a plot.  But there’s more to it than that.  One of the things that sometimes bothers me as a reader is meeting a character who (whom?  I always get this wrong….) I know from the start is untouchable.  Oh, this character might get beaten up and will surely find him or herself in one tough spot after another.  But I can just tell that this person will survive every predicament and prevail in the end.

I don’t want my readers to feel that way about any character.  Of course in my own mind there are characters who I won’t kill off.  But I don’t want my readers to know that.  And one way I maintain that sense of danger, the feeling that no one is safe, is by introducing a character early on who seems central to the plot, who appears to be one of those untouchable characters.  I get inside this person’s head.  I give my readers reason to care about this person, I allow them to get comfortable with this person’s point of view.  And then, just as my readers are growing attached to this person, I kill the character off.

I know.  It’s terribly cruel.  I’ve angered readers by doing this.  I’ve gotten emails from people who can’t believe that I would kill off so-and-so.  They rail at me.  Some tell me that they cried.  But not one of them has ever said that they stopped reading the book.  And in fact they usually tell me that they loved the book in spite of the loss.  I believe they loved the book, at least in part, because of the loss.

I’m writing all of this because there are times when I’m reading the work of a beginning writer and I find that the plot isn’t moving anywhere.  It’s clogged in a sense.  And without wanting to seem too heartless, I will suggest to this person that one way of unclogging the narrative might be to kill off a key character.  Many object, at least at first.  But many others consider the suggestion and immediately see the possibilities a well placed murder might open up. 

Let me put it this way:  If there are characters in your story who you can’t even conceive of killing off, then chances are your reader can’t conceive of you killing them off either.  And that means that when you place them in danger, the threats to them don’t carry as much weight as they ought to.  Think about it.  And then consider whether it might be time for you to murder a character.

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  1. 1. karen wester newton

    Well, to build suspense, of course you have to make your characters vulnerable. At the same time, you don’t want to make them “red shirts,” either, dropping like flies to make the story “gritty” or “realistic.”

    I don’t tend to like books with a high body count because they’re often books where gore is part of the setting. And yes, books where beloved characters die can be quite powerful. I agree that I don’t stop reading when a character dies if I’m already hooked by the story, but it does turn me off reading more books by an author if he/she blindsides me by killing of a main character.

    The best answer I ever heard to this question was that you should only kill off a significant character if his/her death changes the motivation of another character (often the protagonist). Actually, killing a character in chapter 1 is probably a good time to do it—set the scene and make the death a plot catalysts before we’ve had time to get too attached.

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    I agree entirely, Karen. Reading back over my post I realize that I didn’t mean to come off sounding quite so glib about all of this. I don’t kill characters for the sake of killing them, and I would never suggest that another writer do so. There has to be a good reason for every killing. It has to further the plot in a direct way, and it needs to fit in with any and all character development that precedes it. But I also think that authors should avoid the tendency to keep a character alive just because they like him or her. Sometimes we have to kill off those characters we love most, because that’s what the story needs and calls for.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    Man, have you seen Serenity? *SPOILER WARNING* Joss Whedon created major tension in the final battle by killing off one of the ensemble cast. Those of us who watched the TV show, Firefly, beforehand assumed nobody would die. They coudln’t. So when one of them did it made the whole battle really, really scary (especially when another character got slashed in the back, then another shot in the belly, then another took poison blowdarts to the neck! None of those other characters died, but I thought they would because of the first one!).

    In my own plotting, I find myself prone to kill off major characters as well, though often for different reasons. It’s usually something the whole story is building up to – a sacrifice or something similar. I’m sure as I get better, I’ll do it more often too for just the reasons you stated.

  4. 4. Bob Charters

    I suppose in my case, you can probably predict that if one of my character seems too good to be true, and/or their presence in the story to the end would probably insure the success of everything good, that character will probably die a martyrs death.

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    There are lots of reasons to kill off characters. I have a friend who does it periodically just to give her plot a kick in the rear. Other people agonize over it. As with so much of this stuff, there is no “right way” to handle it. It sounds to me, Adam, like you’ve found a way of handling characters and their deaths that works for you. Stick with it.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    That works, too, Bob! Thanks for the comment. Your books sound like fun.

  7. 7. Mark Wise

    I think you know the character who I can’t forgive you for killing off, but as you said, I read the rest of the series anyways. *grin*

    What is your opinion on the “Soap Opera” deaths? You know, those are the ones where you kill off a character only to have them return at a key moment in the story due to a confusing twist of events. Is there any way to do those right or should people just chuck it?

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Yeah, sorry about that one, Mark. But that character simply had to go.

    I’m not a big fan of “soap opera” deaths (though I LOVE the terminology — I’d never heard that one before). To me they always seem contrived. Now that’s not to say that you can’t occasionally give a head fake toward a character’s death (to mix metaphors). For instance, I see nothing wrong with ending a scene or chapter in such a way that it makes it seem a character’s death is inevitable, and then returning to that character later to discover that he/she escaped. But once you show the body, as it were, I have a hard time with bringing that person back. Am I making that distinction clear enough? There’s one series that I like very much but stopped reading because the lead character kept dying only to be brought back by a strange twist of the “rules” of the universe in which the books were set. It just got annoying after a while — it seemed like there were no consequences for this character, no real risks to the person’s life. For me, that’s not fun or compelling.

    One of the reasons I apologized in an earlier comment in this thread for the glib tone of my post, is that killing off a character is something I do with purpose. I never do it lightly. And I think the “soap opera” phenomenon cheapens the death of a character, which I don’t think should ever happen.

  9. 9. cedunkley

    I realized that I do indeed kill off someone in the first chapter of my current WIP. This death wasn’t there in the original writing of this opening scene but something that I felt I needed to add after I had written a bit of the first draft.

    The death is there for a purpose and something that comes out of it becomes central to one of the main sub plots. There has been one thing bothering me about it though and that it who gets killed. The person is meaningless in the greater scheme of things.

    So, it just hit me that I need to change who gets killed and make that person important to my POV character who witnesses this.

    And I also realized that I needed to make one of my more important characters an actual POV character. I took a look and discovered that none of my POV characters are set to die in my WIP and by adding this character, whose death is really the turning point in the lives of all my POV characters, as a POV character I think it will add to the book – and let the reader know not to think that just because a character is a POV character they are somehow “safe”.

    So, thanks for this post. It has helped me identify a couple of things that have been nagging my about my WIP, which naturally leads to solutions to them.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Glad you found the post helpful! Sometimes we as writers need to shake things up, to move our characters (and thus ourselves) out of the comfort zone. Hope the changes work out well for you.

  11. 11. Jana Oliver

    I agonize over killing characters. I cry when I do. Now I’m pretty thick skinned in real life, but when I off a character, I lose it. The current book required one particular character to die. I did not want to kill her. I liked her a lot and she was a love interest for someone who so desperately needed someone in their life. But I had to kill her. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. I wept. No doubt the readers will as well.

    Instead of killing off a character, I prefer to put them through H*ll, killing some aspect of their personality, their beliefs, a principle they revere. Then I examine how that “death” affects them, how they feel as a person, their future decisions. I often find that more fulfilling than upping the body count. It just depends on the story.

  12. 12. Rhett Hudson

    In almost every case, I like this philosophy of character management. In fact, its one of the things that I like about certain authors. George R. R. Martin is another author who is ruthless with his characters. But, I did reach a point in his books where he could have lost me. There is a point, in the third book I think, where a chapter ends and it appears that he may have killed off my favorite character. I had to flip forward in the book to make sure it wasn’t so. I swear I would have stopped reading right there if that character was dead. Now the body count in the rest of the series is high. Including characters that I cared about deeply. That’s part of what makes that series great. But, for me at least, I did find that there was that line. If he’d crossed it, he would have lost me.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Absolutely, Rhett. That’s the risk that we writers take when we kill off characters, and even with my efforts to make every character at least SEEM threatened, I’m aware that with each book I enter into a compact of a sort with my readers. They’ll let me get away with doing certain things to my characters and killing off some who are beloved. But on some level we all know that there are some characters who just. Can. Not. Be. Killed. Cross that line, and we’ve got a problem.

  14. 14. Cygnus

    While I’m ok with the process of eliminating one(or more!) characters in order to give a plot the metaphorical kick in the rear, one thing taht really pisses me off and turns me off of a series or book is when they do it periodically, jsut to draw attention for the “Drama” factor.

    Several TV shows i’ve not liked have done this…”Whoops, ratings are dropping again! Who do we kill now? *rubs hands together in glee…*”. Yeah, i HATE it when that happens. I guess that old saying, too much of anything can kill you applies here as much as anywhere else. Just make sure you dont overdo it with your killing.

  15. 15. Patrick L Hines

    I’m sorry but I have invented characters in my book that I am writing just to kill them off, it enables me to add humour, also for other characters to grow. To be honest I like killing off characters. I do maintain one should keep a main character alive to grab imaginations and emotions though.

  16. 16. Allyson

    I usually kill off characters when it either ties in to the story’s theme, or when it alters the protagonist’s agenda so much, I couldn’t undo it. I don’t mind suspense-building deaths, but I have trouble putting much heart into them. I like my death scenes either sad and poignant, or frightening and gripping, but I can’t accomplish either that way.

    I used to cry when I killed a character, but my writer friends made fun of me for it. Recently I noticed that the deaths I cried over were MUCH better written, so I think I’m going back to crying. I don’t weigh a character death as heavily as any real life tragedy, but I realized that when I let myself cry, I lavished a lot more love on the story than if I didn’t, in which case there was no emotion.

  17. 17. Adalberto

    Excellent way of telling, and good paragraph to take facts on the topic of my presentation subject, which i am going to convey in college.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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