When is it right to kill off a character? I was listening to the latest Writing Excuses podcast and they actually had quite a lot to say on the subject. When should they die? When should you use plot armor? Who should die? When?
I think the biggest thing to take home is that death shouldn't be a given. Several of the hosts mentioned times when they read a book or watched a film and just knew that a character was going to die. You know the ones. The story spends just a few too many moments talking about how they're just a couple days from retirement. Or in one specific instance, how they want to go live in Nebraska.
Mary, one of my favorite hosts, stumbled upon what may or may not be an amazing little trick for writing the death of a character. To put it bluntly, she didn't know the character was going to die until she was writing them. She had mapped out an entire character arc, had ongoing plots tied up in the character and then -- bam! They're gone. It hits you really hard in the gut and, most importantly, it leave a lasting impact on those that survive. The character had unfinished business. Things were left unsaid, undone. That's real. Having lost both my parents, I can say there were a ton of things left unfinished. Ambitions on their ends... words and deeds on mine.
The overall sentiment, I think, is to make sure that killing your character off is the most impactful thing. Sadness is not a real consequence. The death needs to mean something to those that have to live with it. If it doesn't, well, one of the other hosts mentioned that there are lots of things worse than death.
So, what do I think? Well, obviously I'm not going to contradict the advice of a roomful of highly successful authors, but if I'm giving my two cents, I suppose it's this: Death shouldn't be a token gesture. You shouldn't kill off a character just because it seems like the right thing to do. Look at your story. Look at the full narrative, stretching before and beyond your manuscript. What will it mean to have the character die? I want to get the most I can out of my characters. I put a lot of effort into creating them and I want to see a payoff. Personally, I'm going to follow that payoff, whether it leads to them living or dying.
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