Killing your characters is one of the most difficult and heartbreaking tasks when writing a novel, and quite frankly one of the strongest rhetorical devices to fuel your story. As contentious as this may sound at first, as frequently this is utilized. In writing, killing is common practice, and you almost always legally get away with it. Think about it for a minute. How many fictional books have you read lately, where no one ever died? Most probably none. The worst thing that could happen? Your readers might hate you for killing their favorite guy or gal.
Death, particularly murder, makes up for one of the major genres of writing, the murder mystery. But also in every other genre, the passing of a beloved character adds a tragic turning point and thrilling emotions to a story. That’s why they say ‘kill your characters’ to make a compelling tale. To a certain extent, that is of course. When killing characters, you need to choose wisely! If you kill your main character, your story might just end prematurely. If you kill someone completely insignificant, their death might have no impact on the reader at all. It is best practice to sacrifice characters to whom the reader has come sufficiently attached during events, but who are not entirely crucial to the outcome of the story.
Killing With Style
Nobody wants to just read ‘he died’, when a character drops dead. In fact, if you are a little creative you don’t even have to use the words death or dying at all, to make clear what just happened. If you remember to incorporate all your senses, there will be many more wonderful words to make your readers cry. Here are a few poetic and classic examples of how to let one of your characters die, each one of them providing their very own progress to the story, beautifully implying the aftermath.
“I love you,” he said. John knew there were still so many things left unsaid, but he had to make peace. He squeezed her hand one more time, then everything went black.
“Look out,” John cried, but it was too late. Slowly Sarah’s body fell, her eyes already closed.
Suddenly a shot echoed through the cold night. Sarah froze. Her chest felt hot. A sudden warmth ran down her body, and she looked at her hands in disbelief. So much blood—but she felt no pain. As her body collapsed, she was at peace.
Always remember: Death is only the end if you forget. Of course, you shouldn’t forget about your deceased characters, and instead emphasize the aftermath of their death. How will your other characters react? How will the situation affect their emotions, their future decisions, how will it change their plans? Deaths of beloved characters provide a great opportunity to introduce a major turning point and induce emotional growth.
Furthermore, in fiction, especially fantasy or science fiction, you will have the opportunity to e.g. bring back the dead, using magic, advanced machinery or you could think about communicating with them. This is particularly helpful when you had to kill a character who you or your readers might have grown especially attached to. If you want to keep it real, think about making them appear in a dream, have the bereaved talk to them at the site of burial, and remember them through the thoughts of your other characters, read from their diary, find old letters, etc. They can still be there, even though they are not.
Things to avoid
Deaths should be meaningful. Don’t annoy your audience by just killing someone to prove a point or to just shock them, unless this is what you intend to do. Say you need to establish a villain as being so bad that he just kills for fun, then you’re probably fine.
Avoid sudden deaths, that don’t make sense. Your average Mr. Play-It-Safe won’t probably run in front of a bus unless your story’s intentionally ironic.
Avoid deaths that don’t add to character development or don’t drive your plot forward.