Character Deaths: The Rules

Any character who kills, threatens to kill, or plots to kill another character has guaranteed their own death by the finale of the play/book/poem. Hamlet (who plots to kill his uncle) must die, and Claudius (who has killed) must also die. Part of this is Shakespeare stating his own opinions on the immorality of killing, but it also dictates that Shakespeare will never kill a character for no reason.

Their are plenty of writers who seem to kill off characters simply for reader reactions and it often is pointless. Leaving your readers upset for no reason and disliking you a little more each time it happens.

From a publishers stand point, if it doesn’t add to the story, has no depth or reasoning and is basically just a scapegoat to developing real characters then you can bet we’re going to pass on publishing your manuscript.


Arch Pathway Photograph

Rule 1. Death Leaves an Impact

A character shouldn’t die unless it leaves a very definite impact on both the characters and the audience.

Example of Pointless Character Deaths:
Anytime you’re writing a story or series and you keep killing off the main characters only to have them continue to come back to life constantly is pointless. Don’t get us wrong, we love Supernatural as much as the next person, but at some point no one believed that Sam and Dean were dead. It no longer elicited an emotion and we all just kind of rolled our eyes and knew they’d be back.

Example of an Impactful Character Death:

We’ve all seen the beginning of the movie UP by Pixar, right? We were all ugly crying, and if you say you weren’t, we all know you’re full of it. It was beautiful, moving and heartbreaking all at once. It set the tone for the story, allowed you to understand the pain our main character has and what drives him.

Was it easy to write or even watch?
-Hell no.
Was it impactful?
-Yes. Very.


White Flowers

Rule 2. Avoid the Resurrection Cliche

This bounces off the back of our first rule a little. You can have an impactful resurrection but if you’re not careful it will get stale and if not written correctly, your readers will see it coming from a mile away.

Example of an Impactful Resurrection:

We all remember the dramatic ending of Sherlock Season 2, Reichenbach Fall, in which Sherlock fakes suicide in order to protect his friends. His death clearly leaves a strong impact on John Watson, who is still dealing with grief two years later when we enter season three.

Sherlock returns predictably, however, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (screenwriters) don’t just bring him back and say, “hey dolly dolly!” Everything isn’t instantly okay, because these men are realists. John Watson reacts with anger —he feels betrayed by Sherlock and doesn’t speak to him for months.

The death also reveals much about Sherlock’s character, as we realize how insensitive he is to other people’s feelings —how utterly cruel he has the capacity to be. It reveals his weakness and leaves an impact on the people associated with him.


Silhouette of Person Holding Glass Mason Jar

Conclusion: Take your time to really develop and plan out your character deaths in your story/book. Respect your characters enough to put meaning, depth and emotion into their scene as you place them into the ground.

Your readers will still hate you for it, but you’ll have gained their respect.


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