Sometimes Book Characters Need to Die (But when?)

My recent book, A Blessed Darkness, has prompted a few people to ask what made me decide to write it the way I did. I don’t want to spoil it (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about), but there are a couple deaths that took people by surprise.

And this isn’t the first time. (Annabelle, I’m looking at you.)

Basically, I don’t deal in plot armor.

So, how do I decide if a character should live or die?

It’s not an easy thing to kill off a character, especially a main character. (Yes, I’ve killed a main character or two, but I won’t say which book or if it’s even published yet. No spoilers here.)

At any rate, character deaths should be done properly and only when necessary. These fictional people deserve that much.

So, here’s my criteria for whether or not a character (main or side) should die:

Is it necessary for the story?

If the story demands a death, write it. If the MC has a friend or family member that’s keeping them from going on a magical destined quest, if the death of a loved one sends your MC on a quest for revenge, if the MC has to sacrifice their own life to save their family or the entire realm and there’s no way around it, then write the death.

If the story falls apart without that death, write it.

Is it what would actually happen?

Please, don’t just drop an anvil on your protagonist while they’re walking along in an open field. Your book likely isn’t a coyote/roadrunner cartoon.

Plausible deaths only please.

For example: Someone succumbing to illness while a plague ravages the land or being killed in a dragon attack during the return of dragons to the land or dying by the blade of their power-hungry younger sibling for the sake of the throne. These make sense and would/could actually happen.

Is it what those characters would actually do?

Character integrity/continuity is of the utmost importance. This one, I honor above all else. I want my characters realistic, so if they kill or die, it has to line up with what they would do in that given situation (or what their killer would do).

A heartless character hellbent on murdering your MC isn’t likely to walk away from a perfect setup. They’re going to come at your MC with all they have. Either figure out how to make that perfect setup slightly imperfect so your MC has a chance… or write the death scene.

If a character would actually kill someone else, if a disease would actually ravage their mother or son, if a character has shown the courage and devotion necessary to step in front of a bullet for another person, write it.

What kind of impact/meaning does that character’s death have?

For some stories, the symbolism needs to come forward. Sometimes, that demands a martyr.

Unfortunate for the character, but sometimes necessary.

Is it simply for shock value?

If you kill a character for no reason but to shock readers… Just don’t. Please, don’t do this. Obviously, it’s your book, you’re free to do what you want, but if it doesn’t make sense, if it’s random and doesn’t line up with anything else in the book and you’re just doing it to be edgy, please don’t.

Your characters (and your readers) deserve better than that.

When not to kill a character:

If it’s not necessary and doesn’t make sense for the characters, story, meaning, and/or realism, don’t kill the character.

Something else to consider: Some genres expect a happily ever after (and thus, demand plot armor), so killing main characters likely isn’t a good idea.

Romance, for instance, demands a HEA or at least a HFN. Dead MCs means you better market that as romantic fiction or tragic romance. If you market it as straight-up romance then kill off your MC rather than giving the ending that’s expected in that genre, hardcore romance fans will probably be very upset.

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