Recently, an author on FB asked the question: How do you know if you should kill a character? The answers ranged from “if they annoy the hell out of you” to the death creating a “new beginning”. Personally, all my characters, annoying or not, have a purpose for being in my story. Every. Single. One.
What you do to your characters and in what proportion is based on why you have them there in the first place. Most authors I’m guessing are part pantser, part plotter which if you’re not familiar with either or both terms, one writes as they go and the story develops en route and the other plots out what will happen when where and how, respectively. I’m also guessing you already know that.
When do you know it’s time to kill off a character? Some authors say you just “know.” I don’t. That is the one part of my writing that I plot out ahead of time. No not in great detail and yes, characters many times surprise me. In Final Deceit two brand new characters showed up uninvited and ran away with the plotline. I didn’t kill either one. (I wanted to. Oh how I wanted to…)
Killing off a character hinges on this reason: What exactly are you using that character for?
- Are they “throwaway characters” who are merely present for their corpse power (i.e. they provide or are murder victims?) If so, they can usually be killed off in the beginning; but also in the middle and at the end. They can be the first victim that kicks off the story (crime thrillers or mysteries) and sets up the plot or they can be killed in the middle to keep the plot going and ratchet up the tension and emotional engagement of the reader. But they can also be knocked off at the end. They can serve as the Deus ex Machina to surprise rescue the main characters that get themselves into a situation they cannot logically get out of and usually the way they do that is to sacrifice their own lives. This helps to raise the stakes since your reader should be on tenterhooks wondering if the bad guy really is going to win, upping the tension even more and wrenching the emotional response out of your reader to the character’s death. The emotional reaction of the reader also depends on how involved with the main character(s) and story is the character; how likeable they are, why they are where they are in the plot.
- Are they there for exposition? Are they there to explain or utilize technology? If you have a character who is a computer wizard or technical, medical, etc., genius they can do several things as well as provide you with a necessary victim. They can play an integral part of the investigation, helping or explaining information that your main character needs to get the bad guy (or girl). This wiz character can also up the tension and stakes by finding out the information at the critical moment in order to sacrifice their own life (whether intended or not) to save your main character(s). Again, depending how involved and likeable the character is.
- Do they give motive and or background/back story? If you kill the character in the beginning of the story, they can provide or set up the motive of the killer or give information that resurfaces later to identify the killer by clues or past actions of the character. They can also serve to give back story to your novel by giving history to your main characters (if the dead character knew the main character(s); emotional involvement of your main characters with the killed off character, i.e. were they a close friend? An enemy? A co-worker? A lover? There you go! Motive and back story!
- Finally, your character can act as a secondary bad guy. It’s the best reason to kill off a character in my opinion! This character does and plans and plots to do bad stuff and lots of times can be used as a false bad guy, to your reader at least if not your main characters; or preferably both! He/she can actually be bad and do bad things (lying, murder, etc.,) but they are not the big bad character so killing him/her off to save your main character can be used very effectively!
There’s still a slew of reasons to kill off or keep a character but I believe these are the main ones. If you have any of the slew, please go ahead and post them in your comments!