How to Kill Off Characters

[This post is 100% going to have spoilers because, well, character death!]

First, a confession: I can’t stop watching Teen Wolf on MTV. I know. Don’t judge me. I raced through two and a half seasons in like 2 weeks. And now I’m caught up. There are just a few episodes left in this latest season. (This is all relevant, I swear.)

Any way, so there are a few episodes left. And all the marketing MTV is doing is centered around this: “One of your heroes will die.”

As in, one of the main cast is getting killed off forever and ever to the point that they’re even going to redo the credits.

I decided (as soon as I saw the tagline for the end of the season) that if they kill off my favorite character, great. I don’t have to watch the show any more.

Which got me thinking: What’s the best way to kill off a character? How do you kill off a character without pissing off the reader so much that they just give up?

There’s the George R.R. Martin route: that’s your whole deal. No one is safe. He doesn’t coddle his readers. No, sir. Halfway through the first book, I’m sure everyone gasped as loudly as I did when Ned Stark lost his head. I think I actually threw the book down. But it was early enough that my need to know what happened to the rest of Starks outweighed my care for the character. So here we have:

Key Takeaway 1: Have lots of characters
Key Takeaway 2: Kill someone off early on so the reader knows the stakes going in

Then we have our patron saint of childhood and happiness, JK Rowling who waited four books to kill someone, and even then, it wasn’t one of our characters. It was brutal and harsh and surprising, but still, it was Cedric Diggory. We’d only known him for one book, and he seemed like a nice guy. Probably really great at finding things. But it was enough that we knew that she wasn’t above killing kids. So we weren’t totally unprepared for losing Sirius. It helped that rumors ran rampant that someone was going to die in book 5 (though I was sure it was going to be Arthur).

Key Takeaway 3: Prepare your audience with rumors
Key Takeaway 4: Kill off a minor-ish character first

Fact: Beth is the most boring March sister. She’s very sweet, and definitely a good soul, but when she dies of Tuberculosis, it’s sad, but kind of okay. And we need to see how her death affects her sisters, so it makes sense for the story.

Key Takeaway 5: Literary value of death!

Then there’s John Green with the ole’ bait & switch. We all spent THE FAULT IN OUR STARS knowing that Hazel was going to die and rip our hearts out. She got us ready for it, she made sure we were prepared. But then Augustus dies first! And he didn’t prepare us because he loved Hazel too much. And you’re too busy crying and trying to see how Hazel’s dealing with it to quit reading. The tears do give you a little bit of a break, because sometimes reading while you’re sobbing is hard to do.

Key Takeaway 6: Make your readers care about the characters so much that the living are just as important as the dead

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is a killer at nine volumes (and then some), and also a killer because Morpheus dies in the end. (I told you guys up top, spoooilers). However, Daniel Hall, a character whose arc runs through the series, ends up taking up the mantle of Dream (though not his name, Morpheus). So we still have our enigmatic title character, though he’s sort of another version of himself.

Key Takeaway 7: You can take them, but give them back to us
(See also: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes)

These are just some guidelines, future authors. What about the rest of you, what’s the best character death you’ve read?

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