I have a confession. I am a killer. Perhaps even a mass murderer. I am ok with this because I am not alone. Many of you are killers out there too. How many characters had to bite the dust to further the plot? How many well rounded characters had to take a dirt nap to further the development of another character? Which flat characters had to go six feet under just to prove how deadly the situation is? After all these years my kill count hits 200k easily.
Many stories have these sacrificial lambs and lions, nobly giving up their lives to further our tales and make them unforgettable. Who can forget when Simba found Mufasa’s body after the stampede that made our hearts somber? Or the common death tolls in series like A Song of Ice and Fire or Battle Royale that continues to paint a dreary and cruel world. Each story has their reasons for why and who dies. But how do you pick them?
I have a few tips as how to pick such a character or characters.
First one must know the type of atmosphere and tone of their story. How cruel is your world? How unforgiving are the rules in your world? Where does it side between that scale of idealism and cynicism? Another thing to keep in mind is how you plan your story. Are you a person who writes at spur of the moment and can roll with where ever the story goes or one who is very structured and plans ahead of time where the story is going? Once that is figured out the characters can then be picked for their roles.
If writing with less structure I like to pick a character that I am fond of or a character whose death would shock the writer and make the story tougher to write. This is because that if it can shock you, who have a better grasp of where the story is heading than the reader, then it should shock them. Also many characters can become convenient to a plot depending on their talents or skills. Maybe their skills can physically affect the plot or they are a mental comfort to your protagonist(s). Once that comfort is gone there is a loss and now the status quo has to change to make up for it. It can leave your readers wondering how and where the story will go without that pivotal foundation.
For those with more structure in writing I like to work backwards with the character. The character was born to die so I work from the death scene first and plot certain points of interaction with other main characters to the point of first meeting. The greater the death scene the more meaningful previous interactions should be. This can give you a better idea in how to maximize this character’s use throughout the story as you already know when their role is over.
Also one should pace the amount of characters that die depending on a story. One character death can have a great impact over ten. The quality of the kill tends to go further than the quantity. In a more light-hearted work less death is better to keep with the tone of lightheartedness. Darker tales tend to have more deaths. Neither of these are an ironclad clause. A mix of unexpected and expected of side and main characters are the best ways to kill characters in my opinion.
The choosing of a character to be killed off may not be easy depending on attachment and the need to have the character. Do not be afraid to take a chance and kill off one of great importance. It may just make another character rise to the occasion and shine brighter. Many of us are killers, but like an anti-hero, we do our killing for the greater good. And that is for the betterment of the tale.
~ Nu Tael