How to Kill a Character Without Enraging Readers

From Writers in the Storm:

The death of a popular character has caused more than one angry fan to send email to the author and unfavorable reviews to chat groups and review sites. So, when you absolutely must cause a character’s demise, how do you do that without enraging your readers?

When and how you choose to kill off a character can make or break a story. It’s quite difficult for authors. The characters are very real. Permanently dispatching them is a bit like purposefully ridding oneself of an ally.

Characters should be killed off when the purpose of their demise will be the most impactful. Death may occur near the story’s end such as in John Steinbeck’s Of  Mice and Men, once we really feel for the victim. Or, like in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where deaths frequently happen with no warning, establishing the theme that the characters are never safe.

1. Make the Death Meaningful

Nothing aggravates a reader more than characters who die for no good reason. If you’ve built solid, relatable characters, then they deserve to die for a purpose.

For a death scene to be truly meaningful the other characters need to be invested in the outcome as well as the reader.

  • Show how the death affects your characters
  • Explore the repercussions of the death
  • Look at the emotional impact on the characters

Hodor, one of the kindest characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, sacrifices himself by holding a door shut with his body to block the attack of a horde of wights, allowing the family he served time to escape. He is torn apart, while he repeats his own name until it’s revealed that Hodor is really saying “hold the door,” a phrase that became the only thing he could say.

2. Foreshadow the Character’s Death

When done right, foreshadowing is a great way to create emotional tension for the reader. It can set up expectations of the characters’ behaviors and outcomes.

Here are some common examples of elements used as foreshadowing:

  • Dialogue, like “I have a bad feeling about this”
  • Active weather, such as storm clouds, wind, driving rain, clearing skies
  • Omens, like a broken mirror or prophecies
  • Symbols, such as blood, weapons, certain colors, types of birds, and physical/emotional symbolism like the pain of Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series
  • Settings, like a graveyard, battlefield, river, isolated path
  • Characters’ reactions, such as secrecy, fear, apprehension, curiosity
  • Time and/or season, such as midnight, dawn, twilight, fall, winter

If you end the life of an important character suddenly, readers are probably not going to react well. They anticipated spending quality time with this character. Ripping that character from them at the last-minute means sacrificing foreshadowing. And may get your book tossed across the room.

In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the reader knows early on that Owen is going to die. The narrator, who is retelling past events, tells us. Owen’s dreams provide clues to the manner of his death. When tragedy strikes, we are ready for it.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

6 thoughts on “How to Kill a Character Without Enraging Readers”

  1. In one book, I had to kill a teenage wizard who was not wholly responsible for her actions, but who was horribly dangerous, had killed dozens, and was all but unstoppable, like putting down a rabid animal. And the woman (primary character) who had to kill her was an older version of the same creation process who had managed to avoid being dangerous that way, partly as a matter of luck.

    I’m reasonably satisfied with how I handled it, but I’ve been hearing ever since from my husband how I heartlessly killed “Robin” instead of making her salvageable as a sidekick. 🙂

    • Internal logic rules.
      Besides, story events have to matter. No danger, no tension.
      Pauline’s perils have to eventually catch up to her or at least hit close enough to matter. Killing a faceless spearcarrier might serve a purpose but killing an established character with an ongoing arc matters more.

  2. Game of Thrones.

    They were falling dead all over each other. Sales indicate lots of people kept on buying the books and watching HBO. Just whack ’em.

  3. For Option 1 there’s what I call “The Guy With the Ice”-factor. One summer when I was a kid, my parents watched Predator 2 with my dad’s cousin — let’s call her Gigi. The adults were in the living room, and my brother and I played a game with Gigi’s girls in the kitchen. From what I overheard, the Predator had rules by which it operated, and apparently ice was its kryptonite.

    Every so often I heard my mother say, “He [Danny Glover’s character] had better keep up with that friend with the ice.” If I remember what I overheard correctly, the Friend With the Ice is killed (sorry to spoil). Which made my mother concerned Glover’s character might not make it without this mysterious ice man. That was when I learned that to make a minor character’s death more meaningful, give the minor character something important to do. This way, when the character dies, the audience will fear for how the protagonist will survive without the minor character’s “ice-wielding” skills.

    I’m binging the re-mastered Babylon 5 right now, and I notice a particular character was playing the part of TGWTI right up until said character is taken out in season 3. I’m only in season 4 so no spoilers! In an interview JMS explained the value of setting up a character as TGWTI before killing them off, and from where I sit it’s an effective way to do the OP’s Rule 1.

    • No spoilers, but “IVANOVA RULEZ!” 😉

      (“No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There’s always boom.”)

      B5 is good but for *my* tastes, I wish he’d done less foreshadowing.

      • Ivanova is definitely a favorite! She’s a cool character, and what I would have thought was meant by “Strong Female Character” back in the day: she’s a strong character who happens to be female.

        As for the foreshadowing — when the remastered edition came out, I stumbled on the the viewing order lists. I like the Character Arc Viewing Order suggestion for Season 1. For the other seasons, they had a link to the Lurker’s Guide, where they posted the CompuServe chats JMS did with fans for each episode. He was always having to address fans who needed to be spoon-fed information, or who failed to notice either the foreshadowing, or details characters outright said. It made him a little testy, I think, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was thinking of them when setting up plot points.

        Your reaction does suggest it might be a good idea to not completely give precedence to fans. One has to be more judicious, and it might have served him to have someone around who could point out that “actually, you did set up this plot point well enough; you don’t have to telegraph so blatantly.” I try to go by the “dentist rule”: if 1 out 4 readers are confused, it’s possibly just that reader. If 3 out of 4 readers are confused, take another look.

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