How to kill off a character - or how not to end your book with Harry Potter dead and Voldemort living with Hermione while keeping Ron as a gimp in the basement
May 1, 2013
As anyone who has read or watched Game Of Thrones knows, you can make a huge success out of slaughtering your main characters.
George RR Martin lops favourites away each and every book –and most of his fans love him for it.
Reportedly, he did receive a massive backlash over the so-called Red Wedding, where several members of the Stark family were brutally slaughtered.
Still, for every fan who didn’t like it, I’d say another three or four do.
But it was a different story when Veronica Roth, author of the wildly popular Divergent series, killed off her heroine Tris. The backlash from the fans was immediate and massive, forcing her to publish a lengthy justification on her blog.
So, for anyone planning to kill off their main character, the message is clear – it can be more dangerous than you think.
And to do so at the end can ruin a series.
Devoted fans are throwing away their copies of the Divergent series and there has even been questions asked about the film adaptations. Will it hurt ticket sales? Will the studio force changes to the third movie’s ending?
In terms of an unpopular ending, the best comparison I can come up with would be for JK Rowling to instead have had Harry Potter die, then Voldemort set up house with Hermione, while keeping Ron as a gimp in the basement.
Now, there are good reasons to kill off a character.
Sometimes their death is necessary to unlock the next stage of a plot, or perhaps their death will have a dramatic effect on one or more of the other characters, triggering a change which is vital to their development.
Sometimes you get to a certain point and realise a character cannot logically survive a situation. Or perhaps they have simply outlived their usefulness. I’ve come across this before in my writing, where you imagined a character would stick around to the end, only to find they don’t have any more for you. (conversely, I often find minor characters suddenly jump up and demand more time).
Killing a character can also have a profound effect on the reading experience. If the reader knows that you are prepared to kill characters, then it follows that a life-or-death scene will have a much greater impact.
For instance, book five of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series let slip that a main character would die. Rowling then made sure almost every main character was facing death in the last few chapters – and it was nail-biting stuff.
These are all good reasons.
But to kill your character off for no good reason (that your readers can see) is a very dangerous thing.
Yes, you are writing for yourself. But, if you are serious, you are also writing for an audience. And I think you do have to keep them in mind, or you might find them dissecting you on social media.
As anyone who has read The Dragon Sword Histories or Empire Of Bones series knows, some of my characters die. And sometimes quite unpleasantly. But never, I hope, gratuitously.
So my advice is simple. Kill your characters off by all means. But make their deaths mean something.