For writers, murdering beloved characters--and sometimes resurrecting them--is not only fun and cathartic, but also an invaluable writing skill. It keeps your readers on edge, establishes a very real risk to your other characters, and makes your plot intense and unpredictable. All of these very good things.
However, a lot of writers don't know how to pull this off. Either they're too heavy-handed with the murder, or don't murder enough, or they do kill a bunch of characters but then they bring them all back in the next chapter, making the whole thing moot and their readers feeling bored and cheated.
Part of the difficulty with character deaths and resurrections is that it's been used so many times by so many authors that it can be hard to convince readers that a character is actually dead--even if they really are! But that's just one piece of the puzzle.
Another issue is that authors often refuse to kill their characters when they really should, usually because they're too emotionally attached to their characters or want an unrealistically happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after, screw the fact that they started the series with a string of excellently written deaths. This is a problem I had with the otherwise very good Throne of Glass series: Sarah J. Maas had a cast of a dozen major characters in the last book, Kingdom of Ash, and she should have killed at least half of them. Instead she knocked out a handful of minor characters, the impact of those deaths lessened because of the sheer number of survivors. Basically, the "hard-won" victory felt too easy.
So don't be afraid to do kill some characters. You just have to make sure you're doing it right and avoiding the common pitfalls. There's a whole jungle of obstacles involved in both convincingly (and correctly) killing off characters, and in bringing them back. So buckle up, because today we're going to be talking about murder.
Killing Off Characters
(Spoilers for Game of Thrones, up through season seven.)
One of the biggest pitfalls in killing off characters is doing it purely for the shock value. This is wrong for a number of reasons. The first is that it's been done before. Worse, readers will recognize when a character is killed purely for shock value and stop reading, because they don't want to be emotionally manipulated like that. It draws too much attention to the hand of the writer.
And I get the temptation to do this. I've done it myself. My novella Homestead Hunts involves a cannibal society, and I killed off two major characters in the first act to help establish this. One of them had to go for story and plot purposes, but the other did not. It was purely shock value, and looking back, I'm not sure I'd kill that character--or if I did I'd do it differently.
The second reason, and the biggest problem, is that characters who are killed off purely for the shock value aren't actually characters. They're rarely well-written, because literally their only goal in the story is to die. When they're badly written, readers don't care whether they live or die, and so the shock factor the author was going for in killing them is dramatically reduced. It destroys the whole point of killing them in the first place.
Some people think George R. R. Martin kills so many characters for shock value. But that's not true at all. Each character that dies is killed for a reason. Usually it's some sort of character flaw or a fatal mistake (or a string of fatal mistakes, in the case of Robb Stark). Other times they were outmaneuvered by other characters (i.e. Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns). Major character deaths are also used as plot points. While the first skirmishes of the War of Five Kings started with Catelyn kidnapping Tyrion, the actual start of the war was the execution of Ned Stark. If he had lived, Robb would have turned the northern armies back, and while things certainly would have been salty between the Starks and the Lannisters for a while, there wouldn't have been a war.
This is another thing to consider when killing off a character, either for real or for a fake-out: how do the other characters react? Sometimes the character dying will be well-written, but the aftermath will be glossed over. If this is supposed to be a beloved character with friends and family, then we need to see those friends and family mourn. How do they deal with that person's death? Do they go on a quest for vengeance that ultimately leads to the slaughter of thousands? Completely break down? Actually process it in a healthy way and then get blind-sighted and feel betrayed when the death turns out to be a fake-out? People mourn in all sorts of ways, so you get to play around here.
But the first thing you need to consider when killing off a character is if they actually have character, even if they're only going to be around for a handful of chapters. Are the readers emotionally invested in this character's life? Do they care if they live or die? Do the other characters care if they live or die and will they actually mourn the death or shrug it off? If they don't, then you have a major problem with that character that needs to be fixed before you do anything else.
But let's say your readers do care about your character. They're invested in their cause and want to see them succeed. The second question you have to ask yourself is Why am I killing this character? If it's purely for shock value, then you need to reconsider. Readers didn't care for that trick when it was new, and it's been used to death already. Instead, consider why, in universe, this character would die. Do they have a flaw that other characters can exploit or that you're trying to explore in your writing? Is there a major plot point coming up that would turn out differently if the character were alive? Is this character's life a natural consequence of the events in your book (like a war), or the consequence of another character's wrath/ignorance/fault? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then congratulations! You have a legitimate reason to kill your character.
Now the question is how. This one is tricky, and honestly not something that can be summed up in a neat little blog post. How you kill a character varies from character to character and story to story. It's a delicate balance between dragging it out for so long that the audience rolls their eyes and mutters "Get on with it" (i.e. Han Solo), and glossing over it completely, sometimes by killing them off-screen. This is where editors and trusted beta readers come in handy. But for some honest advice? Just do what feels natural.
Resurrecting characters is even harder than actually killing them off. First you have to convince your readers that they're really, actually dead, and then you have to find a legitimate excuse to bring them back. If you've killed off multiple characters but only brought back one (either through magic or hand-wavy science or whatever), then readers are going to question why you didn't bring back any of the other characters. If your characters have a habit of faking their deaths, then you run the risk of your readers not believing you when a character actually dies.
I know Avengers: Endgame hasn't come out yet, but we all know that everyone who got dusted in Infinity War is coming back, and not just because we have previews for the next Spider-Man movie and confirmed deals for Doctor Strange and Black Panther sequels. A lot of it has to do with the genre. The only person who ever stays dead in the superhero world is Ben Parker. Everyone else either has a resurrection ability (Loki), enjoys faking their death for shits and giggles (Loki again), or has a hand-wavy serum that allows them to endure a ton of punishment that would be fatal to anyone else (Bucky). There's also cloning, time travel, magic, glowing purple plants, mutant abilities, and a plethora of other methods, each one whackier than the last.
So if we all know that Spider-Man, the Guardians, T'Challa, and everyone else will be coming back next week, why did Marvel kill them off in the first place? Well, for starters, it's an emotional gut-punch. Over the last ten years we've become emotionally attached to these characters, which the writers have no suddenly taken away. We're now extremely invested in seeing those characters come back, which is why we're all going to be throwing our money at the nearest movie theater and sitting in the dark for three hours straight. The other reason is for the arcs of the surviving characters. This is the first time the Avengers have well and truly lost. Every other time they've fought, even if they were at each other's throats two minutes ago, they've been able to pull themselves together and defeat evil at the last minute. Except this time, when it mattered the most, they failed. They're going to have to come to terms with that before going anywhere near Thanos.
But the main reason audiences tend to call the writers' bluff when it comes to fake-out deaths is more than just the established rules of the genre. The fact is, characters who die and are slotted to be resurrected tend to either a) be too important to actually die, and/or b) have incomplete story arcs. No one wants to get caught up in the trials and mysteries of a character, only to have that character die before they can finish. Readers will just get pissed. It's why everybody knew that Jon Snow was going to be resurrected in season six of Game of Thrones. He was simply too important to the story, and R+L=J was too big of a mystery to leave unsolved.
Usually, the best way to convincingly kill off--or make readers think you're going to kill off--your character is to make it look like their arc is complete, or at least that another character will be able to pick it up and continue. Then, when the character is revived/revealed to not be dead at all, you get to introduce a new arc for them.
If they really were dead and magically resurrected, what are the psychological implications? How has the experience affected their religious beliefs and that of those around them? Does it make them more compassionate and cautious, or do they go the other way and become reckless and apathetic, or even full-on evil like Pet Sematary?
If they were just playing dead and came back without warning, how does this affect their relationship with the friends and family they lied to? What are the sacrifices they made to pull off the fake death? Was it worth it?
While death and near-death experiences are very common--both in fiction and in real life--it's no small thing. You can't just gloss over it; it leaves an impact. Which means it's a new conflict for characters to grapple with, and conflict is a good writer's playground.
What are some of the best deaths/fake deaths that you've seen in SFF? Comment below!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!