Finding the balance between too much and too little death is a hard skill for authors to master because it’s easy to get attached or trigger happy.
When I read a good book, I’m sucked into that world for a long time. I think about the characters, I daydream about alternate endings, and I ponder all the themes and character arcs. If a character is killed off, I mourn their death.
The most traumatic deaths in literature will always stay with me because the author chose their victims carefully.
If your book calls for a death, then make it happen. Don’t skirt around it. If your book includes war, it requires the death on both sides. Characters who were close to your protagonist will most likely die. People die in real war, so people should die in your war. People struggle, suffer, and get injured. An easy battle is anticlimactic. This doesn’t mean that it needs to be gory. For violence, as with sex, less is more.
Sometimes your book doesn’t include any war at all, but it needs a death.
These are some questions that you need to ask yourself when deciding whether or not to kill a character. For this example, let’s say you’re deciding Mark’s fate.
Is Mark’s death realistic?
Was Mark in a dangerous situation or is his death a freak accident? Have you included foreshadowing? Were his actions leading up to his death consistent with his character?
Will Mark’s death affect the reader?
This is where knowing your audience comes in handy. Imagine your reader’s reaction. What would she think? Would she cry because of Mark’s death? Would she hop, skip, and rejoice? Shout and throw the book at the wall? Unless Mark’s death evokes some kind of emotion from the reader, reconsider Mark’s death, or even his involvement in the book.
Does Mark’s death advance the story?
Who cares about Mark’s death? What do they do about it?
Does Mark’s death affect your protagonist?
What has your character learned from Mark’s death? Was Mark a close friend? An enemy? Or was he closer to people that your protagonist cares about, making her try to empathize?
What is the effect on the killer?
If Mark was murdered, how does the killer react?
Is Mark’s death necessary or is he just another redshirt?
Was it hard for you to send that arrow through his jugular (or at least write about it)?
Every time I kill off a beloved character, there are tears. Editing the death scene is even worse. I’ve built him up. Given him a past, fears, and dreams. I’m attached. Are your readers going to be attached to him by the way you’ve presented him?
Sometimes it seems like you have a quota to fill when considering death in your book, but there’s no formula for it.
If I have twenty-three-and-a-half pages of battle, then I need, let’s see, carry the one, four-and-three-quarters of character death. Got it!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
It’s important to pay attention to how often characters die because you need to be aware of the emotional rollercoaster that your reader is on, but there isn’t a number that you should try to reach.
Is Mark ready for death?
Nothing is more tragic than the death of a character whose story is unfinished. Does Mark have goals and dreams that were unfulfilled?
***Ahhhh, spoilers! Don’t peek if you haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, Bridge to Terabithia, and Allegiant.
Lastly, is Mark your protagonist?
One thing that all of these examples have in common is the character’s life and death changed another character for the better. Gus brought a beautiful love story into Hazel’s life, Leslie taught Jess how to live each day to the full, and Tris died for the people she loved.
Do you guys struggle to decide which characters to kill? Share your advice in the comments below!