In real life, people die–friends, family, strangers we hear about on the news. Consequently, stories, if they are to reflect reality, should include characters who die. Great writers don’t back away from killing off characters.
Mystery writers, of course, don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. Readers expect it. These may be characters that are incidental to the reader, however. They are victims and give a reason for the crime solvers to do their work, but their deaths don’t generate an emotional impact on the reader.
But harder, and more shocking, is the death of a character when the readers were not expecting it. And harder still is the death of a character readers care about deeply. Margaret Mitchell heartlessly killed off Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, then trumped that move by having Rhett and Scarlett’s little girl, Bonnie, die as well.
Perhaps no one killed off her characters more aggressively than J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. From Cedric to Sirius, Dobby, Dumbledore, and Fred, Rowling didn’t hesitate to bring an end to beloved characters.
Some writers have ventured to bring their characters back after they died. J. R. R. Tolkien successfully did so in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing Gandalf back in The Two Towers after he felt to his death in the Mines of Moria during The Fellowship of the Ring. C. S. Lewis also meaningfully killed a character–Aslan–and brought him back in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first in The Chronicles of Narnia.
There are dangers for writers, however, in killing off characters. For example, I read a book years ago in which the main character died at the end, and I have not since picked up another book by that author. More recently [spoiler alert] Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has been in the eye of the storm of unhappy readers because she killed off her heroine.
I think there are some things writers can learn about killing off characters.
First, killing off characters creates realism. Regardless of the genre, dying ought to be a part of the world the author creates. Therefore he should at least consider adding this element to his story. Not all stories need to show the death of a character, but a good many could benefit from the report of one dying.
In a romance, for example, the death of a beloved grandparent might be an obstacle in the path of the heroine and her love interest. Contemporary or historical stories can use the death of a character and the resulting squabbles over the estate to divide a family or create heartbreak that needs to be overcome. A widower can pine for his dead spouse for years, as did the main character in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise).
Killing off characters, however, needs to be properly motivated. There needs to be a story reason for ending the life of a character. Doing so for shock value is not sufficient. Rather, a noble sacrifice, a diabolical plot, a horrible accident, an incurable disease can take a character’s life and move the plot forward.
In addition, when a character is taken from the story, relationships change. A child is orphaned, a friend is alone, a spouse is a widow, an employee becomes the boss, a neighbor becomes a suspect.
Therefore, when a character dies, the other characters need to have an emotional response, but also a re-examination of values, a reshuffling of rank, an alteration of position. In short, the death should matter.
Finally, killing characters needs to be properly set up so that it is believable (and so that readers won’t want to throw your book across the room). The death may come as a surprise, but it should not be implausible.
People who are young and healthy do die suddenly of some undiagnosed condition, however rarely, but in fiction such an event would read as author manipulation. Rather, a young person who was diagnosed with leukemia might experience a return of cancer, however unexpected. The fact of the earlier condition prepares readers for the eventuality of the character’s death. A character might be engaging in a dangerous hobby like rock climbing or bungee jumping. She might work with toxic material or high voltage electricity. These elements can add tension to a story but also prepare the reader for the possibility of that character dying.
One last point. Characters can be taken from a story without dying. A teen might run away. A parent might walk away from his family. An employee might get fired. A best friend might move across country. These losses can have the same impact as a death and can change the dynamics of a story. They are also part of the real world which needs to be reflected in the story world.
Have you considered killing off one of your characters? What effect would that death have on the other characters? On the direction of your plot?