Wednesday, February 5, 2020

How to Kill a Character in Your Novel

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Yes, there are right ways and wrong ways to kill a character in a fiction story. And, even if we're working with non-fiction and telling a true story, we might still need to determine how to tell how a character will die. We often have characters that, for one reason or another, need to be left behind. Maybe it's a mentor, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. We know from the beginning of Charlotte's Web (at least, some of us know!) that the spider, Charlotte, will die, because few small critters like her live very long. But there's a time and place to help make the story more real, to create the most impact. And, we have to find it.

So, deciding why and when to kill a character takes some thought:

1. Why do you think the character should die? And, part and parcel of that, why did you invent the character in the first place? What role does the character play? 
Characters aren’t just there for the fun of it. They each play a very specific part in a story. We can use the archetypes for examples: 

A Hero/ine is who the story is about. We rarely see them die because the story wraps around them. Maximus in Gladiatoris one of the rare exceptions. 

A Mentor like Obi-Wan teaches the lesson, then goes away. Dying is common for this archetype. After all, would Luke have been able to grow into the man he becomes if he’d had Obi-Wan to tell him what to do all the time?

Goose plays Maverick’s Best Friend archetype in Top Gun. He dies to propel Maverick into facing his past and the loss of his father. 

The Villain archetype dies all the time, since we have to slay the dragon. But once this archetype is dead, the story often is over. So, normally, the Villain dies near the end of the story.

2. When does a character need to die?

Every story is different. For instance, a mystery often needs to have a dead body early on and we only get to know that character through other peoples' eyes. There can be other bodies along the way, but each death needs to be carefully planned and HAS to make sense. 

In a heart-rending true story about a loved one's death, the protagonist is usually someone who is deeply involved with the dying person, so the decision about when comes down to where it will impact the reader the most. In Ray, the story about Ray Charles, the death of his younger brother impacted his entire life. So, does it work best at the very beginning? Or in the middle? Or at the very end? My personal preference is usually smack dab in the middle in a story like this, since I like to get to know my character before I find out what drives him or her. But you may like it somewhere else and, as long as it makes sense and impacts the reader, it will work.

3.Carefully consider whether killing off a character is really a too-easy way out of a story conflict. 

Maybe that character can stir up extra trouble in the story, leading to a stronger plot, if he or she sticks around for a while. I read a story several years ago where the fiancé of the heroine was the captain of an ocean-going ship and was gone when she really needed him. Another man came to her rescue and she fell in love with him instead. So, when the captain died at sea, the path to her new relationship was very simple. Should it have been? Would it have been better for the fiancé to come home and for her to make a hard choice between the two men? (Of course, the romance writer in me would have liked to see that choice. But that's just me.)

So, kill any character you choose. It can be a very cathartic and enjoyable process, especially if you don't like a character. But impacting the reader with a death, even of a villain, can make a book immensely better.

What book or movie where a character is killed off is your favorite? Why? 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful post and I like the points you made in whether or not (or later) to kill off a character or villain. I can see how the timing is also crucial. I'd love to visit some of your books, so thanks for the link to your blog.