Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Why An Author Should Kill a Character

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Why do we kill characters? Is that character a real villain who deserves to die? Or, maybe it’s a child who slips away with her family surrounding her. Regardless, characters MUST die sometimes and the reason for getting rid of that character HAS to move the story forward. 

So, how to kill a character the right way? 

There are as many reasons for a death as there are characters who need to be killed. Sometimes a character needs to be left behind. Maybe it's a mentor, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. My favorite teacher read Charlotte's Web to my class when I was in grade school and, every though we all knew that spiders don’t live very long, it was still sad when Charlotte died. But there's a time and place for that death to help make the story more real, to create the most impact. And, we have to find it. Charlotte’s demise was at the very end when Wilbur was no longer in danger. 

Maybe it’s a villain. We love killing the villains, don’t we? Usually in the most awful way we can think of. But even really bad people may not deserve to die. I know, I know, this may turn into a philosophical discussion, not that I'm opposed to one! But ultimately, we want any death in our stories to make a huge impact. Otherwise, why bother?

But not every story has a villain. (And I call a “spoiler alert” on the movies I’m using as examples. If you don’t want to know the ending, please skip over them.)

Instead, we often need to kill is a good guy. Top Gun’s Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, is a hot-shot rebel—reckless, stubborn, and ultimately, dangerous. Goose, his wingman, is his moral compass, but Maverick doesn't listen to reason. So, to make the movie work, Goose has to die. And, of course, Goose has a wife (a young Meg Ryan) and a couple of kids. Makes us turn on the tears, doesn’t it? Maverick has his own guilt for what happened, but now also has guilt for creating a widow and fatherless children. 

Would Maverick have changed if Goose hadn't died? Would he have learned his lesson? Probably not. The point of the movie, even though it’s pretty obvious, is that Goose’s death is the catalyst for Maverick’s much-needed change.

So, why does a character need to die? Because that death moves the story to the next level.

Does it matter who dies? Not really. Kill whichever one causes the most angst. But there MUST be a purpose in the killing.

A quick caveat. 
Genres make a difference in killing characters. Romances, for instance, rarely have a death. Doesn’t mean they can’t, but a lot of people who read romance don’t really want to have that happen. In a mystery, a death almost has to happen. Also in suspense, action, fantasy—you name it. Just be sure you do your research on what is allowed.

Another caveat. 
There are few stories where the protagonist dies, but there are a few and some of them are very well known (Braveheart and Gladiator, for instance). Both have strong male protagonists who achieve their goals through their death. Sad, but true. So, if you choose a genre that allows that kind of death, be sure to make it as angsty as possible, because your audience will want the catharsis of emotion such a story demands.

Of course, there are a million examples of death in books, because it’s such a great example of the human condition. My main suggestions are for an author to plan a death carefully, make sure the secondary characters react appropriately to the situation and make the reader care—very much—about the death itself. 

Do you plan to kill a character? How and why?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer, BS, MLA, 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 WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a freelance 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 WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM


  1. I killed a character before he was born. I thought my main character's father needed a younger brother, but Younger Brother was so hard to work with that I realized I didn't need him and offed him after the first draft of my novel.

    1. LOL!! We often find a character isn't needed after we've created him or her. So, the question becomes, do you need him at all? If you do -- if he forwards the story -- you'll probably want to continue his character, even though he's dead. Does that make sense? And, you may discover he is worth keeping alive to "kill" him at a place where it will cause the most tension and angst.
      Regardless, it's great that you're examining it! Good job!

  2. In my novel, I have a character's death in mind. He has to die, to be a sort of either sacrificial lamb or the innocent guy who never seemed (in this life) to catch a break. My husband keeps wondering why he has to die and my argument is to make redemption possible, believable to a myriad of characters who are in his world.

    I'm just not sure yet how to do it. Wish me success!