A Character Death: Ideas to Further Your Plot

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Killing a character can be a powerful storytelling device. Done properly, a character’s death can shock; it can take the plot in a whole new direction, raise the stakes, and help develop your other characters. Done improperly, however, it can take the wind out of your story and annoy your readers.

So, let’s explore the fine art of killing your characters: why you should do it, how to get the most out of it, and we’ll throw in some character death ideas for good measure. But, be warned: I’ll turn to some popular books and movies in this analysis, and will be spoiling the likes of Star Wars, the Harry Potter series, Psycho, Scream, M*A*S*H, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Big Hero 6, and How I Met Your Mother.

How character deaths can drive your story

The golden rule of killing off a character is this: Make it meaningful. It is not something to be taken lightly. A character’s death should drive the story forward, develop your characters, or raise the stakes. If it fails to do any of these things, you are either wasting an opportunity or stand the chance of alienating or upsetting your readers.

Inciting incident

An inciting incident is an event at the beginning of a story that disturbs the protagonist’s life and launches them into the plot. The death of a character can be a very compelling inciting incident — and one that can lead to character development for others in your story. Many stories revolve around a hero avenging the death of someone they loved.

But you need to be careful with this. You don’t want to create a character whose sole purpose is to die as a means of motivating your protagonist — especially if that character belongs to a historically marginalized community. (See “fridging” aka “Women in Refrigerators.”)

Raise the stakes

One of the most meaningful ways a character’s death can impact a story is to raise the stakes. This makes sense: Whatever threats your characters have been facing in your story so far are for the most part theoretical until one of them dies. It’s a whole new ballgame when a beloved character dies and your readers realize that no one is safe.

I’ll never forget how stunned I was when Cedric Diggory was killed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This series, which until then had been a light-hearted romp of a children’s adventure, suddenly took a left turn into a much darker (and more interesting) place. Before this point, the only “on-screen” character death was Professor Quirrell, who died in the first book. And he didn’t really “count” as he was the Big Bad Villain. But when Cedric Diggory — a student — wasn’t just killed but was murdered, suddenly the stakes skyrocketed, and in a way I wasn’t expecting. It was a turning point in the whole series.

Turn the story in a new direction

Speaking of turning points, killing a character can be a powerful pivot point for your plot. The classic example of this is in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The plot follows Marion Crane for the first half of the movie. If you knew nothing about the movie going in, you might think she, thanks to her erratic behavior, was the titular character. Then she takes a shower and she — and the rest — is history. This death scene shocked audiences at the time, and for good reason: The star of the movie had just been killed less than halfway in! Who knew where the movie was going to go from that point on.

Wes Craven’s hit film Scream featured another shocking death when one of the stars of the movie, Drew Barrymore, was killed in the first scene. From that point on, audiences knew no one was safe.

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Develop other characters

For a character death to be meaningful, your other surviving characters — especially your protagonist — need to mourn them. This can be a revealing moment for your protagonist, deepening their character. One of the classic tropes of the hero’s journey is the death of a mentor figure. The mentor must die for the hero to come into their own.

Consider the deaths of Obi-Wan in Star Wars and Dumbledore in Harry Potter. After all, if Obi-Wan or Dumbledore didn’t die, then Luke and Harry would never have to chance to truly become a hero because the mentor would have been there to fight their battles for them.

Illustrate your theme

The death of a character can help to illustrate your theme. This is especially common in war movies, often used to show the horror of war or the cruelty of man.

At the end of season three of the TV show M*A*S*H, for example, Henry Blake leaves Korea to go home to his family. Only after he’s gone do we hear that his plane was shot down and he was killed. This news shocked audiences — no character in a half-hour sitcom had ever died before — and it marked a turning point in the series, which became darker and more serious.

Death can fulfill a character arc

Characters should change over the course of your story, and sometimes that means dying as a result. Consider the character Spike in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spike’s arc is one of redemption, and he fulfills that arc by sacrificing himself in the final episode.

Often, characters have a fatal flaw, which didn’t get that name solely for its alliterative nature. Game of Throne’s Ned Stark, for example, was a heroic and noble figure, but he was also naïve — he had no idea of how to play the titular game of thrones — and that proved to be his downfall (and another example of how no character in the series was safe).

Tips for writing a meaningful character death

Don’t do it just to be cruel

It’s usually a good idea to make things hard for your protagonist, but being cruel just for the sake of it, or as an ironic twist, is a surefire way to upset your readers.

Make sure the death is justified by the plot

If the character’s death isn’t driving your story forward, developing your other characters, or advancing your theme, then you may want to reconsider killing that character.

Consider the much-hated finale of the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Over the course of nine seasons, we follow Ted Mosby on his winding journey to meet his kid’s mother. And then, in the final moments of the finale, it’s revealed that, oh yeah, she died, and now Ted’s going to go hit on the woman he was pining over for most of the series. (And it’s even dumber than my simple summary can do justice.) It was a death that seemed to betray the entire show’s backstory. In fact, it was so bad that the producers wound up shooting an alternate ending for the DVD release.

A character’s death can be a powerful driver for your story, it can shock your readers, and it can help you develop your characters and your theme. If you’re considering any character death ideas for your story, just make sure you take it seriously and make it meaningful.

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Related Posts
How to Achieve Great Character Development in Your Story
Want to Write a Great Story? You Need to Raise the Stakes.
What is an Inciting Incident? (We’ve got 6 examples)
What are the Differences Between an Anti-Hero vs. Anti-Villain?
Unraveling the Hero’s Journey: A Roadmap to Crafting Your Story

3 COMMENTS

  1. My 4-book series, Journey Into Darkness, a story in four parts, takes place during the American Civil War. Death is an always present possibility in wartime and Duane Kinkade, journeys from the quiet life of an Arkansas farm boy whose father and best friend leaves for the war as a Confederate soldier, to follow in search of him after his mother is killed by raiders who also leave him for dead. Book 1, On the Eve of Conflict, ends with Duane’s journey by riverboat to find his father with only a last letter from somewhere in Tennessee as his guide. The remaining three books in the series follow Duane’s search through 2 1/2 years of war until news of his father and the death of his best friend precipitate his journey homeward. I share this should anyone want to follow a fictitious boy’s journey through very real history, along with the ever-present possibility of death. More information is available at http://www.jarthurmoore.com.

  2. This is good! I used to like to kill characters randomly just for the plot twist of it. Now I see that readers really do get attached to characters and they don’t want them to die for no reason. But if there’s a reason, it can be a really powerful part of the story. Great points here.

  3. So what about introducing the replacement for your dead character? I’m working on a series–the whole thing hinges around the replacement for one of my protagonist team–and I’m struggling with when/how to introduce him. His personal inciting incident happens well before he meets my hero team, but his story doesn’t intersect with the team until just before the “job opening” appears. I want to tell his story from incident to becoming the replacement team member, but how do I interest a reader in this “irrelevant” character without giving up spoilers?

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