“He was already dead when I got there” is a common claim in mystery novels, but all too often it’s also the answer when fans ask writers “Why did you kill off my favorite character?” And as with mystery novels, the claim is frequently disbelieved, especially when the death happens to a major or recurring character in a long-running series.
But for a lot of writers – even those who plan ahead (or try to) – it really is true. You get to a certain point in a story, and you realize that George is going to throw himself on that unexploded grenade. It’s what he would do. You thought he’d duck and run with the rest of the gang, but he’s not absolutely sure that everyone else will get far enough away in time, and…well, it’s what he would do.
So you go back over the last chapter, hoping to tweak the fight some, but no, this is how it has to play out. That grenade is getting chucked into the room as the villain leaves because that’s what she would do.
You then have two choices: #1- You can change George’s behavior, or the villain’s, so that there is no grenade or George doesn’t jump on it, and the characters will turn instantly to cardboard and magically lose most of the personality and sympathy (or outrage) you’ve spend many chapters building up on their behalf, or #2 – You can go ahead and write the scene where George throws himself on the grenade and dies heroically.
When that happens, the choice is obvious (to me, anyway) – you do what’s best for the story, and cardboard characters are never best for the story, so RIP George.
Sometimes, it happens the other way around. In my second novel, I had a brief scene planned in which a spear-carrier was supposed to show up, do something that I and my readers knew was a mistake, and end up dead. He showed up…and I liked him. Really, really liked him. So my short, two-page scene extended itself and extended itself as my other characters tried to talk him into changing sides, but he had principles and wouldn’t. And the more he explained his principles, the better I liked him, even if he was wrong and headed for extinction in short order.
Eventually, I and my characters ran out of arguments, and he still hadn’t changed sides, and he was still going to make the mistake he’d been ordered to make, because he was honorable and had principles and so on. So I let him, and I killed him.
My crit group gave me hell for it, but even they couldn’t come up with a way for me to do anything different without wrenching the story out of shape and making it implausible to boot.
When a character earns his or her death – when acting absolutely in character will, in that situation, lead them inevitably to their end – it is next door to impossible to justify doing anything other than letting them die. Doing otherwise does violence to the story. Sometimes, the writer has known from the start that Jennifer or George was doomed; sometimes, it becomes obvious when one is writing the scene that a particular character cannot possibly survive (or that they couldn’t have survived something that happened offstage). Either way, they’re dead.
There are, however, a whole lot of bad reasons for killing off a character:
1. To prove that you, the writer, are not afraid to kill off a character that you are sure everyone is going to like. If you feel like you have to prove something, write the death scene and then pitch it. Stuff goes into a story because it belongs there, not because the writer needs to show off.
2. To provide an emotional, heartwrenching scene. Mind you, the death of a well-liked character should certainly be emotional and heartwrenching, but if you’re deliberately killing off nice characters just to get a rise out of your readers, and for no other reason, you need a bigger repertoire of heartwrenching and deeply emotional scenes. And if you’re just doing it to add angst…no. Just no.
3. To make the reader feel unsafe; to let the reader know that no, really, anybody might die in this book, nobody’s safe. This used to be more likely to work (though I disapproved of this kind of reader manipulation even then), but these days, “the nice guy dies” is so common that it’s become a TV trope. If you insist on doing it, it’s going to need exceptionally careful handling to work, and you probably still won’t get the shock value you want unless you actually kill off the main character him/herself in the tenth chapter or so.
4. Because you can! You’re the writer, bwa-ha-ha! (Similar to #1, but more extreme.) You may be the writer, and you can certainly write the words, but if this is the sole reason the character dies, you’re highly unlikely to end up with a good story.
The interesting thing is, you actually can do all those things, or any one of them, and still make it work, if one of two things is true: either the character’s death is plot-important (in addition to being heartwrenching or proving anyone can die or whatever), or the character’s death, however random and senseless, has serious consequences for other characters, emotionally and (again) plot-wise.
For instance, there’s a scene in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings in which a moderately important and extremely likeable character dies unexpectedly, randomly, and senselessly. It works because it is shocking and unexpected; because the way it happens makes it abundantly clear that nobody is safe, but most of all because it has repercussions throughout the entire rest of the five-book series. The characters are as shocked as the reader, and their shock reverberates through both their emotions and their actions. Things would have gone very differently if that character hadn’t died just then, in both the short-term and the long term.
In other words, when you kill off a character, it has to matter. To the other characters, to the plot, to the readers.