This blog contains spoilers for the following: Doctor Who (Tenth Doctor), Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Harry Potter, Arrow, and possibly Buffy the Vampire slayer depending on your definition of a spoiler.
Stories would be nothing without stakes, and by far, the most common thing at stake is a character’s life. A good story gets you invested, and can even force you to suspend your disbelief in plot armor as you dangle your heroes off a cliff. But when do you let them take the plunge? In general, that’s up to you, but at least hear what I have to say on, how and how not to kill people.
For the sake of simplicity, allow me to explain what I mean by killing a fictional person. When I say that, I don’t necessarily just mean death in the traditional sense. When I talk about death, I am referring to a tragic event that permanently renders one or more characters completely inactive and unable to interact with the story as it continues. An example of one such non-standard death is Donna Noble from Doctor Who. Though Donna is very much alive, she cannot ever interact with The Doctor again and had to have all her memories of her time with The Doctor locked away. Even though a woman named Donna Noble is alive in that universe, the Donna who went on the adventures with The Tenth Doctor is dead. What I don’t count as a real death is something like the death of Junko Enoshima in Danganronpa 1. Even though she was killed, she lived on through her followers and her A.I., Alter Ego Junko, which went on to become the primary antagonist of the Danganronpa 2. Only with the deletion of Alter Ego Junko do I consider her to be truly dead. With definitions out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this.
Allow me to start with something I absolutely hate. I hate death fakeouts. Don’t misunderstand, fake deaths, or resurrections are fine, in fact, I’ll be talking about them later, but fakeouts? Get em out of your story. What exactly is a fakeout? Good question, theoretical reader. A death fakeout in its worst form is when you take a character people love, mortally wound them, and then cut. Cliffhanger. So far, this is fine, you’ve built up tension and hopefully, you’ve gotten people invested in how this turns out. Cut to the next chapter/scene and we see the main characters standing outside a church, looking sad, and saying how they did everything they could and it wasn’t enough. But then, the mortally wounded character walks up, and basically says. “Hey guys, good thing you figured out how to save me. It’s a shame you screwed up making that sandwich.” This is bad for one major reason. It’s emotionally manipulative and if you do it wrongly enough, your audience may never be able to fully immerse themselves again. Speaking from experience, a scene like this one is why I stopped watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Now that my rant is over, let’s look at the right way to kill (fictional) people. Killing a character off should always serve a purpose in the plot. This means, that unless you’re like me, and write by the seat of your pants, you’d better know when and how everyone is going to die. But that’s not enough, you also need to know what effect the death will have on the surviving characters. This should organically fit into their character arcs and help them reach the end of their story. You also need to keep in mind the many plot threads that were tied to the character you killed. Assuming you just killed off a main character, their absence could drastically change the direction of the story, and you need to be ready to have the remaining characters deal with the plates the deceased left spinning.
There are several reasons you want to kill off main characters. First, it reminds your audience that your characters are at risk and allows them to suspend their disbelief in plot armor. Next, the loss of a major character is a recipe for character development and drama of all sorts. Losing a main character shakes up the status quo and pushes the story onward. Now aside from story impact, killing a character can be used as a sort of utility. If you have a character who was very important during the first half of your story, but they’ve run their course and are no longer important, feel free to kill them off. You can also do this to raise the stakes and nerf overpowered mentor characters in one fell swoop. For an example of the latter two reasons, one need look no further than the death of Albus Dumbledore.
There are, of course ways of having your cake and eating it too. A properly done fake death, which results in the temporary absence of a major character, can escalate the main conflict and spur character development. Just make sure that if you go with this route, you don’t undercut the emotional impact. The return of a character that was presumed dead can be a big thing and should, under no circumstances, undo character development. In fact, seeing how someone reacts to the return of their friend could be super interesting. Would they be angry? Suspicious? It’s up to you. This brings me to reviving dead characters. I am super for it. Reviving characters is cool, but you should think carefully about the means of resurrection. How was it done? What cost does it have on the living? What effect does it have on the revived? How does it affect the world? The biggest issue with doing this is stopping it from trivializing death. In the worst cases of this, we have things like the Lazarus pit in the CW show Arrow, which has revived major characters way too many times. Fortunately, the writers realized this and destroyed it, but the fact remains that there was a whole part of that show where I didn’t feel like there were any stakes because I knew Oliver could just revive them. My point is, if you’re going to revive someone, make it single use, or so hard to do that you’d have to be insane to even attempt it. Also, don’t bring characters back for no reason. If you’re going to revive someone, they had better serve the plot in some extremely meaningful way that no other person, living or dead, could.
In conclusion, killing off main cast members is super impactful and can drive the story forward in amazing ways, but comes with a lot of caveats. It’s important not to trivialize the loss of a character in any way, unless that’s the point of your story, and to always follow whatever choice you make, as the writer, to its ultimate conclusion.
Sorry for the delay the past two weeks, I’ve been having a hard time remembering to schedule these ahead of time. I’ll try to do better.