Confessions of a Serial Killer- How to kill characters when you write

I am a serial killer. I have in fact, killed so many people that I have lost count. A special welcome to the FBI who are now reading this post. 

I always quote Nora Roberts when I talk about moving plots forward and getting unstuck. She says: "The middles of my books are often the toughest for me to write. If the pacing flags, I deal with the problem by looking around at all my characters and figuring out which one I can kill." 

Even though I know this, I am one of the biggest losers when it comes to killing characters. I hate it when a character dies. I am a sucker for a happy ending. For me to kill someone instead of sending them off into the sunset, hand-in-hand, is hard. But at some point a character must die. 

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So many of my favourite characters on TV have been dying lately and the trauma of that made me wonder if I am sometimes too trigger-happy when I offer this advice. Pardon the pun. 

In Homeland, Brody died and the series with him. I commend them for that by the way, the series ending. Matthew, from Downton Abbey has died. I was devastated. In The Following they killed Claire; I did forgive them that in the next series. I have not forgiven them for killing Lori in The Walking Dead, but I cheered, loudly, when Joffrey met his foamy end in Game of Thrones

As a rule I don’t like books where children die or are hurt. This is a personal preference. I don’t read a lot of Jodi Piccoult because of that. Joffrey is the exception to that rule. The same goes for animals. I have never overcome the childhood trauma of Jock of the Bushveld  by James Percy FitzPatrick and just the poster of Marley and Me is enough to reduce me tears. But besides kids and animals anyone is fair game.

How do I pick my next victim? I list of all my possible victims. Then I ask:

  1. Why am I killing this character? If my story works without him, should he be there in the first place? 
  2. How long will it take my protagonist to recover from this death and how does it change them? Death is a great way to start a revenge story for example, but a parent losing a child might not be able to move forward for a long time. How does your character mourn? By seeking revenge or by curling up in a dark room?
  3. How does this death affect my plot? Are you creating too many problems by killing off a character? 
  4. How do they die? Does it suit the story/genre? Joffrey’s violent public death suited Games of Thrones. Dying in his sleep of pneumonia would not have been such a good match. 
  5. Should the death be a surprise? The Fault in Our Stars is a book about kids with cancer. Death isn’t exactly unexpected, but Gus was the healthiest of them all. 

These are starter questions and your story will dictate what you ask, but don’t just go killing characters for the sake of it.

Below is a list of the meanings of the deaths in Harry Potter. I don’t know if it's JK-approved and if she agrees, but it is interesting to see what the death of a character can mean.

Source for Image

Which fictional character’s death affected you most? 

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 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Writer’s Block and the Fine Art of Procrastination
  2. Winning Words - Romance Writing Short Story Winners
  3. Fiction Writers Should Have Fun - A day in the life of Me

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

18 responses
The death of Jeoffrey in Game of Thrones was excellent, but nothing was as brutal and bizarre as the Red Wedding. We all know who died there.
"You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs." --Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Batman
Gus, was my most recent devastation.
A lot of questions and not many answers... oh, and fortunately I'd seen Downtown Abbey... that said, a little heads up that you're planning to crash someone's party might be in order.
People who are worried about 'spoilers' should not read a post on killing characters. It seems pretty obvious that it will include these details.
It's also an excellent post.
Dumbledore's death brought tears to my eyes. Gus' death on BrBa was stellar! Tony Soprano's death is still in question, years later. (He was whacked. End of story.) Lane Pryce's suicide by hanging (Mad Men) was sad. I really hope Lou Avery is next.
I had the problem that when I killed off a character I adored, I actually became unable to finish the story. He needed to die for character growth and to progress the story, but I couldn't get past it. I even tried an alternate ending where no one saw him die (no body = no kill, old D&D rule) but it just fell apart. He has to die, but I can't make myself finish the story with him dead. Strangest thing I've run into in my writing experience.
Great post, but I probably shouldn't have read it until I was caught up on my shows. Oh well, I should've seen it coming...
A great post, as always, Mia. Plots need to be resolved. Death, I always say, is the ultimate resolution. Just ask Shakespeare. :-)
I was angered by Prim's death in Hunger Games. The death seemed meaningless, like it was placed there as a catalyst for Katniss's later insanity. Like she wasn't already going crazy. I was actually mad after I finished the trilogy.
Great article, but now I know who dies in those shows, so, not really a point in watching them :(
I'm still mad about Fred Weasley. T^T His twin will never be the same - ever! I really like this post. I'm starting my first apocalypse themed novel and well, I'll have to face "becoming a serial killer" as well. This is encouraging to me! Thumbs up!
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