Because writers are the gods of the little universes they create, eventually they must make hard decisions about their characters. And unless you’re a psychopath or sociopath, the hardest of them all is deciding which characters to kill and when.
Even in genres where it might seem like death isn’t going to or shouldn’t rear its ugly head, like romance, it can be an important background event. But it’s just as important not to overuse it. Violent video games have shown us that too many deaths leave people desensitised. But one perfectly-timed and meaningful fatality might be exactly what your story needs.
It’s easy to kill off villains at the end of a story, right? They’re the bad guys, they’ve served their purpose spending the entire story doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons, and it’s what they deserve. Besides, they can’t just get away with all the bad things they’ve done. Right?
In a simplistic world, all these things are true. And if you have a simplistic villain with no redeeming moral characteristics, then it’s hard to justify keeping them around. Even sending them to jail is just a little bit too mundane.
But if you have a complex villain in a complex world, then sometimes killing them off is counter-productive. Imagine if Jeff Lindsay had offed Dexter Morgan or Thomas Harris had executed Hannibal Lecter at the end of the books in which they made their first appearances. Entire subsequent Dexter and Hannibal-based industries would have been decimated.
Still, there are some villains that you really can’t get away with not killing. There really isn’t any way to get past the crimes of rapists, child molesters, child killers and sexually motivated murderers and torturers. But that doesn’t mean it’s your hero who has to kill them, not directly anyway. It might mean the villain falls off a cliff, gets caught up in the explosion of his or her own bomb or a variety of other endings. The plot details will determine the appropriate circumstances of their demise.
I’ve previously joked in an April Fools’ Day post that bad guys must be caught in the end because “we read fiction for the poetic justice that’s lacking in our everyday lives. Any novel in which the bad guys don’t get caught is simply missing its final chapters.” But poetic justice doesn’t just mean death. So when you kill off your villain, make absolutely sure you won’t want or need them again.
Who cares about killing off a few (or a few dozen) minions? We all should. Because any death in your story should have some meaning otherwise it may as well not happen. If your minions are meaningless, then why not just capture them, tie them up and send them off to jail?
It’s especially important because many minion deaths occur at the hands of main characters and every death that a main character is responsible for must weigh heavily on their subconscious. At the conscious level, it’s easy to rationalise the necessity of those deaths, especially for the writer who chooses for them to happen and then writes them on a clean, white page without ever getting blood on their hands.
But even if you don’t make your minions complex, your main characters should be. And anyone who has a death count higher than zero should be changed by each and every dead person they are responsible for.
Minor characters die a lot, sometimes before the story even starts. That way, main characters can be dark, brooding and driven in the search for killers, forgiveness, new relationships or all three. The death of a parent, child, sister, brother or love interest is a very common story device. But because it’s so common, it has to be properly thought through and carefully done.
If a minor character has died before the start of the story, the main characters have already had time to process it and begin to move on but if it happens during the story, then all the stages of grief need to be factored in, even if all the main characters are doing is trying their best to avoid them.
The death of minor characters also needs to be imperative in the plot. It’s one thing to kill a dozen minions who barely have back stories, let alone names, but minor characters are generally a bit more important. So if you’re going to kill them off, then you need a really good reason why.
Killing off a main character is a big decision – and killing off a main character who is the sole main character is huge – and therefore not to be taken lightly. Some main characters are killed because their stories are complete, some are killed for the shock value and some are killed because their creators didn’t want to write about them anymore.
Don’t let Stephen King’s novel, Misery, put you off killing a main character if you have your heart set on doing it. Even though readers may become attached to them, it’s very unlikely you’ll be kidnapped by a crazed fan who forces you to write the story of that character’s “rebirth”. But make sure you do justice to your main character. If they were good enough to write about to start with, then don’t they deserve the very best death they can get?
Whoever you decide to kill off, whether they’re a villain, a minion, a minor character or a main character, make absolutely certain you’ve got a good reason for doing it and that you’re not going to change your mind. Because if there’s one thing readers hate more than beloved characters being killed off, it’s beloved characters returning from beyond the grave in poorly contrived circumstances simply because you regret an earlier decision.