Killing Characters with a Purpose

Killing characters is one of those things that I have a hard time with. I’ve always felt that a character serves the story better by being than by dying. Of course, that depends on the circumstances. 

It always bugs me a little when a character dies and it serves nothing else than shock value, or to give the hero that extra push. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it works great, but other times it feels unnecessary. Usually the unnecessary version involves a hero who you know is already going to do the thing and win the things at the end of the thing. So when a supporting character dies to push the MC forward, there’s that moment of “he was going to do that anyway…”

That’s where it usually loses its grip for me. When the death is meant to just be an added layer of angst onto an already steaming pile of angstiness. It’s just too much.

A death works best when it propels the story forward or causes a character to react in a way that is, in a sense, out of character. It’s making the pacifist do something extremely aggressive and we believe it because they’ve been pushed so far. Or, it’s killing that King or High Lord and as a result having a war ensue that lasts for the next three books. 

But, with each character that dies there’s a sense of opportunity being lost. An opportunity to tell more stories, to develop them, to explore their relationships with others. And one of the reasons I’ve still been averse to the killing of main characters, is that the impact always fades (especially in a series). Maybe I’m a wuss in that way, but something about a character fading away to become a footnote bugs me.

Sometimes it is necessary. I’ve definitely read books where main characters die and I can’t imagine that same story working otherwise. Maybe I just haven’t thought up one of those stories yet.