To Kill or Not to Kill Characters

Why should you kill characters? When should you kill characters? How many characters should you kill?

WHY: For me, I kill characters when they stop being useful to me. Harsh? If they aren’t paying the rent, I can’t afford to feed them anymore and they’ve got to go. Because if I keep them despite their uselessness, they become extra baggage hanging off my arm that is annoying to me and the reader who also has to suffer through their uselessness. People don't like useless people.

Think of it this way… Imagine you have a new litter of puppies. They are so cute and everyone loves them. They are great fun but as they get older, you realize you need to give some of them away for whatever good reason you have. Now you just have 2 of these growing puppies. They bark a little but your neighbors don’t mind because it’s an accepted hazard for owning a dog, and everyone goes on about their life.

Now imagine instead the same new batch of puppies, except you don’t get rid of any of them. You keep them all and they grow up, and they each demand your time and attention with food, water, and play time. And all of them bark all the time. Now your neighbors hate you and they hate your dogs because they are constantly barking and keeping your neighbors (and you) awake at night and nobody is happy and your neighbors are just praying for the day your dogs are gone.

Now trade this puppy analogy for your characters. Your characters need nurturing just like a real dog needs play time and water. If you don’t nurture your character, it will fade to the background and hang there like a burr, irritating you and irritating the reader. Everything in a story should serve a purpose. EVERYTHING. (Now Mrs. Pederson can rest in peace because I said this.) If a character serves zero purpose, either don’t create it or get rid of it in a meaningful way.

So why do you kill a character? Because everything (and everyone) must serve a purpose, must earn their keep and pay their rent because you can’t afford to feed them if they aren’t working. If they can’t pay the rent, kick them out. Blood suckers, anyway.

WHEN: I disagree with Game of Thrones (I’ve seen only 2 episodes and those were by mistake), who kill anyone for any purpose. Readers want a character they can grow with, invest their emotional account on. Readers want to see a character struggle in the beginning, watch how they conquer their demons, and see them rise victorious at the end. You can’t do that if you kill them off. It’s heartbreaking and I don’t have the emotional stability to accept that as being okay in my screwed-up life where I think characters are real people (which is why I don’t watch Game of Thrones. Also because of the incest which deeply bothers me).

With that, characters should die WHEN it matters. Again, I disagree with Game of Thrones who kill characters on a whim. I hate that. Characters, in a sense, are real people. We hate death of real people we know when it appears senseless (a car crash, a suicide, my father who passed away with post-polio leaving my mother nearly destitute). Now, you think of the common soldier who dies in combat. That death hurts less to us because it doesn’t come as a surprise, and when they die we say meaningful things like, “He fought for his country/he died with honor/I am proud he gave his life for me.”

The same thing for characters. If the reader has invested their emotional account on your character, and the character randomly meets his demise by choking to death on his mashed potatoes, the reader is going to be pissed off and you’ll risk losing your readership. But if you take that same character who dies in some way that MAKES SENSE, the death still hurts but the reader accepts it as the natural part of life. It doesn’t even have to be valiant and noble, but it has to make sense to the reader and to the situation.

So when? When the death is realistic and makes sense to the situation the character has been put into (like a battle. That’s an easy one.)

HOW MANY? I think Game of Thrones kills too many. I thought a story I beta read didn’t kill enough. So how do you know? If you have 5 main/side characters who go to battle, it is HIGHLY unrealistic for no one to die. Because you take 5 soldiers in real life and have them charge into a fire fight, chances are high that at least one of them will die.

So when you choose how many, think of a percentage for yourself, and to help out I will give you examples of how many I kill. In my novel, The War Queen, I have 2 main characters and 5 side characters. I kill off one side character (because he stopped paying his rent) and I grievously wound one of my main characters (because, duh, a battle, and I don’t kill off main characters because of my above reason for the WHY). So when you choose how many, make it realistic. If they go to battle, one should likely die or at the very least get very hurt. The hint here is to be REALISTIC (which is the same answer for WHEN a character should die). Compare it to real life. How many people have you known that have died, and in what way? Use that same percentage for your story, because nothing is more realistic than real life.

So how many? If they cease serving a purpose, kill them (or have them exit the story somehow. Don’t cling onto them if they stop paying their rent.) And if the death is realistic to the situation.

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