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Swinging the Scythe

Procession by Michael-C-HayesDeath is an essential part of many of our stories, whether it’s just the threat of it to provide peril for our protagonists, or having some of the characters actually bite the dust for reasons of plot or drama. If written well a death scene can have a great impact on the reader, triggering a deep emotional response and drawing them into the story. But done poorly it can read like the equivalent of a B-movie actor hamming up a role or a lazy author just padding the body count.

Whether it’s the epic last gasp of your hero or the passing of a minor secondary character, there’s more to it than just sticking a sword in someone. A number of factors have to work together, including aspects of writing craft as well as the events in your story when creating a good death for one of your characters.

Situation

DAO Elf by Jason ChanThe first thing to think about is the situation, what’s going on in the story at the time the death takes place. If a group of characters is making their final assault on a villain’s castle then a certain level of danger is implied, within the arc of the story this is the moment of highest tension and where you’re most likely to lose someone, almost as a narrative expectation. If they’re sitting around a peaceful meal and someone gets a knife in the chest it’s much more of a shock because the situation did not appear threatening. Choices abound with each story and an author need not restrict themselves to such extremes. Martin’s infamous Red Wedding scene has elements of both. There are traditional, if tense wedding festivities to lull the reader, followed by a low undertone of unease that grows to suspicion, then sudden betrayal and death.

The situation is important in how it relates to the narrative purpose and function of a character’s death, it is a key factor in allowing an author to accomplish what they wanted by killing that character. If an author wants to imply threat/danger they can have a group approach a booby trapped corridor. They might have a disposable character spring one of the traps and die in a gruesome manner to serve the purpose of hammering home the danger to their main protagonists and build tension. Whether the author wants to evoke shock, fear, or even grim satisfaction it is the situation and the greater narrative events, not the death itself that helps elicit the desired response.

Manner

The next aspect is the manner of the death itself, is it precise stab to the heart, or is it brutal and gory? Is it a quick or drawn out? Does the character stoically fall or scream in agony? Aside from provoking a visceral reaction if the death is really gruesome, the manner of death can completely change the reader’s perception of the event. The details themselves, the description of the wounds, the level of pain described, and the reactions of the character all contribute to how the reader views the death.

Seeing a friend cut down in battle can have a whole different tone based on whether the friend bleeds out and dies in the protagonist’s arms or if they’re killed by a single swipe of an axe as the battle swirls around them. The slower death can provide the option for emotional depth, but the instant fatality can hammer home the impact of the scene, the carelessness of battle and the easy chance of death.

The manner can affect the reader’s reaction over whether they “support” the death of the character, and deepen their level of engagement with the story. A well liked character fighting for his life might have the reader filled with fear as they read to find out what happens, or they might be hoping to see a particularly horrible villain get the chop in a harsh manner. Again this can relate to the narrative purpose of the author. Giving the reader the satisfaction at the end of the story arc of seeing the villain fall helps create closure for the story and lets the reader feel justice is served. There are balance issues in this, if a reader is to feel satisfied about a villain’s death, the manner must be proportionate to what the villain has done for them to feel justified about it. A child bully getting flayed for pushing somebody might be a bit much, but when we see Beni getting devoured by scarabs in The Mummy, his actions throughout the story have probably justified even that horrible end.

The Mummy (screenshot)

The manner of death can also link to the situation and affect the tone of the scene. With Boromir, his drawn out fight and struggle for redemption colours our opinion of the character. If he had merely been killed after trying to steal from Frodo it would have portrayed him as a villain, yet his death shows him in a heroic light at the end as he strives to protect the hobbits.

Consequences

The last part in structuring a death is writing the aftermath of the event. It’s not always required for every situation, but there are times when the consequences are even more important than the build-up and the event itself. The results of a death like grief and loss, shown through other characters can help build the impression of the event, making it more real in the world of the story. The emotional effects of the death of a friend or loved one could result in another character changing dramatically within the story, becoming deeply withdrawn and depressed or surging into a vengeful rage. Striking the right note as you show the human elements and responses to the event can be tricky to pull off successfully, but has the potential to give the writing a lot more depth and feeling.

Blood Bath by Hideyoshi

And it’s not just the emotional side the author needs to work on, but the consequences to the greater plot and narrative as well. Any character’s death will be a choice of the author, sometimes as part of the background but mostly for greater reasons of the plot. The consequences for the story will depend on the importance of the character, both in terms of the world and the reader’s engagement with them. Killing a chosen one is going to have a greater effect than murdering Solider Number Three, it will have a greater significance in the overall plot and greater fallout that must be carefully considered. An author must be aware of the potential damage they can cause their story by carelessly cutting out an important character resource just to up the body count. But equally an important character death might be vital to the story, it could be the author’s intention to subvert the traditional chosen one archetype, for a bigger impact they might choose to build up their chosen one character, firmly establishing his place and future, only to kill them off to create a surprising twist.

Ned Stark's Death by Magali VilleneuveIf you kill a viewpoint character it’s obviously going to have a big impact on the reader, not only because they are usually important in themselves, but because they serve as the interface between the reader and the narrative and are typically protected from danger. A classic example would be Eddard Stark’s sudden death, a character I’m sure many of us thought would be the hero of the piece. His execution comes as a huge shock, not only in terms of how the story will progress but also in defying reader expectations and potentially painting a bull’s-eye on any other protagonist. Aside from increasing the overall tension, it meant the reader lost Eddard’s view on events and maybe one of the characters they most engaged with. It also cut off a narrative angle and forced Martin to rely on other characters like Sansa to relay later information to the reader. For this reason you should always consider if the character you’re killing off might be needed to show the reader some vital plot details at any time in the future, and have a plan for how to get around it.

Unhinged by Aaron Lovett

Even if an author gets these three factors of a death right it can still fail if the reader isn’t engaged in some fashion with the character that dies. It’s always good idea to work at developing the character/reader relationship before they kick the bucket. The level of development will vary greatly based on whether it’s a protagonist, a secondary character, or a disposable getting the axe, but even something as minor as a personality quirk can give a death a bit more depth as the reader will feel the loss more if it’s someone they remember. If you know a character will soon be pushing up daisies it can be a good trick to go back through a few of their scenes and flesh them out a bit, just enough to give them bit of colour before the chop.

Whether your story is single murder mystery or littered with bodies, the practice of killing a character should never be taken lightly. Some deaths will be vital to the plot, for others the narrative purpose will simply be to show off how powerful the new villain is. While morbid, hopefully this article has taught you a bit about the methodology of killing off characters and how to get the most narrative benefit out of their deaths. So keep the words coming and keep the story moving, because valar morghulis.

Title image by BurakUlker.

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