Writers brag with alarming glee about bumping off their fictional characters. After spending time and energy bringing my characters to life, killing them off seems counter-productive. And yet, sometimes, that’s where a story takes you. I’ll confess to killing an important character–more than once.
One of my first brushes with literary death was when an editor whose blog I followed, in a burst of Christmas goodwill, offered to read and comment on any One Sheet his blog subscribers sent him. I took him up on the offer and sent three One Sheets for separate books in a series. To my delight, he requested samples on two of the stories. I wrote sample chapters for each. The editor rejected both stories, but he complimented my writing and gave me revision notes. I’ve never been so happy about a rejection, in fact.
One of the stories was an early version of Cheyenne Sunrise (Montana Gold, book 2). I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for you, if you plan to read it. However, I can say that at least one person dies. This is not unusual in a western historical romance. The editor explained to me that I needed to make this character more sympathetic. Readers should weep when my ill-fated character dies.
This advice baffled me for a while, but I applied myself to the task. Apparently, I succeeded so well that the death in this book ‘traumatized’ my publisher. She wasn’t comfortable with it taking place but could see how it would prove the theme. We shifted the death to a less sympathetic character. (If you read Cheyenne Sunrise, I explain this decision in the Author’s Notes.) I learned from my experience that there are limits to what readers will tolerate. Walking the tightrope of readers’ sensibilities requires courage and sensitivity.
Killing an Important Character—What Can You Get Away With?
What makes one novel a masterpiece and another a flop when an important character dies? Read on.
The death should make sense.
The more important the character you’re killing off, the better the reason for the death needs to be. Remember that readers won’t simply like the important character you’ve marked for death. They will identify with him or her. Kill off an important character and you vicariously do in your readers.
You see the difficulty.
This is why few authors kill off the main character of a novel. And yet, sometimes that’s what the story demands. I faced this in another of my books and received a few protests. If I had the book to write again, I would still keep the death. It proved the theme and laid the groundwork for the book that followed. If it hadn’t, a fictional life would have been spared.
Reach your readers, but don’t overwhelm them.
Let’s say you want to give a message of hope to women who have miscarried children. In order to reach these women, you create a character who suffers a miscarriage. That seems logical, right? While that might reach some of your intended audience, the women who most need hope in the period immediately following a miscarriage, might feel too raw to go through one again through the pages of your book. In such a case, you will have driven away the very people you wanted to help.
In this case, you have a good reason for the death of an important character (the unborn child). The death will touch your readers profoundly, but that may be to make them want to throw your book against the wall. Sometimes, as with Cheyenne Sunrise, you can shift the tragedy to a character that readers care about but won’t have bonded with as much. This dilutes the impact of the death, which is actually the desired effect in scenarios like this one.
The death should be honest.
Yes, we want to engage readers’ emotions, but it’s not fair to set them up to grieve for no other purpose. Besides, they can see right through any attempt to manipulate them.
Telling readers what they should feel is another form of manipulation. Paint the mood and let them experience the death on their own terms.
The death shouldn’t be a total surprise.
Good writers play their cards close to the chest, revealing them little by little. Sometimes you do want to shock readers in order to make them think. However, it’s usually better to clue them in on what’s coming by foreshadow your character’s death. Ways to do this include creating a forboding story tone, through dialogue, or by using your antagonist as a viewpoint character.
Final Thoughts from Janalyn
Killing off an important character is not to be taken lightly. If you decide that’s what your story needs, make sure there is someone in the story who grieves. This will provide a fuller experience and give your readers an outlet for their sorrow.
Over to You
Have you killed off an important character? Would you do it again? What are your thoughts on books where important characters die?
If you enjoyed this post, please share it on your social sites with my thanks. Janalyn