Writing Death Scenes: How To Kill Off Characters

If you’re a fiction writer, you know this feeling well: you’re toiling away at your story, charting out your plot and reaching points that will no doubt choke up your reader … when you come to the realization that it’s time for one of your characters to sing their swan song. But how are you going to kill them off?

A heroic death by sword seems a bit cliché. If you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone, you can think of better ways to send off your beloved characters. Read on to get some inspiration for your next story!

1. Don’t be afraid to get gruesome

Some of the most iconic deaths are ones that make us feel that secondhand pain, or ones that are so inventive we wonder how they could possibly happen in real life. A great example can be taken from the king of character death, George R.R. Martin. In the Game of Thrones series, over 160 major characters have met their maker. One of the most memorable is Viserys Targaryen, who was given a crown … of molten metal poured directly over his skull. Ouch!

Think of novel ways to use unorthodox items or materials for your death scenes. Everyday items are especially cruel and unusual; the more familiar the object, the more visceral the death can be.

2. Have them a sacrifice themselves

If you’re going for heart-wrenching, getting your readers attached to a character and then having them sacrifice themselves is the way to go. If it makes sense for your character and plot, this could be fun to write.

For example: at the climax of your plot, present an obstacle that can’t be beat, or an impossible plan to pull off. Your character rises to speak and says, “I can help you by fending them off.” By staying and facing death, the character can give everyone else a way out. But they’ll also be giving up their life for the greater good.

Use your thesaurus and find new words to use to get the right tone across. This can be written to inspire triumph, melancholy, or even distress.

3. Throw in a red herring

Through clever use of foreshadowing, you could throw the audience for a loop and make them think a character is going to meet their fate only to show up unscathed at a later time. One way to do this is to use a red herring, or “a literary technique that is meant to mislead or distract from some real issue at hand.”

A bit of realism is key here. A character isn’t likely to survive a horrible plane crash or another obstacle in which the odds are stacked against them. Be clever! Did they escape an assassination attempt? Were they transported to another world or dimension, only to find their way back? This method requires some thought, but it could be worth it.

4. Duel it out

This method is sure to give readers some strong emotions. Two characters enter a conflict, but only one comes out alive. The stronger their relationship, the more effective this death is. The moment when Han Solo dueled his own son Kylo Ren is all the more memorable due to the plot twist that revealed they were related.

A final duel is usually how this plays out, but it doesn’t have to be written that way. If your story is particularly long, you can draw out this process over a couple of chapters or books. The two characters repeatedly meet in a test of wits or strength, each coming out harmed, whether it’s physical or mental. Finally, one prevails over the other. But which one: protagonist or antagonist? That’s for you to decide!

5. Give the Big Bad character their comeuppance

If you want a death that’s satisfying and easy to pull off, make your main antagonist die a death readers will savor. The longer the wait and the more complications experienced along the way, the better the death. Take pleasure in finally sinking the sword into a character made of pure evil.

Tired of Big Bad only being big and bad? Give the character some dimension, either throughout the story or with a change of heart right as they meet their death. You’ll have your readers spiraling in what will be a memorable final act.

6. A death with dignity

Some characters just don’t deserve to die. That’s a fact you’ll need to grapple with when you decide that the kindhearted and well-intentioned person even you ended up falling for gets killed by the antagonist. Hey, sometimes you need to show those villians mean business!

Just make sure you can justify the death. Killing off a well-liked character without reason will make your readers angry. And no one wants angry readers. If they absolutely must be sent off, have them reveal important plot information, or at the very least make them seem dignified and noble in their death.

7. Make an example of them

Some stories are about lessons or morals, and there’s no better way to get a moral lesson across than killing off a character due to their mistakes. Want to teach your readers that hubris will never win? Have a character get in over their head because of their ego.

This is one you shouldn’t do more than once. Any more and you end up seeming preachy in the worst way. But when used in the right moment, it can be very impactful.

8. Give your character a second chance

We’ve discussed all the ways to kill off your characters, but that’s not to say they have to die. It can be an impactful way to progress your story, but it’s not the only way. It may be better to give them a near-death experience and let them live just a little bit longer.

Death can be an overused trope in literature, so whatever method you choose, it needs to make sense and not upset the audience. Save these ideas for the perfect moment, to get the perfect reaction that will make your work of art stand out.

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