When a fictional character dies it can have a very real emotional impact on us.
Writer and Director Joss Whedon, famous for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Avengers, is really good at killing his characters. Doyle, Spike, Wash and Coulson.
Their deaths linger with us because he has set up the perfect kill shots. He has his audience fully invested in these characters, cheering them on, before he cuts them down. Yes, it makes the story more realistic, war means death. Yet, he doesn't take the easy route of letting some nameless or secondary character die. These are not red shirts. Thus his stories are more textured and memorable than his counterparts.
In writing your own stories, if you need to kill off a main character or want their death to have an emotional impact on the reader, there are five steps to reach that emotional target.
You've seen the experts in action. J.K. Rowling kills characters. Diggory, Dumbledore, Snape even Harry Potter himself.
We are not talking villains, the satisfaction of justice served or that poor crazy mad scientist being released from his suffering by a merciful death. These are the deaths of heroic characters that make us gasp and perhaps cry. We remember their death and it impacts how we see the rest of the story because a sacrifice has been made, the ante has been upped, the stakes are higher. This shit just got real.
If you want to kill someone off in your story, here are the five steps:
- Introduce the character. Don’t give them a throwaway role, even if they haven’t been in previous books or been a major player before. This intro should happen within the first 5% of the book if it is their first appearance. The reader will start building expectations and attachments to them. J.K. introduces Cedric Diggory and his father in the Weasleys' journey to the Quidditch world cup. Obi Wan Kenobi is implored by the princess in the opening battle of Star Wars: A New Hope and dies before the closing credits.
- The back story reveal. Perhaps in previous books, movies or episodes the target character has been the mysterious one but you can’t leave them in the shadows. Why care? That is what you are showing us here. We should care for this character because they've suffered or because they've lived an amazing life or because they are loyal on a level only few can ever achieve. By revealing back story, we know exactly who and what they’ll leave behind. Often this is delivered in a private moment with the main character. They confide a secret from their past to give the main character new purpose or hope. Doyle, Angel’s guide from the Powers that Be, finally makes a romantic connection with Cordelia by revealing a bit of his past just before his death. Snape gets his reveal posthumous, but most stories won’t include pensieves.
- Close up loose ends or say good bye. You need a moment where, if there was an unresolved conflict, a love triangle, an unrepentant crime, the character gets to find closure. American readers expect satisfaction with their reading. Harry Potter takes a slow walk through the forest with his dead ancestors, knowing he is headed for his death and yet he makes sure Neville knows to kill the snake. Before dying, Spike professes his deep belief in Buffy; she’s the one.
- Make it heroic or meaningless. This especially is best executed when in contrast to the character’s previous behavior. If they were heroic, let the death be meaningless or accidental. If they were an antihero or a misguided foe, making their death heroic allows that character to redeem themselves. Cedric Diggory, a good student, son and heroic champion of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, is killed as the ‘spare.’Spike, a selfish character, happy to consume his walking happy meals, sacrifices himself to save all mankind.Of course only Uncle Ben stays dead, so Spike comes back in the next season of Angel.
- Show the impact of their death. After they have died, show your audience the people they've saved, the corruption they've stopped or those who mourn. As your character's process the death, your readers will too. After Coulson’s death (yes, I know the TV series disrupts this), Steve Rogers and Tony Stark talk about the cellist, about losing a good man to battle. They have very different perspectives, yet both mourn his death. A brief scene is needed or the audience will flounder.
Now that you are aware of these steps, you’ll see them coming. You’ll recognize in your favorite television show when they are about to kill off one of the characters. You’ll see the clues when watching the next Joss Whedon movie, when reading your favorite authors. Hopefully, it will be well done and you’ll be so caught up in the story you won’t see the signs except in hindsight.
Now, pick your target, and line up your scenes.