Have you ever read a scene where a character dies, and it’s supposed to be touching and emotional, but it just left you flat? Or been unable to get attached to a character, because it was so obvious from that beginning that that character only existed to die to prove the situation was, in fact, serious? How can you write character deaths that are imbued with meaning, that dignify the character, and that will move the reader on an emotional level?
A good death . . . (does at least one of these)
- Allows the character dignity or success.
- Emphasizes the story’s theme.
- Moves the plot forward.
- Foreshadows later events.
- Forces other characters to arc.
- Mirrors something in the main plot.
Multiple bodies hit the ground in my Chocoverse books. But for every one, I asked myself which of those points I was making. One death in particular – of a relatively minor character – does everything on the list. It happens early on in the first book. My protagonist, Bo, has just stolen a cacao pod (the source of chocolate) and is now being chased by a corporate assassin willing to kill her to bring it back. She’s gone to a friend-of-a-friend to hide and regroup when the assassin shows up:
The doorbell jangles and Frank comes in, flanked by one of the guys from yesterday. Frank turns Lula’s open sign to closed and quietly locks the door. That tiny click sends a cold chill down my spine. I flatten myself against the wall, able to see them through a one-way mirror.
Lula looks at me, and I can tell he’s scared. He says softly, “Tell me you didn’t leave anything in the rainforest that could be traced back to me.”
Heat fills my face. Ay, no! I’d left that lock killer on the gate. “Pero they’re untraceable, right?”
Frank pulls a gun and starts moving cautiously toward the counter. I whimper softly.
“Ordinarily, yes, but not to that guy.” Lula sighs. “And neither am I. If I try to disable my tracker, it will pump me full of poison so fast I’ll be dead before I hit the ground.”
About a minute after this, Lula’s dead. But: 1. He keeps his dignity, doesn’t allow them to torture him, and succeeds in not turning in Bo. 2. He’s given Bo what she needs to escape with the cacao pod, though she couldn’t pay him, and he protects her though he hardly knows her. Mercy, decency and hope paid forward are big themes in the book, so it fits. 3. This forces Bo out of hiding, and off the planet. 4. In Book 3, Frank kills someone else – to protect Bo. It’s a scene that mirrors this one, and shows 5. both their arcs throughout the trilogy, because both arcs really start right here. 6. And the unfairness of Lula’s death mirrors the unfairness of what’s about to happen to Bo’s planet, if the alien Coalition gets its way.
Do you have a death in your WIP that comes at a crisis moment for your protagonist? Think about playing up more aspects of it, to make it do more things for the book.
The more deaths you have, the less impact each one will have. Do all of them in your book serve a purpose?
A Bad Death
- Shocks/saddens readers just for the sake of shocking/saddening them. — Readers will start to feel used, especially if this happens to more than one character.
- Removes a character just to replace him with a new version OR because he was no longer needed for the plot. — Readers will not attach to the new character as deeply. They will also constantly compare the new character to the one they loved.
- Negates the theme or point of your story. — If the point is mercy prevails, you can’t kill characters in the name of justice.
- Breaks the “rules” you’ve set. — Which characters are supposed to be safe from violence in your world? Kids? Pets? The comic relief? Will the death you have in mind make your story a different genre?
Sometimes characters SHOULDN’T die. I had a character whose death was in the outline for Pure Chocolate, but when I actually wrote it, my agent said, “No, this character cannot die. It would break two of your other characters.” Including Chestla, Bo’s alpha-predator bodyguard. Because my stories are pretty much soap-opera on the page, I kept the first half of the scene as is. Then, instead of having the tragic/shocking/moving moment where he dies in Chestla’s arms, against all odds she manages to save him. I’m an outliner, and having that character alive echoed down to the conclusion of the trilogy. But while it meant more work, him being there gives Chestla a love triangle – the one thing her character wasn’t built to know how to deal with.
And besides, injured characters complicate things, which increases tension in the subsequent scenes.
Accountability and Character Death
Actions have consequences. Characters with agency should understand this going in. If he yells at his boss, he should expect to get fired. If she steps in front of a bullet, she should expect to die. Character death becomes much more meaningful when it comes as a result of the character’s own decisions.
This can be a noble sacrifice, choosing death to allow others to live, or their cause to succeed.
This can be natural consequence for greed, choosing to side with the ruthless villains, recklessness, etc.
This can be a form of redemption for the villain who finds peace in doing the right thing, even though it means death.
A death can seem over-the top or descend into bathos if the surrounding characters are overly expressive in their grief, or let the initial shock scene drag on too long. At some point we just feel numb. At some point after that, we start to giggle. Even if – like me—you’re writing comedy, that’s not what you want your reader to do when looking at the corpse of a beloved character.
Word choice can make a difference. If you engage in “purple prose” in an attempt to make the scene poetic, the whole thing can start to feel mock-serious.
At the same time, don’t let the emotions in the scene be too flat. These characters have just lost someone they care about. They need to be allowed to engage in honest shock, fear and/or anger. Study the psychological stages of grief so you can write them accurately. This is one place where it is important to show rather than tell. We won’t be sad just because you say the character is.
Traumas from seeing someone die or causing death are very personal, but general psychological studies can give you direction on how to write it. Focus in on the emotions and the details of the death/grieving process. This isn’t the place to let your worldbuilding/setting description/subplots derail the emotion in the death/grief scene.
Use only one scene to resolve a particular stage of grief. If scenes start to feel emotionally redundant, we’ll either get bored or start to giggle again.
Grief, in particular, allows for a big storytelling question: Why?
Why did this character die? Why did this character’s life matter? Why should the reader care?
It can be easy to neglect developing a character you know will die, but building deep character relationships between the soon-to-be deceased and those left to grieve allows the reader to care – because these other characters care. By giving her complicated relationships with others, shown in detail on the page well before the moment of her death, you allow survivor’s reactions to stimulate the reader’s empathy. Especially if there was conflict between the living and lost characters, or ambivalence because the death in some roundabout way benefits the living character.
Telegraphing vs Foreshadowing
All character deaths can be shocking, but they can only be meaningful if they were foreshadowed in some way. This prepares the reader for the thematic impact you want in the death scene, and allows you to give context to the death. Without that preparation, we’re too busy feeling betrayed to focus in on anything else.
You want to create a subtle sense of doom, maybe something the reader doesn’t even consciously see coming. Foreshadowing is subtle. Telegraphing is clumsy, and ruins the surprises. It can be a giveaway if every other character in the book gets a POV – except the one that dies. Or if that character has a poignant goal in the story, but not much else going for him. Make us care about the character that will die for the good qualities in themselves, not just the effect their death will have on the protag.
If you can’t hide a coming death, at least try to have something surprising happen about the way the character dies.
In the far future, chocolate is Earth’s only unique commodity one that everyone else in the galaxy is willing to kill to get their hands, paws and tentacles on
Latina culinary arts student, Bo Benitez, becomes a fugitive when she’s caught stealing a cacao pod from one of the heavily-defended plantations that keep chocolate, Earth’s sole valuable export, safe from a hungry galaxy.
Forces array against her including her alien boyfriend and a reptilian cop. But when she escapes onto an unmarked starship things go from bad to worse: it belongs to the race famed throughout the galaxy for eating stowaways! Surrounded by dangerous yet hunky aliens, Bo starts to uncover clues that the threat to Earth may be bigger than she first thought.
Find out more about the Chocoverse