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How to Successful Kill a Character: The Checklist

How to Successful Kill a Character: The Checklist

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Published by KM Weiland
Seven good reasons to kill a character in your story and three bad reasons.
Seven good reasons to kill a character in your story and three bad reasons.

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Published by: KM Weiland on Jan 12, 2014
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01/12/2014

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I love killing people.Or, rather, I love killing characters. I love it when a noble character—or perhapsan ignoble one on his way to redemption—gets his grit on and sacrifices himself for someone he loves or for the larger cause. I love pulling on my ownheartstrings, never mind my readers’. I love the
epicness
a well-placed deathcan bring to an otherwise mundane story.Authors are always being advised to be mean to their characters. Often, thatmeanness involves killing them off. And even as we may bawl over our belovedcharacters’ deaths, most of us get a strange sort of fulfillment out of it. Wegotta play tough and do whatever best serves the story, right?But that, of course, begs the question: Is killing off a character really the bestway to serve your story?Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at some reasons that may justify our decision to end a character’s life—along with some not-so-goodreasons.
Good Reasons to Kill a Character
We can find many good reasons for snuffing even important characters,including:*
 It advances the plot.
 (Melanie in
Gone With the Wind 
.)*
It fulfills the doomed character’s personal goal.
 (Obi-Wan in
 A New Hope
.)*
It motivates other characters.
 (Uncle Ben in
Spider-Man
.)*
 It’s a fitting recompense for the character’s actions up to this point.
(Heathcliff in
Wuthering Heights
.)*
It emphasizes the theme.
 (Everybody in
Flowers of War 
.)*
It creates realism within the story world.
 (Everybody in
Great Escape
.)*
It removes an extraneous character.
 (Danny in
Pearl Harbor 
.)
How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist
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Bad Reasons to Kill a Character
Some less worthy reasons for doing our characters dirty include:*
Shocking readers just for the sake of shocking them.
 (Shock value isn’twithout its, well, value, but not every author is Alfred Hitchcock and not everystory is
Psycho
.)*
Making readers sad just for the sake of making them sad.
 (An old saw says, “If they cry, they buy.” But readers never appreciate being tortured without goodreason.)*
Removing an extraneous character.
 (I know, I know. I just said that was a
good
reason. But you have to double-check this one. If the character isextraneous, then you better verify he really belongs in this story in the firstplace.)
A Final Consideration Before You Kill a Character
Now that we have a grip on what makes a character's death work within astory—and what’s sure to make it fail—we next have to consider what could endup being a crucial reason
not
to kill your character.Every character in a story should be there for a specific reason. He’s there toenact a specific function (as we discussed in recent posts about archetypes androles). If he doesn’t enact that function, then you have to question his purposein the story. And if he
does
fill a role within your story, well, then ask yourself this: Who’s gonna fill that role if you kill him off?
Dramatica
 authors Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley explain:Unless the functions represented by the discontinued player reappearin another player, however, part of the story’s argument willdisappear at the point the original drops out. In the attempt tosurprise an audience by killing off a major player, many an authorhas doomed an otherwise functional storyform.
How to Kill a Character: A Checklist
Lucky for our sadistic little souls, roles and archetypes can shift from characterto character or be shared by several characters. In short: when a character diesoff, his death doesn’t have to mean his role will be left vacant for the rest of thestory.With all this knowledge in mind, here’s a quickie checklist for figuring out if youcan get away with murder:

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