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How to Kill a Character—And Avoid Hate Mail
Some of the most powerful stories in literature and cinema have a surprising common element: The death of a main character. At first glance, this would seem to be an instant turnoff. Why hang with a character for 300+ pages only to watch him get knocked off in the end? But the truth is, when handled properly, the death of a character can add untold power and pathos to a tale. It can lift your story from ordinary to extraordinary. It can also result in a slew of hate mail from formerly loyal readers. The death of a popular character has caused more than one book to be hurled across the living room. So when find your story demands you kill a prominent character, how do you tap into the power and pathos without infuriating your readers? After analyzing a number of books and movies in which the main characters bit the dust, I discovered three keys to playing the assassin and living to tell another tale. Key #1: Make the death matter. Nothing kills a reader’s trust faster than characters who die for no good reason—or purely for shock value. If you’ve built a character into a three-dimensional human being worth caring about, then he’s someone who deserves to die for a purpose (unless your intention is to illustrate purposelessness—such as is occasionally accomplished with success in war stories). When Maximus (Russell Crowe) dies in Gladiator, we know he’s sacrificed his life to free Rome from the tyranny and corruption of Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Instead of angering us, we accept his death as the only logical conclusion. His gave his life to gain something worth more than

his life. We resonate with that, we admire him for his nobility, and we cheer his victory, even as we mourn his death. Key #2: Foreshadow the character’s demise. If you kill a prominent character without warning, readers are likely to react with anger and frustration. They expected to remain in this character’s company for chapters to come, or, at the very least, they expected a happy ending. Jerking the rug out from under them at the last minute means sacrificing the resonance of foreshadowing. A story’s outcome should be unpredictable, but it should also make sense in the context. Readers should be surprised by a character’s death, but when they stop to consider it, they should also be able to realize, Ah, yes, that makes sense. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the reader knows almost from the beginning that Owen is going to die. The narrator, who is looking back on events, tells us so, and Owen’s own dreams of his demise hint at the manner of his death. When tragedy actually strikes, we’re prepared for the worst. And, surprisingly, this foreknowledge only heightens the suspense and the poignancy. Key #3: End on an affirming note. Generally speaking, readers want happy endings. Even in the midst of the worst of catastrophes, it’s important we find a ribbon of light. In some instances, this is just a matter of highlighting the good accomplished by the character’s death (as in both Maximus’s and Owen Meany’s stories), but sometimes a little artistic finagling can give you an unexpected happy ending. Audrey Niffenegger’s wildly popular The Time Traveler’s Wife uses its time-traveling premise to allow the main characters one last reunion, far in the future, after the husband’s death. This ray of love and joy pierces through the otherwise tragic ending to allow the reader a wistful smile as he closes the book’s cover. Killing a character is never a decision you should be make lightly. But if you’re certain a death is what your story demands, then you can use these three keys to satisfy your readers even in the midst of tragedy.

About the Author: K.M. Weiland grew up chasing Billy the Kid and Jesse James on horseback through the sand hills of western Nebraska, where she still lives. A lifelong fan of history and the power of the written word, she enjoys sharing both through her novels and short stories. Visit her blogs Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture to read her take on the writing life.

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