Rules for Writing Death

Life is not fair, least so when it’s coming to an end. So much of human thought and culture focuses around death, it’s no wonder people get so emotionally invested in it, even in simulated form on the page. Character death can be one of the most powerful emotional experiences in a narrative, but because of the emotions involved, it’s also one that has to be handled well and placed appropriately, else you’ll have your readers/viewers rightfully crying foul.

I’ve mentioned this before on the blog; I’m currently working on a graphic novel/comic/whatever as my main creative project. I’ve got a lot of plans for it. One of my plans is to build our main group of heroes up to seventeen people, then have that group whittled around to about seven or eight as the work moves towards its denouement. So yeah, there’s going to be plenty of fallen heroes, and no Plot-Important Character Immunity.

However, as I’ve been planning this out, I’ve been thinking back to some of the other works I’ve gone through, with the characters in similar situations. Specifically, works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead. Works with an excessive amount of character death. Works where not only can anyone die, but most characters will die. And they’re both very strong works in their own right. However, all that death pushes the tone quite a bit darker than I’m wanting to go, and the sheer quantity of it makes most individual cases of characters dying lose a lot of the impact.

There’s a line there. With the story I’m wanting to tell, characters are going to die by necessity, but kill too many, or too darkly, and the work’s going to get dour, the death itself won’t be as strong at driving engagement, and any hypothetical readers are going to be a lot more hesitant to let themselves connect with my characters. I’m going to have to toe the line. Of course, I don’t have any firm idea of where it is.

I decided to put together guidelines for myself. As a mental exercise, and to make my work stronger as I progress, I’d set goals for how I’m going to be treating death in this work. Things that define the how, when, and where death is going to be applied in my narrative. Of course, as with everything in writing, these are flexible, but having them thought out in advance should make my story a lot better than it would be otherwise.

And, of course, if I’m putting in all the work anyways, I might as well make a post out of it, right? Here goes:

Only kill characters when it truly advances the story

If I just want to get a character or group of characters out of the way, there are a lot of ways to do so. Make them get pissed off and leave. Have them be too scared to get involved. Have them taking care of their own business in Timbuktu. Have them retire. Hell, if I need bad things to happen to them, it’s a simple matter to have them be grievously injured, kidnapped, or something of the like.

Death is the narrative equivalent of a big freakin’ sledgehammer. It’s there to shatter, to break down, and to drive spikes into aspects of your narrative. There’s definitely times when a sledgehammer is called for. However, you wouldn’t use a sledgehammer whenever you needed to drive in nails. Likewise, you don’t want to kill off characters every time the opportunity arises.

Knowing myself, I’m sure there’s going to be tempted to kill off characters as a means of managing my large primary cast. After all, the focus can only be on so many things without drawing the pace of the story to a crawl. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For one, these side characters could still be useful. Killing them off removes all utility I could be getting from them in the future. Killing characters indiscriminately is also needlessly manipulating of any readers who may be honestly interested in them. If anyone’s grown attached to them, it’s downright disrespectful to kill those characters off in favor of new, unproven ones. It also wastes any emotional torque such death could bring, in properly designed death scenes.

And really, there’s going to be a lot of situations where it’s just not necessary. I’ve got a story to write about death, my work will be better off just removing them from the situation in a way that leaves them alive. For audiences to take death seriously, it has to be handled respectfully, and throwing it at the wall the first chance I get without properly exploring it is not a sign of respect. Most of the time, it’s going to be both far more appropriate and easier to adequately write to have characters be injured, but survive, to be off on their own quests, or something similar, than to kill them outright.

Death is a conclusion, and should be treated as such

A lot of works do shocking, completely out of nowhere character deaths. A lot of works do them very well. That’s not something I’m really wanting to explore in this piece. I’m going for something strongly character-driven here, and every major death is the end to one of my character’s stories. That means it should be written like an ending. It will need a proper foundation, solid build up, and significant resolution. Essentially, a death scene needs its own individual arc to be handled properly in this piece, one that plays out over much more time than just the scene itself.

This holds the risks of making deaths more predictable. If done write, with death used sparingly, and only when appropriate, I may be able to avoid that, but in any case, and predictable but well-written death is still worlds better than the opposite.

Plot-important deaths are about more than just the character dying

War sucks. People die. Their friend move on, because really, they have to. Everyone’s impacted by death, though. Some more than others. But everyone carries it with them.

I don’t want members of the main cast to just die and never be mentioned again. Deaths will impact the characters close to them for long after the initial event. Some will handle it better than others, some will show it more than others, but everyone is affected. Character death is a massive thing in a narrative, and one of the most commonly-seen mistakes in modern fiction is to kill a major character just for a quick emotional peak and not use it for anything else afterwards. This wastes a lot of the deaths potential, and is disrespectful both to the characters and any reader that’s connected with them. Death always needs to drive further action.

Nobody comes back

This is an idea I’m not entirely attached to yet, because I’ve got a setting where I could easily justify resurrection in certain circumstances, but I’m definitely leaning this way. If you ever want to ruin all emotional impact character death will have, forever, the quickest way is to bring a character back from the dead.

This is a problem that’s really endemic with superhero comics. We’ve had quite a few well-publicized character deaths already, this decade. Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, just off the top of my head. All of them died. All of their deaths received major publication in mainstream media. All of their followers were totally nonplussed at their deaths. All of them are back now. Those last two things are related. After all, why should your readers take death as final when it’s obvious the writer doesn’t.

So yeah, I’m going to say that unless a death puts my story seriously off track, nobody’s coming back from the grave. I do reserve the right to have characters appear dead, but show up alive and well later, so long as nobody confirms their death and that’s foreshadowed at or around the time of killing.

No deaths purely for meta reasons

Sometimes, you can just feel the writer moving things around in the story. Nowhere is this more commonly apparent than in character death calculated to have an impact on the reader. This is the brand new villain killing the badass character just so the reader believes their super strong. This is the character dying with little build at the start of a new arc so the reader knows it’s a tragic story. This is the undeveloped girlfriend getting killed and shoved into the fridge so the audience audience is totally shocked and decides the hero has to go all grimdark now.

That’s not to say that everything that’s similar to the above is automatically bad. Just that most of the time, when the above situations are written, they’re written solely for their impact on the audience, with their storytelling utility held secondary. It’s outward facing rather than forward facing. Events can and should shock, sadden, instill joy, and otherwise emotionally effect the audience. However, you do need to give your audience some credit; they are absolutely ready and willing to connect with your characters and immerse themselves in your story. The best way to instill an emotional response is to direct events towards your characters, rather than the reader. It’s a subtle difference, but one your reader can easily pick up on. Deaths need to drive your story, not your audience; they’ll easily follow you where you’re going, if it’s well-written enough. But trying to manipulate a response out of them just makes them resist.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect readers to respond to my character’s death. But killing characters off just to make the reader respond is both ineffective, as the reader will know and fight against it, and short-sided, as it rarely is well-written enough to drive the story.

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8 responses to “Rules for Writing Death

  1. Great post, and good point. Death can be a good story-telling tool, but when used too much or for the wrong reasons it doesn’t work. If I read a book or comic where everyone is dying a lot without much cause, I tend to give up, because I don’t hold out much hope for characters I’ve invested a lot in! But, if it’s used in the right situations, even often, then yeah, it can have a lot of impact.

    • That’s exactly what I’m going for. War sucks, and has sometimes fatal consequences, but I don’t want everyone to be getting so heavy-hearted all the time. That’s just really draining on the reader.

  2. very well said. some salient points in this and I may have stolen a few ideas 🙂
    wondering if you ever read The Long Walk by Stephen King /Richard Bachman? The entire book is characters dying one-by-one with only one left standing and its handled surprisingly well (for a King story)

    • Feel free to steal ideas. I wouldn’t be putting them up here if I wanted to keep them to myself 🙂 Can’t say I have read that one. That does seem to be pretty much the idea I’m going for, though, so I might have to check it out.

  3. Pingback: Je suis prête. | winterbayne

  4. I have to agree that superhero deaths are a joke. Whenever someone dies in a comic I feel nothing, as I know it is just a ploy to sell extra copies and that all major characters will return sooner or later.

    How a character perishes determines how I feel about the scene too. I’ve seen so many noble sacrifices that I don’t bat an eye lid when someone kills themselves to save the day. Some animes handle deaths well, for example there is a major one in Trigun that shook me to the core.

  5. Have you seen Attack of the Titans. Sounds very similar to what you are working on – a larger group whittled down to a small group of survivors. Even though each death was shocking and unexpected, because a core group continued on, it was easier to stay emotionally invested in the story.

    • Can’t say I have seen it, though I’ve heard a lot about it. That does sound like pretty much what I’m going for here. I might have to consider checking it out. Thanks!

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