Killing characters can be difficult. It’s hard to get the emotion just right to make your readers cry, rejoice, or want to punch something. It can also be a little hard to kill the characters you’ve grown attached to, but alas, the imaginary circle of life must persist. This will be a list of tips, from prep to aftermath, to help you get the scene, and also the aftermath in the story, just right.
Before killing characters, I like to take some time (sometimes a day or two) to get myself into the right mood (generally a sad one). I’ve noticed it’s hard to write tragic moments if you’re jumping with joy, yourself. Some may want to skip this step, like I said it’s just my personal process, but I have found it has helped me a lot with my emotional writing.
First, I cannot stress more the value of music. A good playlist is crucial for scenes so emotional. You should pick out songs that make you feel sad (or whatever other emotion you are trying to make the readers feel), but also that relate to, or remind you of, the sadness in the death of this character. Songs that mimic your protagonist’s actions in relation to the scene are also great to include. For me, I like to listen to some less-connected songs that make me feel sad first, just to get myself in the mood to write a sad scene. Then, I will have a playlist of songs that not only make me feel an emotion, but connect to the actual plot or theme of the scene/story. For example, when preparing for a death scene (which will remain unnamed, as the book has not been released yet) I listened to Last Kiss (Pearl Jam) because it has always made me sad, even though it had no connection to the plot (other than the dying). Then, when I actually wrote the scene, I used One Step Closer (Linkin Park) for part of the scene, because the lyrics connected to how angry and on-edge the protagonist was feeling and acting. I never write such a strong scene as killing a character off without good music. In my opinion, you need to feel the loss on some level to write it well, and music is a great way of channelling the emotions you need.
Next, is TV and movies. What movies and TV can make you cry like a baby? Take those out and watch them Even if they don’t make you cry, they need to make you feel loss, sadness, etc. For me, I watch the Tenth Doctor’s death episode on Doctor Who, and movies like Click that just pull at the heartstrings. Use whatever TV and movies work best for you.
Then, I like to read some sad book passages. The death (spoilers) of Taggle in Plain Kate by Erin Bow comes to mind, or of Liesel (spoiler) finding everyone dead in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Everybody has a couple passages that always give them that lump in their throat. Read those. However, I forewarn you, only read the sad parts, not the whole book. If you read the whole thing, then the sad and happy bits will mix together, and we just want sad.
You can also take it a step further, and wear clothes you don’t like. Comfy clothes that you wear when you’re sad, or irritating ones that make you miserable and angry. Anyway, I find it helps not to be wearing my favourite clothes, ones I would wear when I’m having fun. You can do this with food, too. Comfort food like mac and cheese, ice-cream, all that good stuff. It basically puts you in the mind-set that you’ve been the one grieving and miserable.
Another, more crucial, part is isolation. There is nothing worse than finally getting into the right mood and starting to right the scene, only to be interrupted by your happy family members or pets. Lock yourself away somewhere alone (somewhere gloomy if possible) and write without risk of emotional-contamination.
Finally, try to think about personal losses and sadness you have felt. Draw from your experiences, painful as they may be, and channel them into your writing. I’m not saying to write what you experienced in a literal sense, but take how it makes you feel, and use that.
Leading Up To the Death:
In the rest of the story, before the character dies, there are a lot of ways you can ensure the death is sadder. The main idea is that the character usually shouldn’t be at complete peace. Somebody that is perfectly okay with dying probably won’t make your readers as sad as, say, a little girl with Leukemia that wants to make 1000 paper cranes before she dies, but dies before reaching her goal (Sudako and the Thousand Paper Cranes).
The best ways to lead up to a death and make it sadder, is to give the character work they won’t finish, a plan that goes unfulfilled, wasted potential, untold secrets/stories, family left behind, fear of dying, etc. The readers need to feel sad or angry, and it is much harder to create those emotions when the character seems at peace, satisfied, and all seems well. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m sure it can, but I have never seen it pulled off. Why, in real life, does it usually seem so much harder when somebody young dies? Because they had so much to live for. Their work, their potential, their plans, etc. were not fulfilled.
Writing the Death Scene:
When writing the actual death, there are also a few things to remember.
First and foremost, please avoid cliches. For example, love professions, “they’re in a better place”, “I’ll never forget you”, over-dramatizing, etc. A cliche will strip away all the emotion you’ve tried so hard to create. Death scenes should be personal, original, not something your reader has heard thousands of times before and is likely to roll their eyes at. Draw from personal experiences, and do some research on how other people reacted during losses. Death scenes should have a unique meaning for the story, they shouldn’t just be a generic Hollywood scene. For an example of a good death scene, my thoughts go to the popular book The Hunger Games. When the little girl, Rue, dies they don’t spend the whole scene talking about it. Katniss isn’t using the last moments to tell Rue how much she cares about her, or that she’ll go to a better place. Rue asks if all of the food they had been after was blown up, and then asks Katniss to sing to her, which she does. The scene was moving for readers, because it was personal, raw, real. Most important, it was symbolic to the story and true to the characters.
Next, your death should have a purpose. It needs to impact the plot and characters. How is the journey changing because of this death? How is it impacting the protagonist or other major characters? There needs to be some reason for it. Whether it is to scare your protagonist about the upcoming battle and make things seem real for them, to motivate them to start a charity, whatever. Just make sure it isn’t pointless.
I also recommend being careful of over-description. I find that emotional scenes tend to work better when the sentences are generally simple and short. If the reader is distracted with big words and hyper-detailed descriptions, they won’t be able to feel much of anything (other than boredom). If a character they are emotionally invested in is dying, they probably won’t care what pattern the wallpaper is, or the exact dimensions of a wound.
There are a couple things to mention about after the death, too.
First, the death shouldn’t be forgotten right away. If the character’s close friend dies, they aren’t going to be going to the mall on Friday night. I notice this a lot in fiction, where a major character will die, and within a week they are completely forgotten by the characters. Let me tell you, the reader hasn’t forgotten. If you move past the death too fast, you’re characters will probably seem a bit heartless. While life and death situations can impact how fast a character is forced back into action, that shouldn’t mean they forget about a tragic loss. I’m not saying there’s a right amount of time to grieve, and people do grieve in different ways–somebody might appear fine and throw themselves into work, only to have a breakdown much later–but grieving should appear in some way, shape, or form.
Also, you should avoid assumptions about how grieving works, or how other characters should react/comfort the grieving ones. Do research. I spent loads of time researching the stages of grief, ways to comfort loved ones (or ways not to), different ways people grieve, etc. before I killed off a major character. It will really show in your characters if you don’t do any form of research. They might seem cold (moving on instantly),patronizing (“it’ll be okay”), or any number of things you don’t want your readers to think about them. On the opposite side, if the grieving if well researched and constructed, you can make readers connect with characters on a deep, emotional level. Character deaths have a way of really developing your characters for the readers, but whether that development is good or bad is up to you.
Characters also shouldn’t always be brought back to life. While in some genres, such as fantasy or science fiction, it is possible to bring characters back in a way that is logical to the story, this shouldn’t be done all the time. When a character dies, it is supposed to make the reader feel something, but if they know that the person will just be brought back to life it will start to feel meaningless. You start to get a “boy who cried wolf” vibe. What’s the point in crying over their death, if you know they will be back in a few chapters? This isn’t to say you can never bring characters back, sometimes it can be good for the story, but you should avoid doing it too often. I, myself, use a rule that I can only bring one character back to life (one time) in a single story, book, or series.
There are, of course, exceptions that make bringing characters back often work well. Most of these, while they do bring characters back, will still have some consequence for the death. I’ve read many paranormal and fantasy stories that have done well in making consequences for their actions. For example, the sister can be brought back to life, but only in exchange for the protagonist’s soul. If you are going to bring characters back often it can work well, just make sure there is still an element of loss and consequence for the deaths, so the readers don’t feel duped or bored.