Writing the death of a character without shtick and cliché

or: how to kill a character in a way that will break your reader’s heart

Sooner or later you will get to the point where you have to write a purpose-filled death for one of your main characters.

This will be a character that you and your readership will already have built a successful relationship with (so the death will come as a shock). You’ll want to make sure you pick the right time and place for such a momentous milestone.

But be aware that this death will not be over in a chapter. And will take a while to build. There will be consequences (the five stages of grief, for example) and there will be an accumulation of events. The story will build-up to the moment and rumble on afterwards.

Note, also, that the path to the death scene might not be a slow decline for your character, but rather an ascendant (perhaps transcendent) climb to what you might call the pyramid of martyrdom, where the sacrifice is the pinnacle of the character’s sum achievement and worth in your story.

Ask yourself these key questions. What does your character:

  • Most fear?
  • Stand for?
  • Stand against?
  • Most love?
  • Excel at?
  • Symbolize?

Also, think about this: how would your character want to be commemorated? Memorialised?

Now set your mind against all these possibilities and think of the worst possible outcomes for your hero by turning things completely around and switching things on their head (this will also help you to show-not-tell).

Examples:

The hero fears spiders? Getting attacked by a multitude of giant spiders is too easy. What about this? The hero has to save a spider, but this triggers an early death (perhaps squished by a mutant fly)

The hero stands for honesty? The hero is tried and executed for telling lies is too easy. What about this? The character has to defend a known liar out of compassion / duty, but this causes a fall (the liar survives) and the hero suffers a wretched death

The hero opposes all forms of bullying? Attacked by a notorious bully and beaten to pulp is too easy. What about this? The hero has to form an alliance with a notorious thug to help humanity / others, but this causes a hero’s fall from grace and subsequent death in ignominy (everyone thinks the hero has been the bully all along)

The hero loves animals? Savaged by a much loved pet is too easy. What about this: the hero must destroy a large number of animals to save a family / loved one / the world. But this leads to the hero’s disgrace and gradual decline toward darkness & extinction. No one will ever know that the hero sacrificed his/her own values ​​for the sake of those he/she loved

The hero excels at swordsmanship, but is brought down by a complete beginner is too easy. What about this? The hero’s excellence at the craft propels him/her to the top of all ranks and makes him/her dominant in the field, but this means the hero does not learn simple (new) lessons / tactics that everyone below his/her position will have discovered / performed / practiced. I mean, everyone uses a crossbow these days, don’t they? How did he/she not know?

The hero is famed for being insightful but is brought down by an unthinking idiot is too easy. What about this? The hero’s perceptual intellect enables him/her to identify dangers that lay way ahead, but the hero becomes so consumed by remote dangers that he/she does not see or recognize a greater and more deadly threat that sits right under their very nose.

So try these character turn-rounds / transformations / volte-faces / capitulations… and approach the death of your character while avoiding melodrama and stale tropes.

Neil mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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