What is the #1 rule of killing characters?
Aha! You know this one, don’t you?
“Always have a reason for death.” Good rule, but not the rule.
“Never kill off your main character.” Heh…heh…heh.
“Just kill your character and avoid the miraculous healing?” Ah, you are clever, aren’t you? But that’s still not the rule of killing characters.
“The rule is, always have a– *static*” Shh. I’m not ready to reveal what the rule is yet.
You should always have a reason for death. Your plot should always, without fail, benefit from the death of one of your people. Your characters should go on a lovely development arc following the traumatic experience of losing their father, best friend, or love interest (it cannot possibly be the mother, since they’re always dead at the beginning of the story).
You should always have a realistic way for them to die (avoiding shooting your henchmen in the arm and expecting them to die (Roy Rogers, I’m looking at you). There should usually be foreshadowing leading up to the death of a character, but not always.
What, then, could possibly be the rule for killing characters?
In truth, it depends on whether or not you want the character to stay dead.
Assuming you want the character to stay dead, let me show you how to use the most important rule in killing your characters.
You Will Need:
1. Your character’s body.
And that, good readers, is all.
The #1 Rule of Killing Characters is to have a body. Have a funeral. A memorial service will not do at all; you need to actually have the body mentioned.
I know a few of you will be staring wide-eyed at your computer screen and spluttering in surprise at my apparent morbidity, “Athelas, why?”
A couple of years ago, in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, a character died off-screen. Immediately, I jumped at that. The character, obviously, was still alive.
Longer ago than that, while the death of a character in Adventures in Odyssey was mentioned, his body never was. Bingo. He was, obviously, still alive.
And, if you have any knowledge of Marvel (while I’ve never watched anything Marvel, I’ve learned quite a bit from Pinterest), you’ll know that a body is absolutely necessary. There are so many other characters I could mention who I knew would be coming back because of their lack of a body. Sometimes I was right, at other times, I was wrong; each time, I waited for the character to stride once again through the door.
While your reputation will determine if a reader automatically assumes the character is still alive, I know I – and several others – will immediately say, “Nope, he’s alive,” if you don’t present the body to us.
The readers assumptions technically change nothing of how the story proceeds, but as any author knows, the reader is always right. Even when they’re wrong, their thoughts, their impressions, and their convictions about the story will never leave them. If you lack a body for your dead character, your reader will be on the edge of their seat, waiting for the fellow to pop up again.
When he doesn’t, you’ll leave them disappointed. And we’re trying to not disappoint our readers, remember?
Make them cry, yes. Make them laugh, yes. But never disappoint them.
Note: I must admit, I’ve been rather lazy about posting on this blog recently. I’m sorry to have disappointed you by being thus, and I shall endeavor to do better.