Making a Character Death Make Sense

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’ve spent way too much time this month rationalizing and over-thinking a character death in my story that I knew was definitely coming. Fortunately, after talking it through with my human sounding board (my wife), I think I’m ready to write The Death Scene.

And I’d like to share some insights I’ve picked up along the way.

Stories can deal with character deaths in myriad ways. Sometimes, stories kill characters flippantly, as if to show the reader that Life in this story can be tossed aside as easily as anything else. This is certainly the case in the grimdark future of the 41st millennium.

Sometimes, death is used to shock the reader and add layers of uncertainty to the story, like in that one famous but non-spoiler-y death scene in A Storm of Swords.

Other times, though, I think a death in the story must be properly laid out. If the character’s death is not pointless, but is also not meant to shock the reader, then the reader has to at least be prepared for it. The death has to make sense.

Making Character Death Make Sense

I think it’s weird to say that the reader might expect a certain character to die, but in some cases that’s okay. When preparing for a character death as a writer, you have to ask yourself why the character should die.

Does their death reinforce a theme of the story? Will their death shake up the current “world order”? Does the death of one character spur another to make a decision they would not otherwise make?

A single character death could be validated by all of these reasons, but it would be easy for any death to slip into cheap plot device territory. The death in my story falls into that last category, but I want it to be meaningful beyond how it serves the narrative.

Here are some things I’ve tried to do in my story to “prepare” for this particular death:

  1. Laid the groundwork. Due to circumstances mostly outside the characters’ control, this particular character’s death is effectively the only logical conclusion to their arc.
  2. Have other characters try to prevent it. One character in particular has tried their best to prevent this character’s death, even making some risky decisions in an effort to help them.
  3. Give the remaining characters time to grieve. I think this is the most important aspect. Letting the remaining characters react to and grieve for the one character’s death gives it meaning.
  4. Every plot point after their death should have been different if they lived. This is the second-most important aspect to me. If the story is not altered because of the character’s death, then it’s ultimately meaningless. For the death to be anything more than a cheap thrill, the other characters and the story thereafter have to be irrevocably changed. The death must be the cause of every follow-on effect on the plot (or at least the big plot points).

That about sums up the (over-)analytical hoops I’ve jumped through over the last week or so to make this character’s death make sense for my story. I hope it will make sense to my readers, too. I’m curious how other writers out there have “prepared” for the death of one of their characters. Let me know in the comments.

Steve D

2 thoughts on “Making a Character Death Make Sense

  1. I’ve never put so much thought into killing my characters, and now I think I’m not giving them the justice they deserve. Thanks for sharing this. I think I shall relook my own stories.

    1. I think that’s okay if the death makes sense in the context of your story. My reluctance with this particular death was over bombarding the reader with tragedy. Tragedy for its own sake can be tiresome for some readers, but in this case, it was sort of the only option.

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