Peggy Bechko Tells Us How to Kill a Character

Heartless, that’s what she is.

And that’s why we love ‘er:

Here’s somebody who really knows how to kill a characer – Uma Thurman in KILL BILL

Ever Wondered How To Kill a Character?

We writers create people (fictional ones) and we can kill them off as well. We can kill off characters that just hang around the edges of the story (remember the new guy on Starship Enterprise who you knew was going to get it? I mean, really, who didn’t know the new guy was toast?) or we can kill off a main character. Heh heh heh.

Yep, we’re god-like beings in that regard. We can create ’em and we can squish ’em like bugs.

But wait, hold on. There’s more to it than that. When we use our keyboards to kill off a character we better have a darn good reason or be read to duck that tsunami of frustrated hate mail that’s sure to come your way. Swept up in all that power of being a god-like writer I bet you didn’t think of that.

Yep, the death of a character, most certainly a main character appears to be a great big turn off to readers or film-goers, and it can be, hence the hate mail writers can receive. But, it can also add unmeasurable power and drama, pathos and empathy to your story lifting to from ordinary to extraordinary.

Still, again, beware the frustrated, infuriated reader.

Despite the fact that it is your story you’re writing.

So, you figure your story demands you kill off a prominent character. Nothing else will lend the pathos and power your story needs. How do you accomplish that and yourself live in writer world to tell another tale to that reader who might well hurl your book or script across the room at the character’s death?
Well, there are some things for intrepid writers to keep in mind.

For starters foreshadow the character’s demise in your writing. This can be tricky, but it’s necessary. Readers in general expect a happy ending, so killing off the character you’ve gotten them to like, identify with and cheer for is a jolt. Not that the end of your story has to be shown from the beginning or that your readers should expect the character to die. But it should make sense in context. It should, upon reflection, make sense to the reader. This hinges on your skills as a writer.

Another note. Above all, make sure the death of that character matters, that it’s not just for shock value. When a character gives his or her life to benefit something greater, when a life is given in service to something worth even more than a life, then the reader resonates with that and the writer is victorious. It creates a situation where the reader can cheer even while the character is mourned. Can feel triumphant even while shedding tears. Do not make that death for nothing.

And finally, while that story may not have the usual happy ending, that doesn’t mean you can’t end on a positive note. We humans crave that ray of light even in the midst of the worst disasters, the most mind-numbing catastrophes. Think about books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen. For example the movie 2012. It’s one disaster after another. People are dying by the millions. The spunky Russian lass is killed (thank god the small dog survives), but in the end there is hope and her death was in order to save others. Sacrifice.

Killing off a character, one you’ve created to be a three-dimensional character people care about, is never a decision a writer should make without carefuul consideration. But if you’re there. If you’ve decided you can’t have the kind of story you want to write; that your story demands the loss of that character, then consider my previous suggestions to make it powerful, poingnant and satisfying for your audience.

And I’d very much like to hear about your momentous decision to kill a character in a story you’ve written. What made you decide that character was fated to die?