Death is an important part of fiction. We spend a lot more time contemplating Hamlet (where almost everyone dies) than A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where no one dies). And in speculative fiction, the bar keeps rising. JRR Tolkein may have killed Boromir, but he’s the only one of the Fellowship of the Ring who kicks the bucket (permanently anyway). JK Rowling definitely raised the stakes with Dumbledore, George RR Martin axed both Ned Stark AND put on a Red Wedding, and don’t get me started on the end of The Hunger Games.
(For those who haven’t read it and are waiting for the final movie, I’ll be vague and just say that Suzanne Collins broke my heart.)
So, how do you pick who to kill?
First, it’s a matter of timing. You can kill a number of characters all within a short span of time or pages (as JK Rowling does at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but each death is going to pack less punch. The reader gets a little numb. It’s one thing to kill a room full of extras, but space major deaths out if you can.
I won’t tell you to keep deaths to the end of a story or character arc. It’s frequently a good idea, but Hedwig’s death (at the beginning of Deathly Hollows) was a powerful death that foreshadowed the more serious tone of the last book in the Harry Potter series.
Next, make sure that you don’t have anything really interesting to do with that character later. That’s one reason you may get a slew of deaths at the end of a book or series. The story is over, there isn’t anything left for any character to do anyway (except star in fan-fiction). This is key. George RR Martin had a stroke of brilliance when he thought to execute Eddard Stark — the character was at a dead end, imprisoned and with no other out but ignominy among the Night’s Watch. AND it is Eddard’s family’s thirst for revenge that inspires the continuation of the plot.
But the Red Wedding? Shocking as it was, it ground the plot to a halt. With the only serious threat against the Lannisters taken out, there was nothing left for the nobles in King’s Landing to do except tear each other to pieces — which turned out to be a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be. Catelyn Stark’s death was appropriate, but Robb King in the North still had work to do!
And finally, don’t plan your deaths. I’ve found that the best, most shocking, and most meaningful deaths just happen. I’ll walk my character into a situation fully intending to carry him or her through, and I can’t. There’s no way without a corny deus ex machina, or without turning the dreadful foe into an oaf. It hurts sometimes — I’ve cried after killing characters. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We read and write to process our darker emotions, and the most primal of those is the fear of death.
You don’t have to write tragedy. Personally, I like a little more sweet than bitter in an ending. But don’t go into a story refusing to sacrifice any particular character. It’s a lot more fun to keep your readers — and yourself — on pins and needles.
*I’m aware that the meme “kill your darlings” originated as “murder your darlings”, advice given by Arthur Quiller-Couch during a lecture titled “On Style”. Quiller-Couch spoke about “murdering” frilly turns of phrase, not characters. But it still makes a great blog post title, doesn’t it?