Episode 145: Death in Fiction

On May 29th, Kasie and Rex were back in the studio to talk about how and when to kill a character and what that death should look like. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day(s)

Death in Fiction


  • Who dies
  • When and how
  • Writing an uncliched scene
  • How to do it
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

I helped Hollie finish her homeschool ELA work this week on the DreamSMP storytelling and one of the key parts of the lore is death. When players die in the game, they can be regenerated twice before becoming “dead dead,” or being kicked out of the action. This raises the stakes of the game. If a player has died once, s/he’s got more to lose by dying a second time. After that second death, the player is really at risk with just one life left.

Which got me thinking about death in fiction. What’s at stake? We’ve talked before about the YA fascination with putting the main character in life-or-death peril almost constantly. In regular commercial fiction, death has a specific purpose. In horror, death is an expectation. So that’s what we’re going to discuss today.

Death on fiction: Who die, when and how, why, and how to keep from making it a cliche.

But first, housekeeping.

The SCWA is back in action on Tuesdays at noon. It’s the Summer Series of Writing Conversations workshops. You can register for them here. They’re free and open to the public when they’re live. But recordings can only be accessed by members of the SCWA. Join for just $56 and get access to all of the Writing Conversations that have come before, about a dozen 1-hour workshops just waiting for you to view and learn from. That alone is worth the $56 rate. Writing Conversations are made possible by the SC Humanities.

On June 15th I’ll be leading the Writing Conversations, looking at Writerly Goals again. I led that goal setting session in January and so we’ll be doing a mid-year check in. Where are you with yours?

Also on June 15th, I’m the featured author at Words & Wine, the Columbia-area meet-up for writers and readers. They’ve moved to a Zoom format which is more convenient and we still encourage beverages, so that’s fun. You can register for that event here. It’s at 6 p.m. on June 15th. 

Finally, in June we’ll begin mentions of independent bookstores throughout the state and shout out some of them so listeners know where they are and how to find them. It’s the least we can do given that we’re both big Amazon sluts.

Segment 2

Okay, on to the topic of death in fiction. Let’s start with the basics. Death is either:

  • Accidental (tragic, comic, unexpected)
  • Intentional (murder, survival)
  • Expected (illness, old age)
  • Public (plane crash, terrorist event, something that kills a lot of people)
  • Private (singular, family)

You can include the action of the death in the story. In After December, it’s just Brian imagining what Tony was doing and feeling and going through and that imagination comes from previous interactions with Tony. But we don’t actually see the moment of death.

This article suggests the top ten deaths in literature for experiencing death:

  • WP Inman in Cold Mountain (just as he’s found love, he’s gunned down)
  • Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway (suicide)
  • Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls (war wound)
  • Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (beheaded)

Some things to note in a few of these:

  • A sense of resignation, that death is the logical conclusion here
  • A sense of satisfaction, as in “I’ve done all I can”
  • A sense of peace, the great struggle to survive is over

Who do we choose for death? What makes a good killable character?

How does each genre handle death:

  • Mystery/Crime
  • Romance
  • Commercial/Contemporary fiction
  • Horror (good link here to some “best of”)
  • YA

Segment 3

This link talks about heartbreaking deaths in literature which is less about craft and more about impact. So let’s think about that for a second. How do you want the reader to feel about the death in the story?

What are we trying to accomplish?

If you want to motivate the main character to take action, you kill the person holding him back. Some other motivations for killing a character (this link from KM Weiland and the Structuring Your Novel workbook):

  • Advance the plot
  • Fulfill a character’s purpose or goal
  • Motivate other characters (do it for Johnny, man)
  • Fitting recompense for the character’s behavior thus far 
  • Emphasize the theme
  • Create realism in the story
  • Remove an extraneous character

Bad reasons for killing a character:

  • Shocking the readers just for the sake of shocking them
  • Making readers sad just to make them sad
  • Removing an extraneous character

Segment 4

This article suggests six times you should not kill the character:

  • Death serves no purpose
  • The character is not going to stay dead
  • The character is insignificant (“red shirt”)
  • The character is LGBTQ+ (“bury your gays”)
  • The character is a person of color (“Black dudes die first”)
  • The character is female

The last three are basically the author killing off the diverse characters in an effort to move the white male protagonist forward. Bad.

Some questions to ask when considering killing a character (this link):

  • What is the character’s role in the story?
  • What will the impact be of the character’s death?
  • Does it make sense to kill this character? Think genre rules, etc.
  • How should the reader feel about the character’s death?
  • What will the effect be for the MC, the plot, the overall theme of the book?

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