You’ve seen it coming a mile away.
They’ve hinted at it for the past thirteen episodes. Your favorite character has kept throwing themselves into the heat of the fray. He’s gotten some bumps and bruises, but he’s always come out okay. He tries to hide how badly the injuries are affecting him, but you know.
You know if he keeps this up, his days are numbered. And you know he’ll keep it up, because that’s the kind of person he is.
And then the moment comes: the sky boils with black clouds. Lightning tears across the screen. He steps into a fight you know he just can’t win.
Someone tries to come to his aid, screaming his name–but he has to buy them time. He has to help them all escape.
He puts up a fight. It’s valiant, it’s bloody, it’s brutal–
He smiles. And blood seeps across his shirt. And he falls to the ground.
The rain starts to fall, just as your heart finally shatters.
Or maybe you haven’t seen it coming. She’s the perky love interest. She’s kept the protagonist on his toes the whole time. You literally watch this show just to see them.
And then suddenly, the villain finds out who she is and shows up in her kitchen late one night as she gets home from work. One cut frame later, and she’s in a pool of her own blood, and those left behind are taking it all in with the same wide-eyed horror as your own.
Killing That Character
Killing off characters can be the bane or blessing of any story. It’s powerful. It shifts the entire tale by sacrificing one single person. It grabs the audience’s attention, makes a fictional world feel real and believable, and can even make the audience feel dramatically satiated (especially in the case of a villain dying). BUT…
Only if you do it right.
I’ve seen plenty examples of killing characters done right and done wrong in my time as an audience member. And if I could reach through the screen and grab the writers by their collars, these are a few things I’d beg them not to do.
Because they never end well.
Killing Them Off for No Reason
Sometimes you have a show that gratuitously murders its cast. It’s like the writers come in with a butcher knife and go, “Hey, it’s been a whole episode and a half, and only two people have died so far! Better fix that…”
Please, writers, if you’re going to kill off a character–or any number of characters–please have a reason for doing so.
Ask yourself, what is killing off that character, or that group of characters, going to result in? Will it set up what kind of a world the audience is entering? Will it cause the main cast to feel despair and to nearly give up their quest? Will murdering little Susie cause Shane to swear revenge and take the first steps down a dangerous road that will transform him forever?
Killing a character should always be purposeful–even if it’s killing a million unnamed characters who, for purposes of the plot, don’t matter. There should still be a reason behind each character’s death, even if it’s a crowd-killer moment and the reason is as simple as “Show how horrifying and deadly this situation is by killing all these people.”
If killing a character doesn’t have any reason other than “shock the viewers,” then writers, you’ve failed as storytellers. Nothing–NOTHING–should happen in your plot that doesn’t cause something else to happen later down the road. Surprising your viewers may get you a spike in popularity, but it’s not going to tell a great story long-term. That’s because plots need to move forward, and they can’t if you keep peppering your story with dead-end plots like pointlessly killing off characters.
I mean, really, killing that character didn’t affect their family at all? What about their friends? Loved ones? That death didn’t result in an investigation into the killer and anyone connected to the crime? It didn’t cause the audience (or the remaining cast) to feel differently about the situation or to reassess something about the world, each other, themselves?
Then that character death was pointless, and we the people are gonna get tired of your shock-value shenanigans real quick.
Killing Them Off Even Though They’re Important
Killing anyone in the core cast should affect at least one other core character. Or heck, the entire plot. Anything less than that will like a theft. Your viewers are going to feel like you just robbed them of someone important for no good reason. And writers, trust me, you don’t want to make us viewers feel that way.
Easy way to let the shockwaves of that loss reverberate through your story? Make sure to have characters reference that person’s death later on, however briefly. Let the surviving cast mourn. Show the family in a scene, struggling to move on. That alone lends a lot of credibility to your world and makes the audience happy that neither the world nor you forgot about our dearly departed core character.
Killing Them Off Because Life is Hopeless
Killing characters should never leave the audience feeling hopeless.
Leaving the audience worried about how things will probably turn out good? That’s suspense, and we’re totally cool with that.
But leaving us hopeless because we realize this entire story we wasted hours of our lives to enjoy is not going to have a good ending? No. Please don’t do that.
I’m so tired of seeing stories kill off a character just to espouse the “Life is hard; no one cares” worldview. Maybe that’s your cup of tea. Maybe that’s what you believe. But it doesn’t make a great story, because you could’ve just said that and not wasted our time getting us invested in a character you were just going to brutally kill off because you’re angry at the world.
Now, can you kill a character and leave the cast feeling hopeless? Oh, absolutely. Please do that. Well, not all the time. Not every time someone dies. But you can give a suckerpunch to the survivors, leave them wondering how they’ll make it through… as long as they don’t remain hopeless. A moment of weakness is one thing. A moment that leads to everyone giving up isn’t interesting.
Killing Them Off Even Though They Barely Got to Do Anything
…but they could have, if you hadn’t killed them off so soon.
Oh, this is one of my ultimate story pet peeves: that one character who’s been relegated to the background, but you’ve seen enough of them to go “You know, I really like So-and-So. I really hope they get more story time.”
And then they die in the very next episode.
Wit Studio and Production I.G, via GIPHYThis is just… it’s wasteful. Writers, please, don’t put a character in the story at all if they’re not going to do anything while they’re alive! It’s mean to tease the audience with this character they barely got to know, a character who doesn’t get to fill their potential, only to kill them off.
All right, I admit: Attack on Titan totally does this exact thing, but I don’t give them flak for it. Why? What makes the difference?
Well, besides my own obvious bias (because I love the snot out of that show), at least they give me enough of who Marco is in the short time I know him. The show clearly paints a portrait of this kid: a devoted guy who feels a little lost when he encounters how intimidating the Titans are, but who still chooses to be brave and see the best in people. It’s not a lot, and I would have loved more, but it was enough that it lets me accept his death–even though I still mourn his loss because I know it means I’ll never know any more about him.
You know what exacerbates this killing-off-characters-early issue though? If the character in question has been nothing but a flat character with little backstory and only 1-2 defining characteristics, yet who’s supposed to be close to the protagonist and/or a pretty important piece of the plot. This is the problem I ran into with the Books of Mortals series.
Triphon is a muscle-head jock sort of character, but he’s got a bit of a soft side and loyalty in spades. He’s one of the protagonist, Rom’s, best friends, so of course he helps Rom with whatever crazy scheme Rom has in mind. Triphon helps save Rom’s life on more than one occasion in the first book.
But Triphon gets little development beyond that. I have no idea what kind of a person Triphon is. Does he like cats? Does he laugh a lot? What’s his taste in women? What was his family like?
Not a clue. And too bad I wanted to know more, because he dies. Twice, actually. Which brings up another point…
Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back… Repeatedly
Don’t keep bringing characters back to life only to kill them off again, writers. This ruins our trust in you. Plus it’s emotionally draining for us to get yanked back and forth like that. We don’t care quite as much during the death scene when your character dies a second time; that’s because we’ve already been through this song and dance. And let me tell you, by the third time or more, we’re too busy rolling our eyes or making memes out of your story to care about your ridiculously blessed regenerating hero.
Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back… Once?
Okay, I’m split 50/50 on this one, because sometimes a resurrection plot can be incredibly satisfying and entertaining.
And sometimes it only happens because a character feels sad and cries some magic resurrection tears.
Side note: I adore Tangled, but this is the one mole on this beautiful face that I wish I could photoshop over every time I watch this film. Disney, you’re better than this cliche!
Okay, writers–if you’re gonna bring a character back from the dead, you’d better have a dang good pre-established way for how it happens, why it happens, and when it happens. Establishing ways of bringing characters back from the dead keeps resurrections from feeling like a deus ex straight out of your butt.
But the “when” is especially important if the resurrection relies on another character actively reviving the dead. If there’s any time in-between the death and the resurrection, the audience is going to want to know why they’d bother waiting to resurrect the guy at all. Wouldn’t that epic battle two scenes ago have been a ton simpler if we’d had Fighter McGuns alive to begin with? Why did they wait until the smoke cleared to bring him back?
Also, if you’re going to bring a character back from the dead, you’d better have a good reason why they died in the first place. And, again, “to shock the viewers” is not a good enough reason. Remember, we viewers don’t like getting our chain yanked.
Don’t kill off a character if they’re just going to get brought back to life and their death didn’t mean anything.
Now, as I said, I’m pretty split on resurrection stories. Sometimes having a character dying and being brought back to life can be thrilling for the audience. Buuuut, again, it has to have a purpose.
Again, look at character-killing phenomenon Attack on Titan. In the first season, the protagonist Eren has spent five years of his life boasting he’ll kill all the giant man-eating Titans that have destroyed his home and killed his mother and otherwise ruined life. And when he’s finally about to become a certified soldier, he eagerly dives into battle with Titans only to watch the brutes devour his friends one by one. And then Eren’s next.
It’s a particularly horrifying moment in a pretty horrifying show. But then he came back.
And his death had a purpose.
Eren’s death (or near-death? It’s a little ambiguous) experience awakens a power he was otherwise completely oblivious to. The shock of the situation triggers his life-saving ability, which he then uses to rescue not only his adopted sister but also all of his remaining friends. And it also helps humanity not get totally annihilated in one battle.
So writers, if you’ve got a good reason for your character dying and coming back once–then your viewers are far more likely to give you a pass.
Just don’t do it again, you dirty feels-manipulators.
Photos (in order of appearance):
- Rain photo by Virgil Cayasa; originally posted on Unsplash.
- Dominoes photo by PublicDomainPictures; originally posted on Pixabay.
All other photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.