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Killing Off a Character

Creating a character takes a ton of work.  Not only do you need to know who a character is and what they look like, but you also need to make the reader care about each one (at least enough to keep reading).

There’s nothing more interesting (or, at times difficult) than killing off a character–especially one that a reader never sees.

As a writer, you might kill off a character during the story for many reasons, such as (and not limited to):

  • Raising the stakes:  making a situation more real for the main character
  • Provide a start to a mystery
  • Carrying a story along:  for example, following a serial killer
  • The now-dead character may have known too much
  • Providing motivation for the main character to change

However, what’s harder for a writer is to kill off a character in more than just the storyline.  This type of death is more permanent:  wiping a character from the manuscript before a reader ever has a chance to see the character.

In other words, I’m talking about killing a character who never exists (from the perspective of the reader).

Why would you kill off a character this way?

Simplify the plot

Sometimes too many characters ends up causing confusion rather than adding intrigue.  For example, there may be an advantage to combining two characters.

As an example, over the weekend I had an insight about a story I’ve been working on.  I had two sections that I was having trouble connecting.  The scene introduced a new character, but I wasn’t convinced that she was believable within the scope of the story.

My insight was that I could actually reuse another character.  The original character won’t make it into this novel, but she may make an appearance at another time.  Reusing the other character means that I can leverage the work I’ve already done to create a believable character.

Avoid breaking the illusion

One of the big problems I had with the character I mentioned above was that I felt she broke the believability of the story.  I felt like including that character would have been carrying the illusion one step too far.

In the same way, sometimes you choose not to include a character because they simply don’t fit within the world you’ve created.  Perhaps they’re too similar to an existing character, or outside the norms of what you’ve already established.  Instead of trying to force them in, try killing them off and starting with someone else.  You can always keep their skeleton (character sheets, scenes you’ve tried, etc) and use them in a different story.

Add complexity for your main character

Sometimes a particular character makes the situation too easy for your main character.  In the past, I’ve removed characters from a story to actually make the problem harder for my protagonist.  This made the story more interesting, and also served to show a different side of the protagonist.

It wouldn’t have been possible to see that side if I’d allowed the other character to continue to exist.

Making a situation more challenging (without making the plot overly complex, as mentioned before) can make the story more interesting.

Have you ever killed off a character before someone had a chance to read about them?  Why did you choose to do so?

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