Writing Tragic Character Deaths
Updated: Sep 16
When you kill off a character will largely depend on what you want to achieve from their death (or even what you don’t want your characters to achieve!). For example, killing off a character in the first chapter will immediately set the tone of your novel. Killing off a well-known or loved character near the end will be the most tragic type of death.
Always keep in mind that deaths should be written for the characters, not characters for deaths. Every character should have a function to the plot prior to their demise, and they should be characterised thoroughly - particularly regarding their relationship with others. For this reason, I like to wait until the moment of demise (or shortly before) before deciding which character to kill off. There are a few reasons for this:
It forces you to consider a wider range of possibilities for the direction of your plot. When deciding who to kill, you’ll be considering what direction the plot could go after the fact, including the impact on other characters, as well as the plot.
Leading on from the point above, it forces you to consider which characters are important and helps you see which ones are actually useless. If you find a useless character, you’ll know because their death won’t change anything. At that point, you can either make changes to increase their influence or remove the character.
It encourages you to characterise each character to their fullest and deepest extent. Knowing that we’re going to kill off a character can lead us to subconsciously avoid giving a character much depth or letting ourselves or the reader grow attached to them. This will not only lead to a weak character, but will probably also negatively influence the death scene.
It was felt to be a possibility that the hero would die. That’s what I was aiming for, that you really felt that anyone was up for grabs - J K Rowling (2007)
Take J K Rowling, for example. Rowling has made it known that she didn’t have plans for which characters she would kill during the Harry Potter series, and especially during Deathly Hallows, she flirted with the idea of killing off all sorts of characters - but definitely didn’t go through with all of them.
She is quoted to have said:
Funnily enough, I planned from the start that none of the trio would die. Then midway through, which I think is a reflection of the fact that I wasn’t in a very happy place, I started thinking I might polish one of them off. Out of sheer spite. “There, now you definitely can’t have him anymore.” But I think in my absolute heart of heart of hearts, although I did seriously consider killing Ron, [I wouldn’t have done it].
So with that in mind, let’s get started!
Unfinished / Finished Business
Give your characters unfinished business at the time of their death, or you might kill them immediately after their business is finished. They may die while trying to complete their goal, or alternatively, complete their goal but die in the process.
Dobby's death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a good example of 'finished business', where Dobby's final act was to repay Harry for setting him free in Book 2 - except, he repaid him with his life.
When a character sacrifices themself to save others, or is sacrificed to save others, the nobility or unfairness of the act can make it all the more sad. Especially if, earlier in the plot, the character on the chopping block has already been through a lot, or has saved the people they are sacrificing themself for once already.
Take Old Yeller from Fred Gipson's Old Yeller. Prior to being unfortunately shot due to a rabies infection, Old Yeller saved his family from a bear, and then a wolf.
It came clear to me then that Mama was right. We couldn’t take the risk. And from everything I had heard, I knew that there was very little chance of Old Yeller’s escaping the sickness. It was going to kill something inside me to do it, but I knew then that I had to shoot my big yeller dog. Once I knew for sure I had it to do, I don’t think I really felt anything. I was just numb all over, like a dead man walking. Quickly, I left Mama and went to stand in the light of the burning bear grass. I reloaded my gun and called Old Yeller back from the house. I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.
Sophie's daughter's death from Sophie's Choice by William Styron is also tragic in its very nature of a mother having to decide which of her two children will live and which will be gassed in the gas chambers. What's worse is Sophia survives her ordeal in the camp, and has to live with her decision for the rest of her life.
Leave People Behind
Who has your dying character left behind? A child? A partner? Focusing on the reactions of those left behind during or after the death can be one of the most heart-wrenching things to witness. Just make sure to strongly establish the relationship between the living and the dead beforehand. Sometimes, if the relationship between two people is strongly engrained enough into your story, your reader will automatically think of the person without you needing to prompt them.
An example of this technique can be found in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with the death of Remus and Tonks, who are survived by their son, Teddy, as well as the death of Fred, survived by his family and - most importantly - his twin brother, George.
In the interests of total honesty I'd also like to confess that I didn't decide to kill Lupin until I wrote Order if the Phoenix. [...] I didn't enjoy doing it. The only time my editor ever saw me cry was over the fate of Teddy.
As Teddy is only a baby and a new character, the tragic circumstances of his parents’ deaths relies on the reader being reminded of his existence. During the Battle of Hogwarts, Remus originally goes to fight alone, but when Tonks turns up to support him, this scene takes place:
Harry looked at Tonks. ‘I thought you were supposed to be with Teddy at your mother’s?’ ‘I couldn’t stand not knowing -’ Tonks looked anguished. ‘She’ll look after him - have you seen Remus?’
The relationship of Fred and George is iconic and strong, as it has been developed strongly throughout the entire series. Therefore, nothing more is needed to remind the reader of this before he dies. All we need to see is George, alone.
Later, this scene took place:
The dead lay in a row in the middle of the hall. Harry could not see Fred’s body, because his family surrounded him. George was kneeling at his head; Mrs Weasley was lying across Fred’s chest, her body shaking, Mr Weasley stroking her hair while tears cascaded down his cheeks. [...] As Ginny and Hermione moved closer to the rest of the family, Harry had a clear view of the bodies lying next to Fred: Remus and Tonks, pale and still and peaceful-looking, apparently asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. The Great Hall seemed to fly away, become smaller, shrink, as Harry reeled backwards from the doorway. He could not draw breath. He could not bear to look at any of the other bodies, to see who else had died for him.
Before their death, be sure to establish the character’s plans for their future/their dreams; places they want to go, relationships they want to build, things they want to do.
This plays on what is known as weltschmerz; sadness caused by comparing reality to what could have been. I know I’ve already given multiple Harry Potter examples thus far, but humour me and listen to one more!
The death of Sirius Black is a great example of weltschmerz. The set up for this actually began in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, when Harry and Sirius stood outside the Womping Willow, discussing Harry’s future, and their potential for a life together. Harry, who has been deprived of familial love his entire life, can’t wait to move in with his godfather, and this sentiment continues to be brought up through until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Sirius dies, and with his death goes Harry’s dreams of being part of a small, but loving family.
Another example of this comes from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Even though the novel is set in a paediatric cancer ward, Augustus Waters is continuously presented as much healthier than he actually is. This leads his girlfriend, Hazel, and the readers to speculate and fantasize about his future. Though they are aware it may not be a long future, they definitely didn’t expect his life to be cut off when it was.
Note: Be gentle about introducing the character’s dreams. If you do this too heavily or too soon before a dangerous plot point, your readers might suspect their death and the entire plot point will feel more contrived.
Cut It Short
Don’t let your characters have long deathbed speeches. A couple of lines is fine if they get the chance, but the death will feel much more tragic if they don’t have the opportunity to say goodbye. Another way you can do this is by forcing other characters to leave the dead behind, for whatever reason.
This tip also includes keeping description of the death to a minimum. Heavy blood and gore will distract your reader from the feelings of loss. Only include those kinds of details if you want to highlight the brutality of the villain or the method of death.
Say what you will about spiders, but Charlotte’s death in E B White’s Charlotte’s Web is quite heartbreaking.
But as he was being shoved into the crate, he looked up at Charlotte and gave her a wink. She knew he was saying good-bye in the only way he could. And she knew her children were safe. “Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again.
Wilbur is forced to leave Charlotte still alive, knowing that she’ll die in the fairground alone. There is no time for sentiment, as the farmer is coming back to put him in his crate and take him home. Instead, in their last moments together, Wilbur can do nothing but save her eggs.
Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia also presents a good example of ‘cutting it short’. While out doing what Jesse always wanted, having a nice time at the Art Museum with his teacher, Leslie ventures out to Terabithia, alone. But this time, the rope swing snaps, and she plunges to her death. Jesse doesn’t find this out until all is said and done. No last words, no final interactions, no closure. Tragic.
Any Last Words?
If you choose to include them, last words should be concise and/or meaningful, or nothing at all. For example:
The character repeats an inside joke, or a meaningful line from earlier in the novel.
The character comforts those crying over them.
The character mentions a dream they won’t be able to accomplish.
The character spurs on their crying companion to keep going/do the thing!
The character says goodbye / I love you / apologises.
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Rue is killed very suddenly. Not only does Collins stick her death right at the end of the chapter, but she also continues into the next chapter with action, not allowing Rue’s death to sink in just yet, as Katniss is fighting off the assailant from District 1. This is partially utilising the previous technique of ‘cutting it short’. However, once the drama is over, Collins utilises meaningful dialogue to make Rue’s last moments count.
When I break into the clearing, she’s on the ground, hopelessly entangled in a net. She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body. [18.] The boy from District 1 dies before he can pull out the spear. My arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck. [...] Her hand reaches out and I clutch it like a lifeline. As if it’s me who’s dying instead of Rue. “You blew up the food?” she whispers. “Every last bit,” I say. “You have to win,” she says. “I’m going to. Going to win for both of us now.”
Rue isn’t occupied with her mortality, or on feeling sorry for herself. Her first concern is that Katniss has seen their plans through, and for Katniss to succeed. This type of selflessness before death is often more tragic than a person crying for themselves due to its poignancy and their strength.
Go to Your Dark Place
Essentially, if you don’t feel emotional, your reader probably won’t either. Dig deep and draw from feelings that you’ve experienced from personal loss. If you haven’t experienced loss, think back to the last film that made you cry. Try to pinpoint exactly what it was about the death that you found so heart-wrenching.
Have they left someone behind or alone?
Do they have unfinished business?
Did anyone not get to say goodbye?
Have they left an important task incomplete that no others can help with?
Were they the glue holding a group of people together?
Did they symbolise hope or love or strength in anyone’s life?
Please keep in mind that, though this may result in some raw, emotional writing from the heart, you need to look after yourself! Before you go to your dark place, make sure you have a clear plan of how to get out again. Whether that be a walk in the park, a relaxing hot chocolate by the fire, or a playlist of puppy videos.
Happy Writing! (Sort of...)
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