Character deaths can pretty easily become a tired gimmick as an author, especially when it comes to edgy adult genre fiction. There are so many dudes out there writing “dark fantasy” who are spoken of in terms of The Body Count. You pick up their latest books or watch TV adaptations and you do so wondering who’s gonna go. It’s the big question when people discuss the work. Is your favorite character gonna die?
And it’s a pretty effective way to push paper out of warehouses, but I find it painfully boring and offputting. Because it’s not really the character’s death that you care about so much: it’s the aftermath. What will the story be like without them? That can be interesting when done right, but lately I’m just finding it really schlocky.
A lot of people don’t pay attention to the aftermath. Often they create a very complicated lead-up to a character’s death, and then decide that the payoff is watching that contrivance go off in the air like a bomb. For me, this isn’t really enough. Because that can be cool for a few moments, but then you have the entire rest of the story. Sometimes you get the absolute height of schlock: when a character “just dies” because oh boy, anyone can die! At any time! For any reason! Wow, what a shocking twist: the author has complete control of the literary world and can just decide to kill people. I never would’ve guessed.
In my opinion the worst dead characters are the ones who cease to interact with the story. When a character dies, I expect an aftermath. There’s no immediate payoff to be found in a character’s death — it’s supposed to be a trigger to the remaining characters and to the world. I expect it to last some time, and to have repercussion. I expect them to be remembered and brought up. Killing a character with no reasonable follow-up is completely pointless. Characters dying, like everything else in the story, should serve a purpose, have an effect. The act of the character dying is the least interesting part of the death plot.
(Of course, the notable exception here is stuff like killing a villain at the end of a goofy genre book, or whatever. It would be ideal to spare some pages and show an aftermath to the death of the Big Bad Evil Guy, but it’s cool with me if you don’t. I’ll wait for Book 2 or whatever, I know how these things go by now. If you’ve only got one book though, add some pages at the end.)
Recently though, I’ve found that a character’s removal is less interesting to me than their continued survival. Let’s look at my genre, military shit. You’ve seen countless stories, for example, where a soldier or a warrior expiates for crimes or atrocities by dying. They spend the whole story being the biting hardass who needs to get shit done (an archetype I despise, but we’ll talk about that some other time). Then you kill them off because they can’t be saved. I think though that the more interesting story there would be how they can live with themselves after all that. Dying is really easy; and it doesn’t really fix anything.
Confronting the consequences of what you’ve done has much more potential.
Even if a story is ostensibly predicated on “dark” themes, characters can suffer way more in your horrifying dystopia alive than they can dead. While you can only extend the threat of death and suffering to a character so much before it loses any impact, “dark” stories don’t have to be about whether the character will survive the events. A lot of times though, they fall into the trap of writing the story as if that was the draw, the conflict and the tension. Even if your stories feature death or the threat of the death, what the character confronts does not have to be their own mortality and endurance all of the time.
I do not count secondary characters for this, though. I think if you’re gonna have a character die, having it not be a viewpoint character can be a good way to force your viewpoint characters to confront those consequences and interact with that plot device in an interesting way. Because in most stories, you see through a character’s head. When that character dies, that head is gone, and the story shifts to someone else. You lose what you’ve built between the reader and the world. When another character dies you are forcing that structure between reader and world to change in some way.
That can be cheap and done wrong too, but it’s more excusable than “murder the fan-favorites for funsies.”
Often times, in place of death, I’ve found transformative change to be better. A character as the reader knows them can die. But the character as a structure in the narrative can continue to exist. Taking the example of the soldier before, what if they stop being the boring hypermasculine jackass who does what needs to be done? What if they hesitate to shoot, if they show vulnerability, if they suffer injury, if they confront the system that created them, if they resolve to escape the limiting narrative of their own strength? You’ve basically killed the character but they’re still running around. You can still have the “death” action — the event that removes the blood from them and causes a shift in the story. Your soldier “dies,” wakes up, and is still there, but there’s a different person. You’ve changed the story enough to be unrecognizable. There’s your twist.
And this doesn’t have to be positive. You can make the character worse and in the same way you twist the knife on a reader by removing their favorite character (which I find really limiting and shitty but whatever, roll with it) you can twist the knife still by taking something from the character they love, making them confront what the character’s become now.
Look at death and what it does in a story before you swing a grandiose scimitar toward the top of the Popular Character polls. You might get a thrill out of someone once or twice, but I’m not gonna care if it becomes routine. And more importantly, look at what a character living and changing will do for your story. It will probably be just as interesting if not more so.