Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How Should a Character be Killed?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I know it’s an odd question coming from someone who writes thrillers, but recently, I had to give it a lot of thought.

I was about halfway through my latest novel, when I suddenly realized that one of my characters needed to die. It made perfect sense, and most importantly, was a crucial element in driving my plot.

Admittedly, I’ve killed off plenty of characters in my books, and figuring out the method was never a problem, but with this one, I actually hadn’t planned on it, so the surprise caught me a little off-guard.

I really had to think about this.

While killing off a character has to work well with the plot, just as important, is how they are killed. It has to connect with the suspect’s frame of mind and their motivation, fit perfectly within the story, and it has to make emotional as well as logical sense.

I’ve often read books where the method of murder made me scratch my head. It didn’t fit, seemed illogical, and as a result, bumped me out of the story. I remember one in particular where fancy explosives were used, and yet there was no mention prior to this that the killer had any knowledge on the subject. As a result, I lost confidence and interest in the story and in the author. I stopped reading.

In this instance, in my book, the killer was sending out a message, so it not only needed to be powerful, but it also needed to be specific and had to resonate strongly with my protagonist. I wanted it to shake him up in a very personal way. In other words, I couldn’t just shoot the victim dead because it wouldn’t have meant anything to the reader and would feel like a copout.

After a lot of struggling, a lot of thought, I did finally figure it out. I don’t want to give away the story before the book comes out, but I will tell you this: the message was that my protagonist was playing with fire.

I think you can figure out the rest.

But how about you? Authors, what goes into your thought process when you decide to kill off a character? Do you ever struggle with it? 

Readers, what’s your experience been? 


  1. I love that you give murder so much thought! I write a mystery/thriller series, so you can count on a least one person dying in each novel. But I also focus on other crimes, and I try to make each story unique. So the method of murder is different every time, and I do give it a lot of thought. Planning it is the most important thing I do. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. I completely agree that every death, every murder, must fit the story and drive it forward. Fortunately (or unfortunately) my killers generally tell me quite clearly the how and the why very early on. It's the who that sometimes surprises me. Although there must be a part of my brain that sets it all up, I often feel like a recorder… just someone taking notes.

  3. I'm still working out the details of the murder to be in my own head, and will then try to pick the right character to become a murder. It's a lot of work, and life around me interrupts most often... I'm determined to get it right, but I'm also aware that this is my first in this genre. Trying to balance patience with perseverance.

  4. Funny, I was just thinking about whether a character needs to die! There is so much to consider. Motivation, method, long term affects on other characters, discovery, how complicated the death needs to be, and how it will effect the long term (in my case series). Sometimes, my characters decide to kill someone without consulting me, and we have lots of unraveling to do, sometimes it's a matter of self-preservation,etc. but I make every attempt to warn them ahead of time that their actions will affect the rest of their lives! :))

  5. I sometimes watch '48 Hours,' and it seems to be true that most murders really aren't that mysterious. But mystery writers have to take the reader on a journey. There is no right and wrong way, only what seems to work and what doesn't. I always wondered why Agatha Christie would have four or five people at dinner and one would get poisoned by cyanide. Assuming the waiter didn't do it, the list of suspects is very small, but of course the story had to fit in the confines of what were fairly short books.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, everyone. Claudia and Peg, like you, my characters tell me how the story will go. They're the ones in control--I just listen and write. People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them that the voices in my head tell me to kill. I usually have to qualify that statement by clarifying it's only on paper.

    But could you imagine how much more complicated it would be in real life? In fiction, we can make everything work in our favor. In real life, no such luck.

    Makes me glad I chose a moral profession. Well, sorta :-)

  7. Great post, Drew! And interesting comments! I'm late checking in and haven't been on Facebook or Twitter today, either - crazy day!

    Glad to hear you all give plenty of thought to these things - or listen to / argue with your characters! Whatever your method, judging by the results, it's working! :-)

  8. Thanks for that timely post Andrew. I'm just trying to figure out whether to kill off one of my main characters. Sometimes, I think it might be too easy to kill off characters too, because we are trying to enhance the stakes. There are lots of alternatives, but how do we show the baddies are really willing to be nasty unless someone dies...? It's a tough one, and inevitably sometimes we have to kill off someone we might like. And I'm always reminded of the author who killed off his series character and has regretted it ever since.


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