I hope this isn't too general. I wanted to ask for advice on making it unclear which characters will survive to the end. The first arc of the story involves a lot of characters, more than 12, but only a few of them will continue on to the next arc, and only a couple will survive till the end. I can give more details if necessary.

What I'm doing, Presently:

I'm not having them die off one by one sequentially, like happens in many horror movies so you expect one or two survivors. Instead, I have a cluster of character deaths during the most dangerous point in the story arc.

I feel like there are some tricks and methods you can use for this. For example, if you swap to a character's perspective long before the scene where they die, it gives the audience the impression they will survive. I feel there is more you can do, like giving the character a motivation, a goal, and interesting traits which seem like they'll be important later in the story. If someone is the expert chess player, you feel that'll become important later, then you don't expect the sniper to take them out. If a character likes another character, you expect a romance to play out. In other words, giving the characters value to the story, then killing them despite that.

What I'd like to ask, is about a method I can use as a rule of thumb, to get me started in the right direction, so I can begin to think about it more dynamically.


  • so, murder by Chekov's Gun, sort of? :) Oct 24, 2016 at 0:07
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    It's not quite Chekov's gun though, is it? More of a red herring or even schroedingers gun...and for the record I meant to make this comment 4 hours ago but got stuck on TVTropes...
    – user18397
    Oct 24, 2016 at 5:51
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    @Thomo oops, sorry if I inadvertently sent you down the rabbit hole. Hope you packed a lunch. ;) Oct 24, 2016 at 9:38
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    If the question is not originally tied to it, might I suggest at least a glance at Homestuck? It does a rather phenomenal job at keeping you unsure of who is going to die next.
    – Cyberson
    Oct 24, 2016 at 21:11
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    Once Ned Stark died, we knew that we couldn't expect anyone else to survive. Oct 26, 2016 at 20:30

7 Answers 7


What I'd like to ask, is about a method I can use as a rule of thumb, to get me started in the right direction, so I can begin to think about it more dynamically.

As soon as you develop a rule of thumb method of grooming your characters for execution, your readers will see through it instantly. Give them some credit.

The unexpected death must be unexpected, whether the character you are about to kill is a likable goofball, annoying whiner, or a treacherous coward, and the only way to ensure the desired effect is through developing each one of them as if they are going to survive, and that survival is believable. How many stories have a really bad guy, who was doing really bad things all his really bad life, and who gets magically transformed by some emotionally charged event and sacrifices his life for the sake of others, he now cares deeply about? Guess what--from the very moment of his transformation it is clear as day that he is not going to survive, because he is already wanted dead of alive in all states of the Trans-Galactic Republic, and there is no possibility of happy ending for him, no matter how much he is transformed by the unconditional love of the scaled green puppy he saved.

Maybe this will help--not as a method, but just a technique--keep an alternative storyline in your head where your living on borrowed time character survives (I wrote that and then saw your comment where you mention this yourself, so you know what I am talking about). It does not have to be detailed and developed, only roughly sketched, but it should be acceptably realistic. Even the transformed bad guy, already sentenced to death, might find a dusty magic carpet in some corner, which can take him away from the imminent prosecution into a non-extradition paradise on the edge of the world.

If you are employing multiple POVs, make sure that your walking dead have an equal time under a spotlight with the few lucky ones who you decided to keep alive.

If it is a team heist story, make sure that all of the team members are equally important for the success of the plan...

And so on...

  • We tend to start with simplistic methods, before getting more dynamic. As it is what you describe and have agreed with me on seems to be the best rule of thumb. Imagine an alternative universe where the character lived and did some stuff in the later arcs.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 21:31

It does not matter if the reader expects them to die or not, it matters if they care whether they die or not. Suspense is not mathematical in nature, it is moral. It is not about how likely an event is, but how much you care about it.

Every character should have an arc. That is, they should want something that is realistic in the world of your story and they should be acting in a realistic way to get it. Without an arc, they are throwaway characters. They are red shirts whose only function is to demonstrate that the situation is dangerous by dying in Act 1. You know they are going to die as soon as Kirk sends them to investigate something stage left, and you don't care because they have no arc.

If a character has a arc, however, they do not seem throwaway, even if the author knows they are doomed. If the reader gets invested in them, they are not expecting them to die casually, and they are moved when the death occurs. If the reader cares about a death, it does not matter how surprising or how predictable it is. The reader still cares. The unanticipated death of characters they don't care about means nothing to the reader. The anticipated death of a character they do care about means everything.

  • Indeed, I want to make all the characters interesting, and some likable. Most of the deaths are in act 2 of act 1 (or act 2 of the first arc). Like Band of Brothers, where many of the characters die when the battle is joined.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 4:20
  • In this case, it's not meant to be Kirk and a flock of red shirts. You have no idea who Kirk is in this scenario. Because they seem like a group of diverse, possible characters.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 4:44
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    All the more reason that each of them needs an equally compelling arc. Without an arc, they are clearly a red shirt, even if we don't know who Kirk is. So they need to be Spock and McCoy and Sulu, and Scotty, and Uhura, and Chekov, and Yeoman Rand. Everyone in the ensemble has to be someone we feel we know and care about. There is no trick that will conceal the fact that a red shirt is a red shirt. You have to make them real or we won't care when they die.
    – user16226
    Oct 24, 2016 at 4:56
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    @J.Doe You make them as rounded and real as if you weren't going to kill them off. Give them an arc which the audience expects will be fulfilled. Give them backstory. Spend time with them. Rand is a surprisingly good example of this; she was written to be a recurring character, but because the actress had a drinking problem, she was let go. So Rand is very involved in the beginning of S1 and then disappears. TNG's Tasha Yar is another; she's a Bridge character who's abruptly killed because the actress wanted out. That was a shock. Oct 24, 2016 at 9:40
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    @LaurenIpsum The most unexpected deaths are when the author didn't expect them either. You can go too far with this, when there are no interesting characters or plot arcs left. I agreed with your advice, and will do my best to apply it. I guess it will be a bit like writing fan fiction, imagining what if the character did survive and how they would continue to interact with the story, then giving them traits that foreshadow these imaginings.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 11:23

It kind of sounds like you have a group of characters that you want to remove their plot armor. If the reader realizes that anyone can die, then they will be unsure who could be next, as any of the main characters could go.

Many people have named George RR Martin as someone who overdoes deaths, however it is unarguable that no one in the A Song Of Ice And Fire universe has any plot armor whatsoever, as central characters can drop at anytime. However, it can be noted that a lot of the characters appear to be dead, but end up returning to the story, meaning that death now is not even final. The mantle of permanent death has been removed, so that characters can potentially return.

A franchise that has overused this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So many main characters have come back from feigned death or the brink of death that it's now difficult to believe that even if a character does die, they won't just return at some point, robbing all of the deaths of their emotional impact.

So the trick is to balance between maintaining the emotional impact of deaths that do occur, against ensuring that the characters who will actually make it to the end are not necessarily guaranteed to make it in the reader's mind. It is definitely a tightrope walk.

I think in order to subvert expectations, you need to not allow any expectations. If there is a Chosen One who needs to make it to the end of the story along with a group of allies, then everyone knows that whilst any of the friends can die, the Chosen One can't. So making sure your group is all equal in their goal and their importance to it would be a good way to start.

This is similar to if the POV character stays the same throughout the story; they cannot die because the story will end. It seems like you're doing the POV of a number of characters though, so that should help for the reader to be unaware who can and cannot be killed within the story.

Also, readers will know that as soon as someone pulls out a picture of their family, they are doomed. So if you want to establish the backstory and unique role for a character who is going to die in order to make their death more meaningful (instead of them just being disposable) then you will need to have all of the characters get an established backstory and unique role. This means no one stands out as being the fatefully tragic character, as they all have things to lose, so have the whole group pass around pictures of their own families.

Finally, make sure not to set people up for death. It needs to be believable that all of your characters can make it to the end, even if by the end few of them do. Readers will not want to emotionally invest in any character if they think there is only a 20% chance that they will live. Everyone needs to reach the end for their own reasons, the tragedy comes from when they really should have survived but didn't.

  • Many excellent points. I did get to feel Tyrion and Arya had plot armour after a while, and that is a feeling I want to avoid. It will get a bit harder due to process of elimination (the characters who survive the first major wave of killings will seem likely to survive further in). Maybe I should make a question dedicated to that.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 25, 2016 at 23:09

As addition to mbakeranalecta's answer:

You need to show characteristics, traits, motives of the characters. Specifics. If the reader finds among these that s/he like, adores, looking for, etc. then the character gets in the status of 'liked', the reader is "attached" (!!)! Depending on the setup and the reader, it may cause suspension, but it can also be just a good read. I liked Salvatore's dark elf stories, but I was not thrilled if the protagonists would die or not. I felt sorry for some characters, even for a few specific less meaningful ones, but should the big ones die? In that setting they were facing challenges, there was plenty of chances story-wise.

Expert chess player to be not taken out by sniper? Why not? It is a reasonable strategic move, should it be important in the story. On the other hand I don't feel a sniper to be a good thriller factor. For cluster deaths I would go with something else, like sneaking cut-throat by night, selectively killing some characters, with undisclosed, but recognizable preference. You can do several cases, where characters wander on potential, but not trivial big risk area. You may also work with "never seen it coming" events. As tools to use.

I think you should provide more details if you would like to get more exact answer, because I think we can go this far in general.

  • I agree, this is the sort of thing I was talking about. You're right that deaths need to be thrilling. Being specific is a good way to make the character feel more real. If they seem vague, like they weren't worth the effort of giving details backstory, they are less likable and more obvious red shirts. Giving them characteristics like an interesting appearance or mannerism, traits like being a chess master or expert shooter, some sort of motive that is either likable or has clear synergy with the story, and just other details.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 11:11

I would be careful about that.

If you make readers identify with and care about characters, and then kill them off, that is gonna put off many readers. Personally, I avoid authors who do that and never read a book by them again.

The other thing is that for the reader to care about your story you need a continuous individual goal, someone who wants to achieve something. If the "carrier" of the goal dies, then the goal disappears and the story dies. The protagonist has to remain constant.

Significantly, it is not one of the Hobbits who dies, but Boromir. It is not one of the Hobbits who the reader thinks has died, but Gandalf. The protagonists are torn and battered, but all through your first reading you feel that they will all come to the end in some way or other. Even George R. R. Martin doesn't randomly kill off his protagonists. Daenerys and John Snow are removed, both physically and logically, from the central plot surrounding the houses Stark and Lannister, and while the Starks and Lannisters (may) all die, these two give the plot a sense of continuity and purpose that would otherwise lack.

So wanting to completely surprise the reader is, in my opinion, contradictory to your aim of holding the reader's interest and having him finish your book with a sense of satisfaction – so that he will recommend it to others and buy your next book. You can and should surprise the reader with the extreme things that happen to your protagonist and how the protagonist survives them, but the reader must be comfortably secure in their knowledge that the protagonist will survive at least until the last page of the book.

Exceptions are "greater" stories that are told through the eyes of multiple characters (these are not protagonists), such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, where the real protagonist is (the terraforming of) Mars.

In reply to the comments.

To get this straight: I am not against the single protagonist dying in the end. I am also not against important secondary characters dying. As Monica puts it in her comments: A (single!) well-placed death of a (single!) major character that means something (is essential to the plot). But that is not what the question asks. The question is about apparently randomly killing off the majority of the plot-driving characters. That is a truly bleak and devastating book, and

I'm not gonna read it.

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    you make a good point: don't overdo it. There's a reason that the joke goes "George RR Martin, Joss Whedon, and Stephen Moffat walk into a bar, and everyone you love dies." These writers cheerfully whack anyone in the story, and while that can be very dramatic, it can also get stupid and painful to the point where some readers won't come back because they can't get attached to anyone for fear of death and heartbreak. Once in a while is spice. Too much is, literally, overkill. Oct 24, 2016 at 12:54
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    If nobody cares about a character, killing them will have no effect whatsoever. @LaurenIpsum is of course, right and overdoing it (much as overdoing anything else, for that matter) is bad, so it is all a matter of balance and personal preferences...
    – Lew
    Oct 24, 2016 at 17:14
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    @LaurenIpsum Indeed, I consider GRRM to have seriously overdone it in all aspects. Both in the randomness of the deaths, the stupidity of some of them, killing off central characters which the story needed, and it all adding up to only expecting Tyrion and Arya Stark to survive. And you don't want to have a death every episode so it become routine like in a number of series. Character deaths can occur to maintain tension, and to bring the story to greater drama, but you have to be careful about trivializing death.
    – J. Doe
    Oct 24, 2016 at 21:26
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    On the other hand, a well-placed death of a major character that means something can be quite effective. JMS didn't plan to kill Kosh in Babylon 5, but he found that the story demanded it -- and it was a powerful moment in the series. (Granted, this is a case of an ensemble cast, not a single protagonist, but we're still talking about a central character.) Having a central character die in a random accident, on the other hand, would leave the reader feeling robbed. Oct 25, 2016 at 0:36

The simplest way is to kill your main character in the first page. You can then play with time in order to make him your main character and then have people discover only at the end that the story isn't written from your protagonist's POV but that of a close be very much subordinate figure. Think of King Leonidas of Sparta and the 300...even he knows he's going to die. But it's not until after all that that we discover the entire story is being narrated in the third person by someone who was with the King and not by King Leonidas himself. This is a very effective method of story telling actually.


Very simple: Write the story up to the point where someone is supposed to die. Then roll a die, and kill off the person whose number comes up.

You don't literally have to do that, but if you want your character deaths to be unexpected a character they to essentially be a random events from the readers perspective. It makes it somewhat easier to actually pull this off from a writers perspective to actually do it in a fashion similar to that though.

Note that this will be very unsatisfying to many readers. You should also note that this doesn't actually matter, unless your target audience wants a more predictable story. I personally prefer more structured stories where deaths are meaningful if they happen at all and there's a happy ending awaiting those who finish the book; But that's not the kind of book that you're writing if you genuinely want your deaths to be unpredictable, and you obviously don't need to write your book for people like me.

If on the other hand you want deaths to be meaningful and have an impact beyond "I didn't want that character to die because I liked that character", your deaths won't be unpredictable. If the people die in a non-random fashion you'll set this up somehow, and if the audience doesn't catch on to your setup it just means you did it poorly.

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