TL;DR: How much time and development is necessary for a character I intend to kill off and replace with a second character so that both feel important to the narrative?

I've looked over this a bit, and there's one thing I just can't figure out in my writing... Does anyone have any suggestions? I plan for the works to be a series of five novels. The main character (named Leon) develops a VERY close friend (or love interest) in book one (named Cancer). The two are very close, and therefore I need to have meaningful character development between the two. HOWEVER, Cancer dies very early on in the series. I'm very unsure about how to time this though, because another character named Ian is introduced to the series after Cancer's death, and I want to make both characters relevant to the story.

I've already looked it over, and I've decided that Cancer's death is very important to the series and WILL happen. It progresses the plot (the main villain in the series makes himself known as playing a part in Cancer's death, and Cancer's death itself also releases this villain from a prison of sorts.), changes Leon's character for the rest of the series, and Ian is introduced after Cancer's death.

I wish to write Cancer's death scene pretty close to the end of book one. My problem: How do I make readers become attached to Cancer and actually care about him dying in only one book? Ian and Cancer cannot be in the story at the same time. I don't want readers to think that Ian is just a cheap replacement, like Leon's "new sidekick" or something, especially if Cancer is killed at the end of book two rather than book one. Both characters are completely different, even if they share a backstory and a friendship with Leon. I feel like if I kill Cancer in book one, I'm giving up a bit of Cancer's character. If I kill him off in book two, I feel like I'm giving up a bit of Ian's as well as plot.

It may also help you to know that both Ian and Cancer's childhood backstory are linked, though Leon doesn't know it until book three or four.They knew each other as small children, and were like brothers in a very messed up situation until Cancer and Ian were separated. Both boys were severely mistreated for separate reasons, though maybe Cancer more than Leon. Cancer's spirit is also a minor character in the last book, as a result of Leon going temporarily insane and seeing Cancer alive again almost a hallucination. Therefore Cancer IS technically seen again, but he's still...dead.

I really hope this was enough to understand the gist of this further, this is about as well as I could explain without explaining the entire plot of my story. Thank you for the help and any advice you'd be willing to give!

another thing... I know this was already a lot to read, I'm sorry. But I needed to ask one more thing about Cancer's development... Cancer's character is left VERY messed up after his childhood, and through some issues with science he's left very void of emotion. He was made to be a perfect little leader, and to accomplish this his past tormentors left him almost without a personality. Though Cancer's state of mind HAS improved a bit throughout the years, he's still sort of... dead inside, I guess. Leon sort of becomes like a therapy friend for Cancer, and he's actually fairly improved at the end of book one... right before his death. But how would I write a relationship, or even a beleivable friendship between to characters if one's basically emotionless? I suppose I could give Cancer emotions, just leaving them very mixed up or addled instead of gone entirely, but I'd still love to hear some other points of veiw.


Cancer's name is not after the disease, but the zodiac sign. Yeah, it's a very unfortunate name, but there's a character for every zodiac.They are similar to gods or leaders of each of the star signs. For example, Leon is the "specialist" of Leo. He is the only Specialist to not have a name that exactly matches that sign because he was born on Earth, not a Zodiac's planet. Ian is not a specialist, so he has a somewhat normal name. The other Specialsts have names like Libra, Gemini, Scorpio, or Cancer... I just didn't want anybody thinking I named this child after the disease or anything, it's all purely based on the zodiac signs.

  • 2
    If you don't mind, could you chop this up and edit it to be more readable? It's just a wall of text right now and I don't want to go through and edit it wrongly. Thank you!
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 21:21
  • 1
    Have you written a series of books already? (You don't really have to answer). I prefer to think about it one book at a time. If you think that an end of book 1 is "too early", you might be underestimating a potential that one book can have.
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 22:04
  • 2
    @LORI, if you can't make a major character attractive and engaging in one book, it's not likely you can fix it in more books.
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 23:18
  • 3
    You don't have to make your reader like Cancer, as long as they empathize with Leon's loss. Seeing someone break over the loss of a loved one is never easy even if you don't know them.
    – Patsuan
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 7:46
  • 2
    Lori, I've added a one-line summary of your question to help guide the discussion and bring it closer to site guidelines. If I've misunderstood you, please feel free to edit my addition, keeping in mind that we aren't trying to solve just your problem but create an answer which can help others. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 14:47

9 Answers 9


1) Might one ask why the character destined to die is named... Cancer? I'm just calling him "Charlie" for the rest of this discussion.

2) Does Charlie have any agency, life, personality, or background of his own, or is his purpose in the story to be fridged and provide manpain for the MC?

I'm actually not asking that idly. You are creating a character whose sole purpose is to die, because that death will advance the rest of the plot. This is called (TV TROPES WARNING) being Stuffed into the Fridge.

You are struggling with where to put Charlie's death because it's a morteus ex machina, to mangle a phrase. Charlie's death is not a result of the plot, and it doesn't flow from the plot. You are inserting it into the plot.

Here's a parallel to your story:

In Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage trilogy, Vanyel, the main character, falls in love with Tylendel, a mage student. They have a relationship. Tylendel has a twin, Staven, who is murdered by a rival noble house. Tylendel uses magic for revenge and tries to kill the entire noble house, including innocents and children, and the attempted slaughter causes his bonded familiar to break their bond. The breaking of the mental bond drives Tylendel insane, and he kills himself. For the entirety of book 2, Vanyel misses and grieves Tylendel. In book 3, he meets Stefen, and by halfway through the book he has eventually fallen in love with Stefen.

But Tylendel and Stefen are individual people, with their own backgrounds and storylines and lives and motivations and ambitions. Tylendel's death releases magic which makes Vanyel a powerful mage, and basically allows the rest of his plot to happen, but Tylendel has his own life. He has his own story which exists outside his boyfriend.

Your Charlie is not Tylendel. You need to come up with a plot for book 1 and a life for Charlie, and then Charlie's death at the end is a terrible shock. It's fine if Charle's death affects your MC and other things happen because of Charlie's death, but you need a plot, in and of itself, where Charlie's death is the natural and unavoidable outcome.

And you must create Charlie as his own character as if he were not going to die. Make him as real and rounded and interesting as though you planned to spend five books with him.

If you want him not to be a lame insert, don't write him that way.

  • 1
    Yes, the book has it's own plot, and Cancer has his own character arch. I guess I should've explained the name, it's based off the zodiac sign. There's a character for every sign, like Virgo, Capricorn, Aquarius, ect... But how would I make this the same for IAN, whose introduced after Cancer? I don't want reader's thinking that Ian is a cheap replacement for Cancer as Leon's "new bestie". At first, Leon hates Ian because he can't see Cancer as being so easily replaced, but eventually Leon actually gets to know Ian and warms up to him...
    – LORI
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 22:34
  • 1
    @LORI, please be aware that Writers SE doesn't deal with "what to write" questions. That is, we will not help you write your specific story. Your question is reasonably fungible, but working too closely on your specific details will make it off-topic. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 0:38
  • 3
    @GordonM In any case, my broader point is that if Lori wants Charlie not to be an empty placeholder who feels awkwardly jammed into the narrative, don't write him that way. Don't create a character with the purpose of killing him; write a real character who has purpose. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 11:05
  • 2
    @LORI hey it's no problem! Using your writing to help ask a question allows us to fully understand where you are coming from with your question and understand your thought process. Just don't expect the answers to be, well you should write.... It's going to be more open ended with objectivity to provide you the tools and understanding of the elements. This allows you then in turn to take these tools and elements and apply them to your writing, but when other people look at your question they too can also use those tools and elements since it is a general answer and not about only yours.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 16:36
  • 2
    @eyeballfrog The differences are that the other character has no arc or agency him/herself, and the MC's pain is considered more important than everyone else's, even if it's not. The OC exists only because his/her injury/death causes pain to the MC. The girlfriend dies not because she's a cop with her own job, personality, motivations, and plot arc, but because the Bad Guy wanted to hurt the MC by killing her. And the MC's grief over losing the OC is more important than, e.g., a genocidal holocaust. Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 17:33

If you can't adequately develop sympathy for a character over the course of an entire book, then there is little hope of your readers ever reaching the end of that book.

Of course you should be able to get your readers attached to Cancer by the end of book one, indeed, but you need to get them attached by the second or third chapter and deepen their attachment from there.

Every book in a book series must first and foremost work as a book in its own right. It must establish sympathy with its characters and reach a satisfying conclusion. That is the only way you can hope to draw your reader on to the next book.

  • 1
    While I do agree with what you say, I also want to throw in that a character someone may get attached to may not apply for all characters. GoT is a strong example of killing off characters people have become attached to. That also isn't to say that not everyone got attached to everyone who was killed off. There were a few mains that were killed that a lot of my friends were mad about but I didn't really care that they died and the other way around. Of course if all characters are not presented well.. that's a whole other issue.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 15:55
  • 1
    "If you can't adequately develop sympathy for a character over the course of an entire book, then there is little hope of your readers ever reaching the end of that book." True if you are talking about the main character; secondary characters often do not carry that kind of weight. If none of the characters are likable, the story is a guaranteed failure, of course, but in every book there ate more and less likable ones.
    – Lew
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 19:06

May I offer my opinion not as a hobbyist writer, but a professional ICU nurse. I do not like the concept of throw away lives. If a character dies, so be it. We all die and that is a fact of life. What I hope matters is not our deaths, but how we lived during the hyphen between our birth date and the date of our death. Even in literature I believe we should respect life, even fictional lives.

I was writing a scene where a young Asian girl is infected with a new variant of flu and I planned to let her quietly die alone because it furthered my plot. I altered my story when a friend pointed out that my characters Asian name, Mei Li, sounded very much like my great granddaughter's name, Miley. This bothered me so much I changed the entire plot to spare the girl instead of using her death to advance my story. Apparently, I made the correct decision because a female engineer, who is Asian and actually lives in the same region of China, asked me if the girl lived or died. Like me, she had invested emotion into my fictional character and I realized that I had improved a little as a writer.

I guess I have seen way too many real deaths to treat even fictional ones trivially. Write your character to live and share their life and then the reader will actually understand and maybe even share the grief of her friends at her death.


I hate to use Game of Thrones for all my examples involving character deaths and villains but Martin does such a great job with it that it is hard not to. We can relate in that, he presented most of the characters upfront. Whether they initially played a big or small role. He also does a great job of hiding most of their facts and backgrounds until it was needed so not to draw away attention from the characters of focus. After he would kill off a character of focus that everyone got attached to, he did a great job of bridging that death to the next important piece where he now makes a character that was in the background to the forefront and repeats the process.

We can examine Star Wars the original trilogy. Obiwan Kenobi dies in the first movie. While he didn't die until the end, we didn't.... see much of him to get attached, they didn't do much to build up his character. So even though he made a huge self sacrifice at the end, it didn't really leave much of an impact to the audience. Yoda on the other hand, had a bigger emotional impact with his death, and he simply died of old age. We spent most of the 2nd movie getting to know Yoda. He was funny, quirky, someone we can relate to.

The point I am trying to get to is that, time may not make so much a difference compared to how well the character is presented. As Lauren stated, most people struggle to be attached to characters who are killed early. You don't have that time to grow fond of them, but also, just because they died at the end of the book, doesn't mean people will be attached to them either as my example with Obiwan.

A quick study on character building and making meaningful characters may help you with this. I don't have the time right now to search through our questions, but I know recently we have had several questions about good character development. It might be worth your time to check out those questions!


This question is not so much about timing a death as creating reader empathy prior to a death. If you were a writer that knew that your characters built empathy at 3 units per chapter and that the death needed to be a 12 unit death then you could put the death any time after chapter 4. Of course, stories don't work like that.

So how do we go about building reader empathy such that the reader is emotionally affected by the death?

For that, we can look back to Aristotle's Poetics. There are three stages, Aristotle tells us, to a satisfying story with a character. Pity, Fear, and Catharsis.

Pity is all about unfair things happening to a character through no fault of their own. This is the hook. The child who has just become an orphan, the mother whose baby has been stolen, the man who is unjustly imprisoned, the guard who was drugged and then framed for a theft... these situations make us want to know what happens next.

Step one is that the character who will die must have events that are not fair happen through no fault of their own. This creates pity.

Once we have pity we can build fear. Fear is where the reader becomes emotionally invested in the character. For fear, we need the character to experience danger or risk of some kind. Enough that we as the reader worry about them.

The orphan is taken in by abusive rich people, the mother confronts the gang that stole her baby, the innocent man is trapped halfway through his escape, the ex-guard that finds himself at the heart of a corrupt blackmail ring...

The danger (fear) is what makes the character interesting to read about. It is why in Game of Thrones you never know if a character will live or die and it is this that makes you all the more attached to the characters.

It is also in this tense moments that character gets to shine. This is where we get to see what your character is made of. It is where we can grow to love the character.

In the case of a character that is to die off as part of a wider multi book arc, the impact needs to be enough emotion to carry the other characters through the rest of the books. In other words, this death needs to be a pity moment for another character enough to carry the reader and the character to the point where both character and reader's feelings about the death have been resolved. That's the catharsis part.

Catharsis is where you solve the fear and right the wrong of pity. Thus the reader feels satisfied. For the maximum punch in the gut emotion, I would probably want to time the death within inches of catharsis. Where the character and the reader can see that things are about to be resolved until the big bad kills the character and terminates his hope. Of course, the exact amount of catharsis and fresh pity you introduce depends on the type of story you are telling and your style as an author.

Given that you need to balance pity and empathy, I might be tempted to think about placing the death midway through the middle book. That would give me 2.5 books to build empathy (pity and fear) and then just as much time to ride the reader outrage at the death.

However, as negative emotions are stronger than positive ones I might also be tempted to put the death at the end of book 2 (around 2/5 of the way through).

In the end, I would probably decide to let the death fall wherever it makes sense to happen narratively and work on planning plenty of character defining moments before hand.

  • 1
    You have provided the best summary of this topic I have read. Anyone who can accurately quote Aristotle is a scholar indeed. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 12:17

I think a lot of improvement for this story could come if you choose to think of it as one book. A lot of writers make the mistake of planning a whole, complicated series, when in reality, this doesn't work very well once you make the next step towards publishing it.

Always write your book as if it's only one, and the turning it into a series will come later.

How do you create sympathy for a character in only one book? That's easy. So many authors of stand alone novels do that all the time. It may seem difficult, but if you think about it the right way, it can be done. First of all, don't tell the readers that they have to care about him. Readers hate being told what to do. By this I mean making it blatantly obvious that he's the main characters favorite, that he is oh so special, will turn the readers off and they will hate him and be glad when he dies. Second of all, he can't do everything right. He has to be wrong sometimes. People relate to being wrong, and to feeling embarrassed. And so if we have a character who is slightly dead inside, and emotionless due to what's happened to him, I think that could actually be a great tool if you make it seem that deep, deep, down inside he is actually just hurt and scared.

An example of this idea sort of is a character named Sam in a book I once read where he was so emotional that he learned to turn off his emotions and only feel neutral and happy-ish so that when he talked to people, he wouldn't feel pain. They would try asking him deep questions, because they could sense he knew what pain was, but when asked he would only reply with "yeah" or he would be very level headed and simple when asked about advice on things. And this attracted people and was a relief, because they were tired of hearing "I'm sorry" or long, exaggerated replies. People liked that for once they could talk to someone who didn't seem to care because it was a relief. Third of all, don't over do the "lifelessness". Readers won't like a character who is droned on about feeling nothing inside anymore. Only bring that up when it counts. Otherwise, don't mention it. Show it. In how he talks, in simple actions.

[He and the others walked across the grass. He remained at the back of the group, following more slowly. When they reached the apartments, She turned back and looked at her friend standing apart from everyone else. "You coming?" She asked. He blinked. Said, "No" and tilted his head up to gaze at the stars. She sighed an "Okay" and then joined her friends inside the dilapidated brick building. He stood outside alone. The darkness settled around him. The stars got brighter."

Something like that. You're not saying he's just kinda there, you're showing how he's absent. But that was an example you'd want to keep on the minimum. "Walking together to the supermarket, they watched all the cars that passed them. She attempted to wave at those who passed with wild gesticulations, but they merely went on their way and only gave her glances. She slumped her shoulders after a while. He watched her the whole time, his face unchanging. It wasn't until after they reached another block when she began her waving again, that a corner of his lips quirked into a cautious smile."

That'd be something you'd want to do more constant. (I'm not trying to use your characters here, they're just examples.)

So basically the jist of it is to just write the character as he is. Don't overdo it. Don't underdo it. Appreciate him for what he's worth and nurture him, but also leave him to grow and feel. I would suggest having to particular scenes. One where he is alone and shows deep emotion. Two where he is with someone and shows emotion and is comforted.

What comes to mind is the film Manchester by the sea. It's a movie that is chalk full of emotion and makes you want to cry, all the while remaining distant and held back. There's this character Patrick, who is basically emotionless the whole time, but then there's this scene where he has a panic attack, and it's a beautiful moment of him just crying and you feel that so strongly because of how raw it is.

So write the important stuff with him sparingly. If it's all over the book, it won't be important.

There's another book I'm reading that has a fairly absent character, but who has a very strong relationship with his friend. You don't see this through wordy exchanges of woe is me or whatever, but through simple things like when something bad happens to him, his friend notices and doesn't have to say anything, just puts a hand on his shoulder or something. This works if you're not writing the origin of the friendship, but hinting that they've been friends a while and had some scenario where a bond was formed. Bonds don't have to be dramatic, if you're looking to write that scene. It could be the second scene I mentioned earlier that's important or it could be small confessions of truth. I have a friend who I've bonded with a strange way not because we've exchanged our sorrows, but because I've just told him snippets of my true feelings and he understands. My friend comes across as very emotionless and detached, but that's only an act of self-preservation. He is actually a very deep person, but he reveals it in snippets and the way he looks at you when you talk.

  • 6
    Please format this into readable chunks. There is no way anyone can work through this to see if you have something to contribute to the discussion. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 13:52

End of Book 1

There's a lot of good reasons to put the character's death at the end of Book 1. Book 1 is long enough that the character can have a character arc and people can get attached to them, but short enough that people won't be overly invested in them and stop reading when they die. An early death can be useful in setting the tone of the story, especially if you want to convey just how dangerous and potentially lethal the main conflict or journey will be for the heroes. It's also early enough that the status quo has not been set up yet, and people have more time to adjust to the post-death status quo that would be present in Books 2-5. Pushing it back might work for a shocking twist, but it also means you have less time to explore the consequences of the character's death and how it affects the survivors.

Two good examples of how a major death at the end of Act I works well for setting the tone of the story (and I won't use spoilers here since they're so well known by now as to be common knowledge) are Ned Stark from Game of Thrones and Maes Hughes from Fullmetal Alchemist. In both cases the deaths of these characters make the tone of the narrative and shows that the characters' actions have very real consequences.

Game of Thrones shows it's not going to be a traditional fantasy where the knight-in-shining armor wins based on moral strength, because you've just had one of the nicest characters in the series publicly executed by one of the nastiest. It throws everything into chaos and breaks audience expectations. Fullmetal Alchemist shows that the conspiracy behind the plot is ruthless, willing to kill someone who is beloved by just about everyone in the government and is the father of a little girl, and shows just how extensive said conspiracy is.

If you're worried about readers not sympathizing with the killed-off character, let me point out that both Ned Stark and Maes Hughes are beloved by the fanbase of their respective works and their deaths left a huge impact on the reader.


So you want Cancer's death to matter to Leon. One way to accomplish this is for the characters to have some shared struggles. Maybe Leon really cares about Cancer's death because Cancer at some point saved Leon's life. I can easily imagine Leon being torn up if he subsequently failed to save Cancer's life in a later situation.

This leads me to another thought. You plan for Cancer to die to advance the overall story. That's fine. But his death just happening out of the blue seems much less engaging than his death being a consequence of the story action.


I have a series in which one of the main characters dies at the end of book one. From book two the dead character becomes to first-person narrator (Part of the plot - she wonders how she's around to observe and tell the story).

Dexter runs to eight series. His father died before the series commencement but takes a role as Dexter's sounding board.

In Lovely Bones the main character is dead.

In 6th Sense the main character is dead.

In Ally McBeal the love of her life dies half way through.

In Desperate Housewives the narrator died in the first episode.

In short: it doesn't matter when a main character physically dies in a story. The dead character exists so long as other characters think about them.

  • 4
    Though your answer is interesting, it doesn't address OP's question. They asked how they could make their readers care enough about a secondary character in the span of a sole book, so that they would care about its death at the end of said book. Not if they can have a dead main character. Only the Ally McBeal exemple could be eventually relevant here. On a side note, having an opinion different from yours doesn't equal [thinking] in a linear 2-dimensional fashion. Also given how you argument some of your questions , I am very curious about what is your definition of Critical thinking.
    – Patsuan
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 12:20
  • 5
    Surtsey, please you can't simply pick the title and dismiss the entire post. Did you notice the "My problem" written in bold? My so-called "transference" is taken almost word for word from the next sentence. Why do you think the other answers focus on that instead of the pure "when"? If you actually read the post, you can easily see that OP is already certain to kill off that character but is unsure of the amount of time they need to make readers care about its death. So maybe the title needs rewording to match the post, not the opposite.
    – Patsuan
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 13:10
  • 4
    Again, not an answer. Does it occur to you that the reason you keep getting warned and suspended is because you refuse to accept this site for what it is and accept it's basic principles? Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is what it is and it is only respectful to work within the bounds of its conventions or stop posting.
    – user16226
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 13:30
  • 4
    While you've cited a number of works where a MC died, the OP's question is essentially "how much time and development is necessary for a character I intend to kill off and replace with a second character so that both feel important to the narrative?" Almost all your works reference posthumous narrators, which isn't the same thing. Can you, for example, expand on the Ally McBeal example and talk about how killing that person earlier or later might have affected the narrative of the show or McBeal's character arc? Did the death move her to great action? Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 14:45
  • 2
    I disagree with your premise; it does matter. The length of time a reader spends with a character, and the character's development, can make a huge difference. I was affected by the self-sacrifice of a sentient sword at the end of S1 of The Librarians, because we as the audience had spent a season learning about him and watching him interact with the other characters. If he had self-immolated in Ep2, it would have been a bummer but not tear-worthy. I'm sorry if you can't perceive that difference, or if you've never felt that invested in a character. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 13:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.