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When is it acceptable to kill a character? (and if possible, when is it most appropriate?)

BTW, I'm not talking just about a protagonist; I'm talking about any of my characters, whether they're MCs or extras is irrelevant.

closed as too broad by Galastel, Double U, Pawana, Thomo, Secespitus Jul 23 '18 at 10:48

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    There can be several reasons a specific killing off feels wrong. Your question is too broad. However, as long as you don't do these kinds of stupid things, you're probably OK: cracked.com/… cracked.com/… cracked.com/… cracked.com/… – J.G. Jul 22 '18 at 12:36
  • @J.G. I've edited my question so that it's only one question. – Adi219 Jul 22 '18 at 12:36
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    That's not really the problem. The problem is asking which character-killings are apt is like asking how long string should be. There's no all-purpose rule that will answer your query in general. – J.G. Jul 22 '18 at 12:38
  • @J.G. Aren't there any general guidelines which I could follow? – Adi219 Jul 22 '18 at 12:39
  • @Adj219 Hopefully someone more insightful than me can give you some, but all I can offer is "learn from others' mistakes", which is why I linked to those articles. – J.G. Jul 22 '18 at 12:46
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When it serves the plot.

That's really the only reason you do anything in a plot-driven story. If the death serves the plot, do it. If it doesn't serve the plot, then don't.

Don't do it for shock value, or purely to motivate another character (that's called "fridging," which you can read about on TV Tropes), or because it's trendy or edgy or GRRMartin or J Whedon does it.

Do it because there is a reason which makes sense for your plot to move forward.

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    What if that reason is that it motivates another character? E.g., Uncle Ben's death in Spider-man. I understand not doing it for edginess/trendiness/shock value, but character motivation is kind of an important plot element. – eyeballfrog Jul 22 '18 at 17:35
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    @eyeballfrog In the best adaptations of Spider-Man, we get a sense of Uncle Ben as a person. He loves Aunt May, he's been taking care of Peter, he gives him the "power/responsibility" speech, he has a job, or he's losing his job, he and May are worried about bills/house/Peter, he has conversations with May about Peter while Peter is offscreen, Peter talks about what Ben does or means to him, etc. The Uncle Ben character(s) should be as rounded and human as you can make him(/her/them) given time constraints. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '18 at 19:55
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    Unless I misunderstood, your comment doesn't actually respond to @eyeballfrog's question: Is uncle Ben's death an example of bad writing (fridging)? Because it very much defines Peter's agenda as Spiderman, which in turn drives the main plot. Regardless of how much you've humanized Ben in the story, was his death bad writing as your answer suggests? – Flater Jul 23 '18 at 8:10
  • @Flater A character's death, even early on in the story, can serve the plot and not be Fridging IF the character is reasonably rounded. Ben's reason for being there is to die and kick off Spidey's heroism, but if he is also given personality, backstory, and an on-screen relationship with both Peter and May, then he becomes "a person who dies," not a cardboard cutout or a redshirt. Do you have a sense that Ben has a life when he's not on screen? Does he do things (paint the kitchen) which don't center on Peter? That's what makes it "not bad writing." – Lauren Ipsum Jul 23 '18 at 9:51
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    @LaurenIpsum: What I meant is that Peter and Ben's relationship is coincidence to the criminal. I.e. he does not kill Ben because he knows it hurts Peter. Peter's response to becoming Spiderman is as much related to Ben's advice as it is to how he died. – Flater Jul 23 '18 at 13:08
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Lauren Ipsum's point is spot on, but I'd like to elaborate further. Does killing them off or keeping them alive bring better conflict for the story, and deliver a better story arc for other characters than the character who lives instead of dying?

G. R. R. Martin is an obvious author to learn from. Even though he has a habit of killing off major characters, they generally form vital story arcs for other characters that increase overall conflict. A couple of spoilers from Game of Thrones to illustrate this point:

Consider the death of Ned Stark. If he had been spared, Arya Stark's journey motivated by revenge simply would not have occurred. It's questionable as well whether or not Ned Stark could have developed in such a way that it would have served the story in a better fashion and created better conflict. It also conflicted with what we knew about Joffrey's cruelty, and would have been less believable. Even though many people hoped Ned would survive, it was far better for the story that he didn't. It also provided GRR Martin what he ultimately needed, which was to demonstrate to the reader that the heroes of the story are not safe (more on that below)

Consider as well Tyrion's murder of his father. Without this action, the house of Lannister would still have had his father at the head of the household, and there would have been very little change in the relationships between Tyrion and his siblings.

Killing off a major character is exceptionally useful when done right, because the reader always wills for the protagonists to succeed, but now there's the overall danger that they may not. Clearly, no-one is safe. This creates the tension needed for a reader to want to keep reading to see what happens. (This is one of the main reasons many superhero stories can be rather boring; the heroes are so powerful you pretty much know from the outset they're going to survive and win.)

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    Exactly. The cited characters had their own plots and motivations, and their deaths were the result of things they did and the reaction of other characters to those actions. Neither of those deaths are "being stuffed in the fridge." – Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '18 at 17:26
  • "the reader always wills for the protagonists [and the fact that they may not succeed/survive] creates tension needed for a reader" This is not universally true. My girlfriend completely disagrees with me and would say the same as you. For me, a fiction story in which the main person(s) die(s) has to be exceptionally good in other ways. The second spoiler you mentioned (T's father) was a good example of how a death can be perfectly fine and help the plot. Murdering the wife (C) of your former spoiler, on the other hand, was a real downer and almost made me stop the series altogether. – Luc Jul 23 '18 at 3:23
  • @Luc I agree, and that's part of why I was saying "don't whack a character because GRRM does it." I think C's death wasn't necessary; it was literally overkill. You get the feeling after a while that he just likes to kill off characters. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 23 '18 at 9:53
  • Never felt as if it was overkill myself, and thought it was necessary for the plot. It was required for other character arcs, it was in keeping with the characters involved who made the decisions. Certainly was a shock though. Don't want to discuss it too much in case this turns into a discussion about GoT rather than the actual question :) – Craig Sefton Jul 23 '18 at 10:55
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Generally, non-MC characters are killed to provide some sort of motivation or commitment to other characters, or to prove the lethality of the setting and raise the stakes of whatever the MC is doing to life-or-death. One more reason is self-sacrifice, somebody dying for their cause. This is often combined with a love motivation, a parent dies saving their child, a soldier dives on a grenade to save his brothers-in-arms.

Bruce Wayne's parents are killed to justify Bruce's emotions that drive him into a lifelong journey toward becoming a vigilante and preventing others from experiencing his plight. Spiderman has a similar back story.

In such movies, there is often an expression of love for the killed character by the MC in some way, even if it is back-handed love (an argument or disagreement with a sibling over something trivial) to add an element of guilt to the MC about their friend/sibling/parent dying on a sour note in their relationship.

Alternatively, many a villain is motivated by revenge for the death of a loved one.

In Star Wars, Indiana Jones, gang stories, spy stories, cop stories, disease stories, extras and walk-ons are slaughtered by the author with gleeful impunity to reinforce that the MC is in lethal danger. (Often by the MC themselves). The MC is often put in situations that cause them harm, even close to lethal harm, to prove the point. They get shot, stabbed, break an arm.

The "partner killed in the line of duty the day before retirement" has become a laughable cliché, but the first time it was used it probably delivered with good impact.

Another cliché is the walk-on, well-loved, long-lost college buddy that ends up dead by the end of the show, giving the MC motivation to disbelieve the "usual" explanations and dig deeper to prove the death was no accident.

In a show like "Erin Brockovich", the eponymous MC is motivated to extraordinary investigative lengths out of deep sympathy for the ill and families of the dead and dying, even though I don't think she was ever in any imminent danger herself. (It's been a long time, but I don't think she was).

+1 Lauren, "When it serves the plot". These are ways and examples of how it serves the plot, and I will disagree and say the death can be purely to motivate another character, but if that is going to be the case, you probably need to "show, don't tell". Don't just say it in exposition, you need to show some depth of emotional connection to the doomed character by the character you wish to motivate. The motivation, for hero or villain, arises from the severing of some kind of love connection, be it parental (either direction), romantic or platonic (aka non-sexual, including siblings, friends, respected mentors, partners, etc).

Without the love connection, most character deaths in good fiction are examples of lethality, villainous or not. E.g. a fellow cancer patient has a seizure and dies unexpectedly, or in Gravity, a fellow astronaut is killed by high speed debris smashing through their helmet and destroying their head.

Or, the death is self-sacrifice: Obi Wan dies as his only option against Vader that allows him to continue protecting Luke (and it is necessary in the plot for Luke to be forced into autonomy.)

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    my concern about "don't do it to motivate another character" is when the person who dies is a Dead Meat Character. Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman was a well-rounded character who had his own motivation and plot arc. He was the romantic interest, and his death spurred Diana to break free of Ares's manacles, but he died for reasons relating to his character arc, not hers. Introducing a character whose only function in the plot is to die, because the death motivates someone else, is Fridging. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '18 at 17:24
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    @LaurenIpsum I think Dead Meat characters should not be "motivational" other than in the sense of raising the stakes; in "Saving Private Ryan" or "Inglorious Basterds" we have many anonymous characters, often with zero lines, die throughout to prove the lethality of the setting for the MC. As direct motivation (i.e. a love/affection factor), I agree with you shallowly sketched characters are cliché and transparent. Even IF their only true plot purpose is to motivate the MC, the author should "show" them as whole and rounded to improve the audience's sympathy and understanding of the MC. – Amadeus Jul 22 '18 at 18:41
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    @Amadeus: Cliches exist for a reason. Taking the Wonder Woman example, that works because Steve's death comes at the end. If you need to have a death start the plot, there simply isn't time to develop such a character. Or rather, time spent developing them is time not spent doing other things. "Fridging" is a trope, and as TV Tropes warns, tropes are tools, not bad or good. It should be used where it is reasonable, not avoided out of fear or overused to the point of not being eye-roll inducing. – Nicol Bolas Jul 22 '18 at 21:21
  • @NicolBolas Clichés exist because they have been overused to the point of being recognized by most of the audience, unlike what is on TV Tropes, many of which are patterns only pro writers would recognize. I think clichés should be avoided out of fear; because I think they break suspension of disbelief by making the reader aware of the writing as writing, aware of the author copying an idea from somebody else. The "Of Mice and Men" cliché (a smallish intelligent char protecting a strong mentally disabled char) makes me want to put the book down, especially if played for laughs. – Amadeus Jul 23 '18 at 10:59

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