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So, in a WW2-ish story featuring a co-ed military, I have a female soldier who is very kind and caring. I'm setting her up to be a mascot and somewhat of the postergirl. Trouble is, she dies further down the story to kind of remind the player that this is a war game, not a war-themed visual novel, and to send the unit into the endgame. Problem is, I don't want to kill her because I've been suckered by her charm! So, for those who slay their characters you enjoy, how do you detach from a character you've grown attached to?

Some background: I planned to have her die by sniper fire, and have her death sort of motivate the platoon to go for an all out assault on the final destination/mission.

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    related: writing.stackexchange.com/q/35266/14704 – Galastel May 28 at 15:48
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    Detachment seems like a bad idea as far as writing. You want the readers to feel your attachment within themselves, so they are devastated when the character dies. Then they might remember to buy your followup work, since it left such a mark. – Mark Rogers May 29 at 14:25
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    Watch (the thirteen Firefly episodes, and then) the movie Serenity. My daughter hates that movie for exactly the reason you are talking about. – RonJohn May 29 at 16:30
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    @RonJohn I hate that film because to me (and most people I know), it rings fake, like a cheap shot for creating emotion - and thus has the exact opposite effect. Now, how to write (or direct) something based on it, that is a random, tragic death that doesn't feels so fake, is probably a difficult thing to do in the first place. – Eth May 29 at 18:08
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    @Eth what's "fake" is not letting a major character die. In the real world, people die in "random" events all the time. Perhaps RonJohn's daughter will appreciate this better when she's older. After she's lost a bunch of friends to car wrecks, having one person die when a spacecraft lands roughly will seem perfectly normal. – Monty Harder May 29 at 20:34
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You don't.

To put it in more words: the audience has to get attached to make the death relevant. You want her death to be a wake-up call, a touch of realism and a reminder of what war is.

Sure, there is no guarantee that your audience will like the same characters that you like. But if you realize that you've grown fond of that female soldier, if you find her charming, chances are that her character works well.

So, you don't need to detach. A detachment strategy would make you think less of that character, show less of her, and focus less on her emotions or her dialogue.

Sure, it's somewhat sad that you have to give her the killing blow. But ultimately, characters live and die in the stories they're written in. The only right thing you can do is portray her at best of your ability.

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    This is a great answer. The way that a character dies has a huge impact on how readers think about that character. Don't try to distance yourself. Instead, make the death as impactful and personal as you can. – CMB May 29 at 21:13
  • Of course one can err in the opposite direction, e.g. trying to maximise the shock value of deaths (Martin is somewhat known for doing this in A song of ice and fire). – Liquid May 30 at 14:33
  • This is true, but in many ways I always thought Martin did a really poor job of killing his characters. Many of the deaths were so quick you really didn't have time to feel anything. I think he did this on purpose to emphasize the callous brutality of life, but it's not great closure for the reader. Suzanne Collins was bad at this too. Rue's death in The Hunger Games was so quick and abrupt that you didn't really get a chance to to care before the story moved on. There definitely needs to be a balance, but I'd rather read a well-drawn out death than an insignificant one. – CMB May 30 at 19:08
  • @CMB Indeed, that's a problem with Martin. While his method has its own merits, sometimes it undermines the importance of certain deaths. – Liquid May 30 at 21:53
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Don't detach yourself emotionally from the character. Rather, experience the character's death as a major part of their arc.

This is not a real person who is gone once dead; this is a fictional character, and their entire arc is what makes them who they are. Make the specifics of the death contribute towards making the character even greater, and love the character for their entire contribution to your story, including through her death.

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You don't detach yourself from the character. On the contrary - you let yourself feel the pain of her death, experience the loss, and you pour all of that onto the page.

When a character dies, it should matter. It should be a punch in the gut for your audience. That can only be achieved if you care about the character. If you don't care, if you've detached yourself, how do you expect the audience to care?

When I write a character's death scene, I try to evoke with the words on the page the same kind of pain I feel at the death of this character I've grown attached to. Then I spend a couple of hours in a zombie state. Then I let other characters grieve, in ways that make sense for them. It's not about me processing my grief - they've lost someone they knew, it should affect them, right? Then, the world move on, I'm writing the next in-story thing.

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How to kill a character you are attached to?

ANSWER: Write a few alternate versions of the scene--in one the character dies, in others the character does not die (coma, loss of limbs, etc). Then get on with the story. After you've written more story, with the anaesthetic of knowing you have versions of "that scene" in which the character does not die, you'll reach a point where it becomes easier to pop in the version of the scene in which they do die.

That's how I detach from the characters I must kill. I give myself the stage of grief of denial and numbness, and eventually reach acceptance of the death.

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    I like this! Part of why I tend to stick with nonfiction is I don't want to invent and hurt characters -- but if that's just one of MANY options, and then later when I'm more focused on the work as a whole, I can then choose the best scene for the story, even if it sucks for one character. I wonder how far I'll have to take the branching realities then, however. That's ok -- I like playing with form. – April Jun 3 at 14:50
  • @April I had three characters I needed to deal with ... One I hated hurting (he was a 'gandalf' type) another I thought I had to kill--almost crying at the thought of it--and the third, the villain, I didn't want to kill him, either. Each of them went through various iterations. The villain has been killed by the hero, by himself, by lung cancer, and by his accomplice over the months. In the end, the best 'story' is for his accomplice to kill him and the hero to try in vain to save him. The mentor figure ended up in a coma, and the other character was temporarily unconscious. ... – DPT Jun 3 at 17:06
  • ...I might still kill those two, but in fact there is not a good 'story' reason to do so. It would be gratuitous, that's all. – DPT Jun 3 at 17:08
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I think this may be a matter of opinion; different psychologies will answer differently.

Personally, my characters feel real to me; but I remind myself of a few things. I go back over what I wrote for her, reminding myself that I invented her, all she really consists of is these words on paper. It is like sketching a person, then burning the sketch. In reality, I kill ALL the characters, sooner or later, when I stop writing about them. They will have their last words, even if I write a series.

What I would like to do for her is give her a meaningful death; I am not just killing her to get her out of the way. Her death will motivate the characters that love her, even if on the surface it looks like a pointless death, it will mean something in how the future of her friends turn out.

You have already said she is kind and caring -- Is she brave enough to knowingly sacrifice herself for her friends? If somebody must die, does she love them enough to make it herself? I think, for the other characters, realizing somebody loved you that much is a powerful emotion that can motivate them to risks and sacrifice they would not have made without her "going first".

Personally I don't kill "good side" characters with stray bullets or other such random events or accidents; if they die, they die fighting. I pay a lot of attention (and often rewrites) to deaths so they will be meaningful and impact the story. And even if the death is meaningless, it can still have an impact upon the characters left behind to grieve and perhaps avenge her. if it doesn't -- You probably did not need this character in the first place.

Second, if I have become attached, that is a good thing. It means you didn't write a cardboard character to kill and forget, just to make a point. Hopefully the reader is also attached, so her death will be meaningful to them.

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I don't recommend it, but you can take a Hollywood/American morality play approach. Put something in her current or past behavior that is ever-so-slightly corrupted, or slightly off center, or even the tiniest bit not pure-as-the-gently-driven-snow-virginal. When she dies, rather than address the actual situation or the injustice or the randomness-of-fate inherent in human life, readers will think that she had it coming because she deserved it for the small bit of humanity you exposed.

You will hate yourself. All the women in your life will reject you as a sexist moralizer. Your daughters will feel constrained from exploring their own lives and personalities. Your sons may feel entitled to suppress and ignore women in whom they can imagine any "flaw".

But, you can similarly rationalize your characters demise.

Or, you can let your character be real to you. Let her live and be the perfect example of herself that you know well and allow the world to see. If you must kill her, let it be consistent with her life, and allow your readers to share in the pain of losing her. Let her death do something to drive the story, so that she shall not have died in vain.

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    Some women might already cringe a little bit at the overdone "kill off a woman to motivate the men" trope. Unless she really has her own arc that ends in a death that's meaningful for reasons other than the male MC's emotional reaction to it, this trope is going to be hard to avoid. – Meg May 30 at 15:22
  • I would cringe at using women's deaths to motivate the men, and was not advocating for that end. I was complaining, and encouraging the rejection of, the use of moral perfection as protection against death, or, in the more common reverse, finding a "flaw" as a rationalization for and way to accept death. In this case, using the woman-hating approach of writing a behavior that later helps the author distance themselves from the character's death. It can be for any gender character, but sexism makes us so much more critical of women. – cmm May 30 at 15:36
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    I think we're circling the same point-- I was adding on more than disagreeing. It's hard to do a "find a reason to kill the only woman" storyline well. – Meg May 30 at 15:54
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If you want to show people it's a war game, maybe you play out combat situations, roll dice to see who gets shot and who lives and dies based on the situation and whose number comes up.

Literature and especially war and action fiction have had more than their share of contrived forced deaths the authors thought were good thematic ideas, but instead were mainly transparent contrived dramatically-times sacrifices. If I don't see another of those, in the rest of my days, I'll still have seen too many.

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A. You don't.
B. If you have to, take the character out by surprise. Create a small plot where you are emotionally involved, if you could create a romantic scene, then when the audience is very involved in the plot, all of a sudden death arrives.

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Context matters here -- if your overall tone is one of cool detachment, then you do indeed need to detach yourself, and "simply report", and let the reader supply their own feelings about the death. Those are going to be more likely tilted toward anger, pain, and resentment if the character was sympathetic. This is much harder to do well.

But if you're trying to involve the reader emotionally with your characters and want then to feel what you feel about the loss, then go ahead and feel sad and put those feelings of disappointment, loss, and grief into what you write. They don't have to be direct -- actions showing these things will work too.

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