Death and Mayhem: How To Kill Off a Character

The Background of a Murder

So. As you know, my dear inklings, I am delightedly immersed in edits on the sequel to Rethana’s Surrender, my first epic fantasy novel.

If you recall, R’s S and its sequel began life as one whole book. But in the interest of maintaining a reasonable publishing process, I elected to split the book in half.

This led to a fairly cramazing cliffhanger ending for R’s S, if I dare say so myself. ; )

Anyway, now that I’m working with great vigor* on the sequel, I’m discovering several discoveries. One of these is that I used to use a lot of words.

Okay, so that’s not really a discovery. I already knew that. I think we all already knew that.

The Because of a Murder

But no, one of the genuine discoveries is that I wrote into the story several large gaps that need filling. At this point, I’m looking at two to four chapters of new material.

On one hand, this is frustrating because it negates my efforts not to let this book grow into a MEFaN**. But ah well, I guess you can’t win ’em all. Mostly, I’m enjoying the generation of new material. So all is well on that particular home front.

The other discovery that initially dismayed but then thrilled me is that I’ve got several subplots that could use tidying and then tying up. And in one of these subplots, I get to kill off an unlikeable character.

Now, when I say “unlikeable,” I mean that he does not have an endearing personality at all. I like him because he’s a clear, well-defined character to me. Even villains are likeable if they’re written well. And from readers’ reactions to him, it seems I’ve done a pretty good job delineating him.

In the sequel to R’s S, I am going to kill him.

Because he’s a “spineless little fraction of a man” (a beloved quote from the beloved movie Far and Away).

And, so as to sort-of avoid spoilers, that’s all I’m going to share concerning his identity. I’m a tease like that.

The Body Anatomy of a Murder

(Strikethroughs are the enemy of alliteration.)

So, how does one go about killing off an unlikeable (subplot) character?

I have a few thoughts.

1. Prior to the murder, establish him as a strong (subplot) character.

One way or another, you’ve gotta write this guy so that your readers have already had emotional reactions to him. If he’s likeable, his death must have a significant, negative impact on your main character. (This presupposes that you’ve done your job in making your readers care deeply about your MC.) If he’s not likeable, his death must have a significant, positive impact on your MC.

If your readers don’t already know that this guy is significant to your MC, then…

A. …there’s no point in killing off the character, and…

B. …there’s no point in that character’s existence in the first place, so you might as well just cut him from the story altogether.

If you want to kill him off, make sure he’s significant. If he is, murder away. If he isn’t, either erase him from existence or up your ante.

2. Select the right point in your story for this murder.

This one might be tricky, because the “right point” will vary from one story to the next. For me, the “right point” is also a turning point for Rethana, my MC. And hooooo boy, am I taking a risk here in trying to explain this without spoilers!

In the R’s S sequel, the death of Unlikeable Character catapults Rethana into action in a situation in which she feels completely helpless and isolated. She hasn’t exactly been wallowing, but she’s been pretty much frozen with fear. Unlikeable Character’s death provides the catalyst that thaws her out and gets her moving again — not because the death horrifies her, but because the death is proof that her real enemies mean the most serious business.

And if you keep in mind that one of Rethana’s main motivations is protecting her sister Chel, you’ll know that this “serious business” could impact Chel in a particularly dire way.

And that’s all I have to say about that. ; )

Your murder should so significantly impact your MC that it causes MC to react in a powerful way. If she’s stationary, it should force her into action. If she’s mobile, it should force her into more intensive action. And you, writer, must keep in mind that the action she chooses might not be the smartest one.

(In fact, it probably shouldn’t be the smartest one. There’s nothing more readable than a main character who doesn’t make wise choices until the end. And maybe not even then!)

3. Pick the right murder weapon.

No, I’m not talking about candlestick vs. rope vs. revolver (although the actual weapon might play a role, depending on the story circumstances). By “weapon,” I mean the following question:

Just how is Unlikeable Character going to perish?

Is the death gruesome? Is it peaceful? Is it a murder, a mercy killing, an accident, an execution?

By whose hand does this take place? Another side character’s? The MC’s? Or is it by Unlikeable Character’s own hand?

Will Unlikeable Character die carelessly? Awkwardly? Cowardlyly? Will his dishonorable death confirm everything your MC has always thought about him?

Or will he die gracefully? Honorably? Will he redeem himself in the end, thereby causing MC all sorts of moral discomfort?

Before you, writer, commit murder against your character (Likeable or Unlikeable), you must decide upon the manner of his death and figure out the emotional impact of his death on your MC.

The Brief of a Murder




Answer these questions both for yourself and for your readers, and your hands will be well-soaked in the blood of your (subplot) character — and, like Lady Macbeth, you’re not likely to get any of it off. Congratulations!


* vigor = whatever energy and focus are left me beyond the task of putting together a human inside my abdomen

** MEFaN = Monster Epic Fantasy Novel (i.e. doorstop)

P.S. I wrote most of this blogpost on my cell phone in a waiting room. Living in the future is pretty fracking cool.

P.P.S. On my phone, autocorrect wanted to change “myself” to “musket,” as in: “if I dare say so musket.” In Rethana’s universe, muskets would be quite the anachronism. Unless Kryeis were the one hauling them around…hmmm….

4 thoughts on “Death and Mayhem: How To Kill Off a Character

  1. Pamela Davis says:

    Good comments on killing off a character. In one situation of my own, the character did not have a big role but his connection to other main characters was significant. So that when he perished, it was traumatic for everyone. Or it could just have been that I’d already killed off most of the world’s population, so that any death would be significant among the few survivors. đŸ˜‰

    I’m impressed that you are writing blogposts every day when you are incubating a human. Nicely done!

    • Thanks, Pam! We’ll see how long I can keep it up. I’ve already had two close calls of “hey, it’s 10pm and I haven’t blogged yet today, oops.” So we’ll hope that’s going to be the exception rather than the rule!

      And yes, the effect of side char’s death on main chars will depend on the inter-char relationships as well as the circumstances of the story. I’m always having to remind myself that if I do something significant with a side char (killing-off or otherwise), I need to have established his/her importance beforehand. Otherwise, it’ll look like I’ve expended a lot of writing energy for no reason, as well as taken the reader’s attention off of the main action.

      It’s not always easy to juggle all of this!

  2. Joshua Unruh says:

    I don’t know how you’ll take this, but understand that I mean it entirely as a compliment to your writing of vivid characters regardless of how we’re supposed to feel about them.

    You are well guarded against spoilers because when you talk about unlikable characters getting the axe, you have literally failed to narrow the field down by more than one. Even your Main Character could be on the chopping block if all you said was “I’m killing an unlikable character in Rethana’s sequel.”

    PS: Writing things on your phone while in waiting rooms tells me you aren’t working on BEDAug with much of a net. Good, me neither. Can’t wait to see which one of us that bites first.

    • Well, the blogging via phone was mainly because I needed something to do while I waited for an hour-and-a-half past my appointment time. ; ) But yes, as I told Pam above, I’ve already had a couple of close calls almost missing the end-of-day deadline. I knew BEDAug wouldn’t be for the faint of heart…but I didn’t think I’d just outright forget to do it!

      I’ll take the compliment to my writing and thank you. That said, I’m glad I failed to narrow the field. Believe me, all it would take is a single descriptive word for Rethana’s readers to know exactly which char I’m talking about — and it’s not her, thank you very much. ; ) And now I’ve probably made a bigger deal out of it than what it is, so the real risk I’m running is letting readers down when they find out who actually dies in the next book!

      I guess I’m just too smart for my own good. ; )

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