I remember the first time I killed a character. I cried for a day and then resurrected him. I’ve since gotten better at killing them. One of my writer friends once said “I kill people for a living”. I don’t know if she was quoting someone else, but her words stuck with me. She meant to be funny, but characters die, sometimes through old age but often violently. Even certain sub-genres of romance are not immune to this – paranormal and romantic suspense come leaping to mind. And writers are responsible. But good writers are responsible killers, they don’t do this for no reason. A writer kills a character only for a good reason… or several reasons.
There is nothing like seeing a dead person or animal to remind the reader that the protagonist, too, is mortal and can die. The reader will worry for the character even though the reader knows (almost knows) that the main character will survive in the end.
There are higher stakes than personal survival but the main
character can’t face them if he or she is dead! The death of a
character may raise the stakes because the protagonist can feel his
or her own death approaching. Or the death means that one of those
higher goals has been threatened temporarily defeated.
The death of a character close to the protagonist weakens or
destroys the protagonist’s support system. Maybe the other
supporting characters are afraid of dying but more often the main
character is afraid of placing them in danger and so pulls away. In
this way, the protagonist is temporarily weakened (but can become
stronger as a result), has something new to worry about, and must
rely on him/herself to take on the bad guy. Killing a character
close to the protagonist can be crucial to enabling that one-on-one
It says a lot about a character (and the author) when he comes
face-to-face with death. The initial reaction, the coping
strategies, the conflict, and the resolution all reveal character
and can be a catalyst for character change.
Any genre examines life. Death is an inescapable part of living so
the inclusion of death in some form will make your WIP more
complete, more faceted, more resonant with readers. Also, consider
what you character is up against. If her life is on the line, a
death or two along the way reminds the reader of this.
I realize it sounds like I am only talking about physical death
here, but remember there are many types of death (physical, professional, psychological). Choose your deaths
according to your genre, theme, stakes, and character fears.