Killing off good characters

Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.

28 thoughts on “Killing off good characters

  1. I hate it when a dog is killed in a narrative, though I just did it this weekend in a story. Ugh. It was tough to do, however.Same with a cat, too. A former girlfriend lured me to a movie with assurances that the cat in the movie would not die. It did. I broke up with her.

    One exception to your “can’t undo a death” rule — which is otherwise absolutely true, obviously — is in comic books. DC has killed off Superman, Supergirl, the “Barry Allen” Flash, Robin, and a whole bunch of other super heroes and then brought them back somehow or another. It’s a plot twist that has been used so often that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

    Any chance you could write the dog back in before the final galleys come back? Please?

    • Sorry Joe, the dog had to die. But it was “off camera,” so the speak. He is just discovered dead. As for comics, I grew up reading Superman and I never really noticed the Lazarus Syndrome. Kids are more forgiving, I guess!

  2. Great tips, Kris. I’ve had to cross lines I never thought I would (not with animals) but it was painful…and unavoidable. The death had to be pivotal and propelled the plot, the very points you made. The stakes were ramped up in a way that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. Thanks for the excellent summary.

    I think Downton Abbey “jumped the shark” this season for me. The two deaths were shocking & reflected badly on the family, that I’m not sure how much longer I will watch it. I chuckled at your Mary in the shower dream sequence thing, but since these people can’t dress themselves, I’m afraid she’d have servants in the shower buffing her to a high sheen.

    • LOL…your comment about the Downtown family not being able to dress themselves. I feel like you do that DA is starting to look like one of those Monty Python twit skits.

  3. The late (and beloved) Barbara Parker warned me about killing animals. I’d given a character two cats and it was necessary to the story that Something Bad Happen to them. I’d originally killed one but let the other live. I did change it so they both survived and had readers tell me they would never have forgiven me if I’d let either die. As this was my first book, I guess it was a good thing. I haven’t killed a character yet, although I toyed with it in my current MS, but only because I didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Not a good reason, and they’ll survive.

    Terry’s Place

    • Terry, JK Rowling said she wanted to kill off What would Hermione say? JK Rowling has Ron Weasley “out of sheer spite” so you’re in good company. But I think Rowling also killed off that owl, too, in her last book.

  4. I’m such a wimp. I don’t like it when animals die in stories. I just read a novel by someone very well known (I won’t tell which one so I don’t spoil) where a dog dies and someone is resurrected. Excellent storytelling but that scene with the dog is living rent free in my head and I don’t like that. It’s a psychological thing for me I guess. I still haven’t recovered from Turner and Hooch.

  5. Jillian, doesn’t Hooch have puppies or something? I guess for screenwriters it’s okay for the animal to die as long as it leaves babies behind. Ditto for “Old Yeller.” I remember being so sad watching that movie as a kid. But the “Young Yeller” ending helped.

    • Hooch does have puppies, Kris. It did make it better but if I’d written that screenplay I could have never done it. I would have had the entire family playing together at the end.

  6. I can’t believe you didn’t bring up Misery. The ultimate fan repulsed by the death of a character. Seriously, in some cases, it has to be done. Old Yeller made the ultimate sacrifice. Had he lived, it wouldn’t have been much of a sacrifice. Same with Red Pony by Steinbeck. In both cases, the boys experienced a coming of age at the loss of a loved animal. MASH is a great example. By that time, we’d developed a real relationship with the characters. Henry’s death was brilliant. We suddenly felt an emotional kinship with the characters that guaranteed our return for many seasons. Even better was how the writers developed Sherman Potter. Despite the loss of Henry Blake, we fell in love with his replacement. Now that’s writing!

    • Ron, wow…how could I forget Misery. It’s a brilliant movie and book. And your observation about how death of animals (or friends) help children moves toward adulthood is spot on. Didn’t Radar also die on MASH? Brain isn’t what it used to be…

  7. Your list is great – and highlights why many times a death doesn’t feel ‘right’. The reason the Downton Abbey deaths last season didn’t ring true is because they were not story driven but rather a result of the two actors deciding not to renew their contracts. Once we knew that, we knew Sybil and Matthew’s days were numbered! I’m still not good about animal deaths – I wept buckets at the end of Dances with Wolves once the horse and the wolf copped it.

  8. I have a lot of respect for writers who “kill off” characters, especially when they can continue to make money by prolonging the character’s existence (e.g., Doyle/Sherlock Holmes). It’s a matter of integrity…but only if (as you mentioned) it serves the greater story.

  9. Thanks for the tips! I have to kill off a dog in my novel and I have hopefully bonded the dog with my reader so far (according to my critique group who love him). They will hate me when I kill him off, but it is for their own good that they grieve over the death. It’s so important for the ending. Hopefully my readers will forgive me.


  10. Excellent post, and the timing couldn’t be better as well. I’m currently outlining for book five in a series and I need to kill off a secondary character to open up possibilities (read produce more conflict) for the remaining cast. How it will happen I don’t yet know, but it’s already there on the page.

    No animals will be harmed in book five, or any other if I can avoid it. It took me years before I could reread Where The Red Fern Grows. It still has an impact on my writing when it comes to animals. I had someone point out in one of my early works that the dogs didn’t age with their owners. I had to fix that once or twice and it was always off camera when I did.

    I think characters need to die if the story calls for it. If the readers throw a fit that’s a credit to the writers work if you ask me. The characters belong to the writer first, the fans second.

    I’m more worried about the fact that you had seven cats at once to be honest. 🙂

    • Randall, I lied. We had 10 cats. (But one lived outside). Somehow 7 sounded saner. My husband was known in his office as The Crazy Cat Man.

  11. I put a death in the first chapter of my book. It was my hero’s brother. He had to die, else my hero would never be king. But I gave him some good sex and a fine scene with his father and mother before I offed him. And then I let his widow become the bitch on wheels she needs to be to wreck havoc down the road! It was so much fun!

  12. My very sick dog needed to be put down. The night before, for his last meal, I fed him a grilled ribeye, baked potato w/butter and sour cream and a slice of Apple pie. Through his pain he smiled and wagged his tail at me.

    • Aw, what a good man you are. I just had to put down my cat of 22 years. She got the best deli turkey I could give her to the last.

  13. The master of killing off beloved characters is Stephen King. Whether it was Nick in The Stand, Henry in Black House, or the little dog in Needful Things. It is gutting.

    During an evening closing down the bar at Killer Nashville with Peter Straub, I asked him if it was his idea or King’s to kill Henry. All he would do is smile and tell me than King laughed and said, “do you know how many letters we are going to get?”

    Killing characters is a fine art form. You do it correctly and I will never ever forgive you (but in the best possible way).


    • Ha! Good story. Reminds me of that quote from King, something to the effect of “I have the heart of a boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

      I met him once and he couldn’t have been a kinder, sweeter man. But then, few of us crime writers actually look like ax murderers.

    • I humbly disagree if we’re allowed to bring film and television into the debate. If we are then the award goes to Joss Whedon.

      This is the guy who wanted to have a separate title sequence for Buffy the Vampire Slayer so that Jess could appear as a title character only to die during the pilot episode. He wanted his viewers to know that death was real, it would happen, and NO one was safe.

      Which…. at least for Early Joss made me like him a lot less. I didn’t find the death of Wash to be at all engaging in Firefly. In fact I think it violated most of the rules listed in this post. It didn’t feel like it advanced the story nearly as much as it was a smack in the face to say “well it’s time to start killing them off kiddies.”

      The fact that anyone lived after that was harder for me to believe then the fact that Wash died…

  14. All of my books start and end in death…with vengeance in the middle. In some genres that’s the way it is, just as in some lives it is the same. The trick is making sure the dead either deserved it, or died a hero. Place it poorly and folks will consider you a craven murderer. Place it well and folks keep reading and pay you for more.

  15. Nice post, PJ, and a good topic. Not only got me thinking about how and why to kill off a character, but to remember that in real life, people don’t die nearly as often as they do in novels, and that each life is unique and incredibly important to so many others, so we shouldn’t kill any characters in our books indiscriminately, just so we might sell more books to fans of blood and guts.

    Makes me reconsider the killing of two characters in my first WIP, who didn’t really need to die, but it was the quickest way to move on to the next scene.

    I also had a dog die fairly early in that story, hopefully before any readers might get too attached to him, but at least he was old. I did it for the plot though, not just to shock any reader. Felt it was a legitimate plot point.


    Thanks so very much, Kris, for this super-duper post. I just forwarded it around to all my writer pals. What a contribution to this “thing” of ours.

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