The Rules of Character Death

Fair warning: Harry Potter fans may be offended.

The Rules of Character Death: Killing Characters Like You Mean It

I’ve read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies and listened to a lot of plays, and one thing that often determines how much I enjoy those stories is how the writers choose to handle character deaths.

Shakespeare follows a very specific rule set with regards to killing off characters. In simple terms, any character who kills, threatens to kill, or plots to kill another character has guaranteed his own death by the finale of the play. Thus, Hamlet (who plots to kill his uncle) must die, and Claudius (who has killed) must also die. Part of this is Shakespeare stating his own opinions on the immorality of killing, but it also dictates that Shakespeare will never kill a character for no reason.

There are some writers who find it entertaining to pointlessly kill off characters just for the sake of killing them off and getting a reaction out of their readers (pssst…Harry Potter/Divergent). Frankly, it’s my opinion that killing off characters purely to upset an audience is a poor copout for writing an emotionally effective story.

I am a huge advocate for avoiding needless character deaths, and I typically follow several rules when it comes to writing death in my novels, and after being asked by @Danielle to elaborate on this topic, I’m going to share the two major rules that I follow when writing character deaths.

Rule 1. Death Leaves an Impact

First, think about the facts: many combat veterans deal with PTSD for years after they leave the military, so how come there are so many stories in which violence has little affect on the characters?

However, I don’t believe that a character should die unless it leaves a very definite impact on both the characters and the audience.

Pointless Character Death: Thor 2


So, Loki dies. Spoiler. But he doesn’t… I can see some feeble attempts from the scriptwriter to try to leave an emotional impact by killing Loki. He makes an attempt at resolving Thor and Loki’s eternal brotherly feud and gives Loki a dramatic death. However, once he’s gone, Thor hardly seems to think about it, and it’s only mentioned once.

The thing is, when a loved one matters to you, grief does not disappear instantly, even if, like Thor, you have a wonderful girlfriend whom you don’t actually talk to and with whom you don’t actually have a real relationship with (seriously, he’s probably spent a total of three weeks with her over the course of both Thor movies). Grief takes months to work through. It changes our view of the world and impacts the decisions that we make —I don’t see this happening with Thor.

Impactful Character Death: The Amazing Spiderman


We all remember Gwen Stacy’s Dad, right? He dies at the end of the first movie, but his influence carries on into the sequel, making Peter question whether it’s right to stay with Gwen and ultimately impacting his ethical view of the world.

His death also serves to foreshadow Gwen Stacy’s death (not sorry, spoiler), as we see Peter’s memory of the night he died haunting him consistently throughout the film as a reminder that his relationship with Gwen puts her in danger. Gwen’s father’s death has a profound effect on Peter and his decisions.

Can you see the difference? It’s not even subtle…

Rule 2. Avoid the Resurrection Cliche

So, back to Thor 2 —Loki dies in a futile attempt to evoke emotion from the audience, but because he’s really the only true villain that Thor ever faces, he must predictably come back to life by the end of the movie…  The same thing happened in the first movie, so should we really be that surprised? Probably not.

Classic Cliche Resurrection: Harry Potter


Sorry, this isn’t a superhero example, but it’s so bad that I had to include it. You all remember when Harry faces Voldemort and gets killed? And then comes back to life just so he can finish the job that someone else could just as easily have done? The book clearly peaked when Harry died, and ended lamely with an anticlimactic, one-spell duel between Harry and He-Who-Has-No-Nose.

As such, I’m a firm believer that the series would have been much more satisfying had Harry died and stayed dead. It would have left a much stronger impact on the characters around him…and then there wouldn’t have been that awkwardly written scene with grown up Harry married to Ginny and their children in the train station. Lamest ending in existence.

I have one exception for the resurrection rule: resurrections that leave as strong an emotional impact as the initial death.

Impactful Resurrection: Sherlock


We all remember the dramatic ending of season 2, Reichenbach Fall, in which Sherlock fakes suicide in order to protect his friends. His death clearly leaves a strong impact on John Watson, who is still dealing with grief two years later when we enter season three.

Sherlock returns predictably, however, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (screenwriters) don’t just bring him back and say, “hey dolly dolly!” Everything isn’t instantly okay, because these men are realists. John Watson reacts with anger —he feels betrayed by Sherlock and doesn’t speak to him for months.

The death also reveals much about Sherlock’s character, as we realize how insensitive he is to other people’s feelings —how utterly cruel he has the capacity to be. It reveals his weakness and leaves an impact on the people associated with him.

That is a character resurrection that I can put up with.


40 thoughts on “The Rules of Character Death

  1. One of my favorite resurrection storylines is that of Under the [Red] Hood. Not specifically in the manner of resurrection, but in what Jason Todd chose to do after his life was restored to him. The story is so emotionally impacting, at least to me. You can see all of the regret Bruce felt, even years afterward. So good.
    I’m writing a novel, and from the very beginning, it’s established that one of the characters will die. In the world of my novel, only the sacrifice of lives will extend the life of another, and one of the characters is chosen as the victim (unbeknownst to her). While planning, I decided that the details surrounding her death would allow for others to defeat the villain of the story. I did, however, face a huge temptation, once I had grown to love my character, to keep her alive, allow her to overcome the ritual that would kill her, use her magic powers to interrupt the process, and live. I realized, though, that it would cheapen her story and betray my readers and my own integrity as a writer, to write happy endings where they have no business.


  2. I’m struggling with the decision of whether to kill off my main character in the book I’m currently writing. The death will not be pointless. In fact, the way things are going, someone is going to have to die. I’m just conflicted over whether it absolutely has to be that character, or whether it could be someone else. A slightly different problem than what you’ve laid out here. I don’t want to risk having the cliché of someone swooping in to save the main character at the last minute.


  3. I have to disagree with youR views on the Harry Potter resurrection. Idk if you read the books or not but in the books J.k makes it quite clear that the only way to defeat Voldemort is by destroying all the horcruxes even the one inside Harry. So his death was inevitable, but he didn’t really die. The part of Voldemort inside him died.


  4. I was reminded of this post again when I got annoyed with the ending of the first season of an anime I was watching. A main character that was considered unimportant by everyone else sacrifices himself and dies. It motivates the other characters to keep fighting against the villain. Then about 10-15 minutes later, when the battle is over, that character is mysteriously resurrected for no reason.
    It reminded of how much I appreciate a good resurrection. Then again, Sherlock is the only thing I’ve seen so far that has accomplished that.


  5. Another example of poorly-handled character deaths would be Downton Abbey–at least in my opinion. I think Julian Fellowes killed off characters simply for the sake of artificially creating drama and playing with the audience’s emotions. (Matthew and Sybil especially.)


      • Predictable? Mmmmmmmmmmm . . . okay, this is where I admit I haven’t actually watched Downton Abbey. I’ve just heard a TON about it from my friends who are really into it, so I’m extremely familiar with the plot :-)

        But, given what I know about the show, it seems to me that I probably COULD have predicted them if I’d actually been watching it. I mean, since we already know that Julian Fellowes’ general M.O. is basically, “Oh, I don’t know what to write next? That’s okay, I’ll just either kill somebody or make them have an affair,” then it’s not too hard to guess that, sooner or later, Matthew and Sybil were both going to fall under the axe. Because they were everybody’s favorites, and all that . . .

        I have to say, too, that since Sybil died immediately after having a baby, you would THINK that having Matthew ALSO die on the very day of his son’s birth would’ve struck people as a little redundant. But nope, they’re all like, “Oh, no, what a tragedy!” And I’m just over here like, “Really?”


    • It is also difficult to manage with grace and story continuity both actors leaving the show as a personal decision. Another similar “sudden death” case was Kutner in House M.D.


      • Don’t even get me started on House. I enjoyed that show at the start, and then lost faith in it when House didn’t stop making sexist remarks and dissing asexuals.


  6. Out of curiosity, do you have an opinion on Primrose Everdeen’s death at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy? It irked me, in part because it seemed to be done as an easy way to solve the love triangle problem. The death obviously has a big impact, but I find it annoying for other reasons.


    • Yes, I hated every aspect of the way The Hunger Games trilogy was tied up. The first thing that bothered me was how rushed the flow of it was in comparison to the rest of the series. Collins was trying to tie together too many things in too few pages, while devoting the rest of the book to things that didn’t really need so much dwelling on.

      I didn’t mind Primrose’s death in terms of it’s impact ––that I thought was done very well–– but yes, I hated the reasoning behind it (which is fairly obvious to any reader with an investment in Katniss’s relationships). It also struck me as a very, very unlikely thing to happen at that point in the story (just the fact that Prim was there at all), and that the whole thing would be Gale’s “fault.”

      Then there was that horribly painful-to-read, cliché we-are-now-happily-married-with-children ending. That was the last straw. I mean, I know it’s nice to have a happy ending and all, but there are better ways of suggesting them (the key word here is “suggest”).


  7. Agreed. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a while that JKR killed Sirius so that people could make puns concerning the phrase “dead serious.” (but I’m kind of sure that Sirius died in Order of the Phoenix, and I disliked that book LOADS more than all the others–could be wrong but I might have a prejudice that clouds my “suspicion.”) -_- And yes, the ending of the series was completely lame. After hearing from so many people how the HP deaths left them in tears or whatever, I was prepared for a multitude of dramatic, meaningful demises. However, most of the deaths were so oddly anticlimactic that I was left saying “Okay…so I guess he died?” And when it ended “Okay…so I guess it ended?” Ah well, not every ultra-famous book has to be famous for a good reason.


  8. I dislike it when the narrator gets killed off, with the original musical version of Into the Woods being the only exception. In it, the narrator gets sacrificed and dies, which causes every character to descend into chaos and not know what to do. I feel that killing a narrator is only truly “okay” if it is emphasized throughout how their death impacts the story’s structure; the characters can barely do anything!
    What do you all think about narrator deaths?


    • I don’t mind narrator deaths IF they are done well (and there are a lot of factors that key into the very subjective definition of “done well”). In many cases they are completely unnecessary and actually end up ruining a story (*coughs* Divergent). In other cases, I often find myself thinking that the story would have made more sense had the narrator died. I’m trying to think of a good example, but my brain is foggy at present. Again, as you say, it very often does depend largely on the story’s structure.

      Ooh. Thought of an example(s). If you’ve ever watched/read any of Germany’s (very numerous) war dramas, you’ll notice that it’s very common for a narrating or central viewpoint character to get killed off very tragically with no real resolution to their storyline. This is done, not based on any specific set of rules about happy vs. sad endings, but because the stories based on true events in which the main character actually died. Either that, or the author is writing fiction in which he/she/they is/are trying to draw the audience’s attention to some moral point (involving war).

      Ex. Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

      The same thing is true if you look at literature that comes from the Existentialist or Naturalist movements. Often, the narrator will die purely to emphasize existentialist or deterministic themes. Ex. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”

      For that reason, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with narrator deaths. If they are done merely to evoke a reaction from the audience, then there certainly IS a problem, which is authorial laziness.

      I guess, most of the books that I write myself tend to be written from multiple POVs, so I don’t necessarily meet with the problem of, oh darn, I killed my narrator and now I’ve still got to resolve the plot. I guess I should resort to clichés. If one of my characters dies, there is usually some philosophical point that I’m trying to make by killing them, but as you say, that philosophical point is also deeply embedded in the plot structure of the entire story.


  9. My favorite character death in recent “pop-oriented” cinema has to be Rachel’s in TDK. The emotional impact it has on Bruce and Alfred extends beautifully into TDKR, especially when Alfred reveals that he burned the letter. In fact, the “resurrection cycle” you describe is exactly why I abhor reading most comics. If the reader knows that a character will be resurrected, then why should the character die in the first place? This problem also plagues the MCU (as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now with that Thor 2 example) and basically every Bond movie (except the Craig films). Once again, kudos on a great piece.


  10. This reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you for some time now, although your asks section is closed off. What do you think of the death and return-from-death (I’m not sure it’s a resurrection technically) of Clara Oswald in Doctor Who? (Sorry if I accidentally spoiled S09 finale for anyone.)


    • I hated that whole sequence. For all of the last season I’ve been silently cursing Moffat to just either kill her off and keep her dead, or give her some other life that doesn’t keep bringing her back to the Doctor.


      • Thought so. And why did you want that? Is it because you thought the way the subject of her death was dealt with damaged the Doctor’s character arc in some way? Or is there another reason? Just interested in your views on this.


        • No, I don’t necessarily think it damaged the character arc, but I didn’t like where her character arc was going at that point. Clara is one of those characters that I was annoyed with at the start, then learned to love, and have subsequently become annoyed with again as soon as she started trying to be the 12th Doctor (with whom her personality has little in common). It’s classic INTJ fetishization and it bothered me because I liked her better when she embraced her natural self.


  11. That was fast! Excellent post, it really helped explain why some character deaths should be meaningful but aren’t, because they don’t heavily impact the characters or the plot.

    What really resonated with me were your comments on Shakespeare: how his character deaths reflected his opinion on the immorality of killing, but still maintained structure. I never really thought about it, but I guess most (if not all) death in writing reflects the authors’ personal morality and/or sense of loss. Rowling, for example, lost her mother, and thus her writing shows the sad deaths of family members. The downside is that it did lack structure, which resulted in too many deaths that became more sensationalized than meaningful (that being said, I am an HP fan, but I still realize what’s wrong with books I enjoy).

    But without the structure of death – the rules you stated – it loses the depth of symbolism a lot of writers try to convey, becoming more of a cheap trick than something important. It’s kind of like in Inception, trying to structure a dream without an architect – it becomes nonsensical chaos you wake up from and forget after a few minutes. And death in a story shouldn’t be forgotten – especially by the characters. Again, great post!


  12. I think Potter’s ressurection is a part of the Christ-figure clichè? It is done very poorly, still – the coming-back itself isn’t the main problem.
    Other then that – yes all the way. Deaths in work of fiction always leave huge impact on me – or at least I try it to be so, if it makes sense. It’s pretty annoying when fictional character’s companions seem to care less then I would (and do).


    • In part yes, although if you’re looking at it from a strictly Christian metaphorical perspective, C.S. Lewis does a much better job of it in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe.


      • Oh, no doubt about that. HP books are not a quarter as good as the Narnia Chronicles in any aspect (even if I like the latter a lot less). But there is huge difference between an archetipical character coming back from the dead in a highly christianity-influenced (or even christianity-based?) story (nb. under very specific circumstances) and using popular cultural clichés in high-school fantasy.
        This rises a question for me – whose take on the “ideological” resurrection do you prefer – Lewis’ or Tolkien’s?


        • Well, I don’t actually subscribe to either of their particular religions and I disagree with both of them in certain areas. However, I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis’s ideas about theology more closely than Tolkien’s, particularly with regards to his non-Narnia writings.


  13. -Just feel like sharing- (sorry bad english)
    i had a hard time killing my characters but i like the result. I like to kill almost everyone because i start writing when i get panic disorder and the history i write kinda became a crutch to live. And killing everyone is like releasing of the history, and all it mean. And i will contradict myself telling that well, i need that crutch, is like a mirror of the confusion that i’m. And i hate when my people passed away. Performatives deaths. I open the book by the death of a woman, she is found by her husband and she is in rigor mortis, so, there’s this sensation of… i can’t explain clearly, is… he can’t hug her like before, if you do it it is a cold and rigid… it is not anymore something that you know, what you knew is over. She was my boldness. And my faith is a character that i kill by just ‘bleed till death’, for like no reason. I have a character that represents the history itself (my beloved imaginary husband) and the last sentence of the book are his vital signs failing, ‘his pages are closed’. But i think that the most significant death is the death of the father of the character that represents myself. This death affects everyone. He was this delusion about how life could be ‘perfect’ without the panic disorder. And gave me terrible brothers. I’m still thinking on how they are gonna die but ‘old habits die hard’. I would love to write about ressurection. I already wrote the end of the history but i’m still writing… i don’t figure out how to pass this for the history, but don’t feel like bringing to life someone who is not dead… yeah, this one is not performative. And i need to sleep now, good night!


    • “Slaughterhouse-Five” type mass character killings are completely different from the mass character killings that have populated much of young-adult /youth fiction recently. That difference lies largely in the fact that those character deaths happen to express a moral critique of war.


  14. Excellent post. Agreed on all counts.

    I’m actually writing a novel about WWII in which one of the main characters dies . . . and when I told a few of my friends about it, their first reaction was, “Well, he’s eventually going to come back, isn’t he?” Nope, he’s never coming back. I don’t want to write a story about a death that turns out not to be real. I want to write a story about what ACTUALLY happens when you lose a loved one in wartime and you have to deal with that loss.

    Do you count Captain America’s return at the end of “The First Avenger” as a pointless resurrection? I’m never sure how I feel about that one . . . I mean, sure, there are real emotional consequences in the next few movies. It’s not like everything’s totally “okay” after he comes back to life. But still, it seemed like a really strange ending to a film.


      • Well, strange resurrection or not, that is the way the story goes in the Marvel comics, Cap getting frozen and woken up in the present, same thing with Bucky being turned into the Winter Soldier. If either character was to be in the Marvel movies (and there is no reason they shouldn’t be that comes to mind) these two character resurrections were necessary.


        • Agreed, though the handling of it still bothered me simply because it was done for the sake of having a future sensational plot to play with and ignored the logical structure of events completely.


        • I think what bothered me most about Cap’s “resurrection” was that it spoiled his death scene–that is, you KNEW he was coming back to life anyhow, so that whole conversation with Peggy just became really empty all of a sudden. (To me. Not saying that everyone has to agree with me.) Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Captain America . . . but I feel like something should’ve been changed to make the story flow better.


  15. In J. K Rowling’s defense, I think part of the reason she killed off so many well-loved characters was that she figured that, proportionally speaking, at least some well-loved ones needed to. The Weasleys, for example, have a large family, with everyone involved in the fighting in some way. Rowling thought it would be unlikely for them all to get out alive, so she killed Fred. (Less defensible is killing Lupin and Tonks because she wanted an orphan in the next generation.)

    That being said, I’m not a fan of how she handled a lot of the deaths in her books. Sirius’s death in particular annoyed me because Harry didn’t seem to be sufficiently impacted by it. He hardly thinks about it in book 6 because he’s too busy broadcasting his paranoia about Draco Malfoy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, indeed.
      Sorry for my English too. I think many writers wants to give a “real life sense”, because people die everyday and there is no explanation about it. It’s just that.
      In another hand, Game of Thrones has a little bit to much deaths.
      But I really think that in the case of Harry Potter’s books, in a real wizard war, it should’ve die much more people than JKR writed.
      PS: I don’t like the end of HP, either. :P



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