Written by JJ Barnes
The choice to kill main characters in your story can have a powerful impact.
If you’re writing a book or script where there is risk or peril, and you want your audience to believe in it and feel tense during scenes with fights or danger, you need to be willing to kill your main characters. But killing them needs to be done in a way that actually causes the sense of tension you need your audience to feel. I’ll explain how to kill you main characters in the most effective way for your story.
Kill Main Characters To Build Tension
If you kill characters to create that sense of tension and fear, but only kill side characters or characters you have introduced clearly with the sole purpose of killing them, you will do nothing to build suspense or a sense of danger. Your audience will simply not go with you on that emotional journey and will therefore be outside of your story and less invested.
This is a frequently occurring problem in series. It’s natural that if you’ve set up a group of characters that you love writing, and you’ve built a whole world for them to have adventures in, that you want to keep those characters alive so you can keep telling those stories.
However, if your gang of main characters are going into frequent dangerous situations where you want your audience to be scared or worried for them, and time after time they magically survive, your series will lack impact.
Write Them to Die
To avoid it feeling like nobody important will ever die—and if you struggle with getting so emotionally attached to your characters that you can’t kill them—design a character with the intent of writing their death. But don’t make it obvious to your audience, because if they read like they were written to die then their death won’t carry any weight because everybody will see it coming.
Surprising your audience with the death of a character is the way to shatter the expectation that everybody is safe because they’re the main characters, so when you write your character to kill them, write them as if you have a whole journey ahead of them planned out.
Write a plot and character as dynamic and complex and motivated as your other characters, with hopes and dreams and goals, and write them going for what they want with the same enthusiasm as you write your surviving characters. There should be no sign in the way that character comes across that you’re building to their death, because then when you kill them and their journey is cut short, their story is left unfinished and that is the shock.
Make Your Audience Worry That You Will Kill Main Characters
By using your audiences intuition about where a character’s story is going against them, and cutting it short without any kind of conclusion for that character, you make it feel like nobody is safe and your audience feel the sense of danger you want them to have.
Once the supposedly safe character has been killed, your audience will go into any future battle or danger scene with the uncertainty of who will survive. You have immediate suspense and tension, and your audience will have a better and more exciting experience of your story.
Of course, certain stories do this with more vigour than others. Nobody lacks for fear that somebody might die when reading or watching Game Of Thrones, but it can almost have the opposite effect.
If you’re constantly waiting for the next person to die, then you’re expecting it, which means it will be less of a gut punch. Whilst it has the impact of making your audience believe that the peril is real, I personally enjoy a little more shock factor. I enjoy character deaths that are surprising, because they have more of an emotional impact on the story and audience than if everybody is just waiting for it to happen.
TV and Film are Different
The process of writing TV shows and film series is different to that of writing a book, because you have contracts with working actors. So, killing a character comes with extra issues, such as potentially firing someone; but in a book series you don’t have that problem.
Alternatively, you might have to write an unintended death
scene due to an actor becoming unavailable for some reason. So be prepared for
screenwriting to carry different issues to navigate with deaths of characters
than with books.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose