On Beta Reading Killing Off Characters

Character death is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. With my beta reading I had a score of dead characters over a variety of manuscripts. Just the way this week goes, I suppose.

The thing is it has led me to think more about what I need out of character deaths. At first glance, and advice I always dispense with myself, the answer is… make me care. But I’ve changed my mind on some things from some of what I’ve been reading.

 

Extra Deaths

 

In some books, lots of people die. Whole towns, villages, the world. I saw a story that killed a family in front of the MC. A story where some random guy falls out of a building during a board meeting. These kinds of deaths can be awesome and move the story along without any tears… although I have experienced some shock.

Thinking about extras dying made me realize I didn’t need to care about them, just their impact to the story so that brought me to a few other things.

 

Minor Character Death

 

If a minor character is developed and only pops in a couple of times, the death should mean a bit more than an extra. Maybe that minor character stands for something. Maybe that minor character inconveniently dies, at the wrong time, when he has information you really want.

A minor character death is important for what it does to the story. But I can’t think of a time I was crying over this case either. Not a bad thing. Not an unnecessary thing but frankly, we don’t always care when people die.

 

Supporting Character Death

 

A supporting character is a bit different. You’ve built them up. They are a part of your world. You’ve gotten to know them. Sometimes you love them. Sometimes you hate them. Actually… how you feel about them has a lot to do with reader reaction to this situation.

I’ve been relieved when supporting characters have died. I’ve also felt deeply betrayed and upset and a million-other-things it’s so unfair that writers can make me feel.

I’ve learned this about supporting character deaths:

  1. I care if they stand for something. Or symbolize an ideal.
  2. The reactions of other characters tend to impact me more than the moment of death itself
  3. If there isn’t a build up to the death scene where I’m worried they won’t make it, it doesn’t impact me as much when they die

I don’t have to always feel impacted by supporting deaths. Sometimes they just die at the right time and I accept it. This doesn’t bother me, it may bother some though.

 

Main Character Death

 

Recently, I read a book where the main character dies in the beginning and I didn’t feel anything but it was appropriate because it was an “underworld” kind of story. I also read one where at the end the character dies but it didn’t make me care about the death, it made me care about the life. Sometimes, death really isn’t everything but it should be something that I think about later.

If the character death is a pivotal emotional moment for the book there are some things that make me care:

  1. I have to like the protagonist (I’ve read stuff where I liked the supporting characters more than the main character… it made the death seem unimportant and I didn’t react)
  2. The death has to have resounding impact.
  3. There should be a self-assurance in me as a reader that things will be okay even though they are going terribly wrong.

Main character deaths are difficult and their impact has everything to do with my feelings on the protagonist and whether their development is solid.

 

Antagonist Death

 

When an antagonist dies, there’s a whole range of things I could feel. If I don’t know them very well, it does nothing. Villains are varied. Some of them you sympathize with and some of them have you rooting for their destruction. And everything in between. It makes the topic difficult.

There are some things that are crucial:

  1. The lead up. If their isn’t a climax to the moment, it doesn’t work. If the stakes aren’t high (this could be a showdown, a moment of humanity, etc.) it won’t matter.
  2. They need to seem flawed before that point. Their needs to be something in them that is fatal… if not, the death can be unbelievable.
  3. It has to mean something. To someone. Somewhere. It can be good or bad but it has to mean something.

From what I can tell, reading many manuscripts, these deaths are the hardest. Don’t be afraid to like the bad guy a little. Or a lot. It helps.

Hopefully, my antics for today have helped or inspired. I would love to hear what you think/like in a good character death. Thanks always, WordPress family, for letting this blogger vent!

 

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8 thoughts on “On Beta Reading Killing Off Characters

    1. That’s a great quality when it’s done well. It is hard when you see it coming but you don’t want to believe it’s coming… but then through all my rage and sadness, I think… “Damn, that was great!”

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  1. I think you have a lot of good points on the various types of deaths. I know when a minor character dies, if they’ve filled some crucial role or they’re important to the MC, it can hit me in a small way. Not crying, but something between “a sad moment for the character who’s impacted the most” to “Noooooo, that’s terrible!” The last happened about 2 years ago when I read a story where a child died because the MC was fighting for a country’s freedom and couldn’t turn himself in to release the child(he did try anyway, but other characters restrained him).

    Then there’s those characters that die and make me so mad! I’m going, “No dang it! I liked that person!” Sometimes I don’t think it matters if those deaths have a point, I still didn’t want them to happen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Death shouldn’t be taken lightly, but also, a minor death doesn’t need the same level of gravity as a main character death. If I’m more impacted by a minor character’s death than the MC it’s a problem.

      There are also characters who’s deaths (ex. a whole city) that don’t have as big of an emotional impact and act more as a plot device. For instances, MC’s hometown was destroyed. The city burned so we must go to war. People are dying everywhere but we must escape the apocalypse.

      Death should be appropriate and the reader reaction should definitely vary. You know?

      I do know what you mean though… there have been character deaths that weren’t huge… that bug me to this day. The one I always think of is that woman that burned alive with her books in Fahrenheit 451.

      Like

  2. This is very true – I’m critiquing a story right now that’s a sequel (when I haven’t read the first book) where the second chapter introduces me to a character and has them go murder a dude. It’s obviously supposed to be resolution of some sort for them, and wrapping up a loose end from the first book, but I don’t know anything about this character yet really, so all I’m feeling is ‘how does this work technically?? why didn’t the murdered dude win this fight? Based on what I’m reading, the dude should have won the fight…’ Not what the author intended/wanted, I’m sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m one of those readers who hates it when a favorite character dies, no matter how much it means to the plot. Unfortunately, I also tend to get attached to the characters who end up dying.

    I do know that if it’s a sudden, unexpected death it generally doesn’t have as big an impact as one with some lead-up… And a lot of times foreshadowing will make me curse because I know what’s going to happen long before it does and I’m still upset about it when it does.

    A good friend of mine appreciates character deaths for what they do the story (he’s a lot better at analyzing the story than I am, I just know what I like and don’t like.) I’m hoping to get his help with one of my current novels, because I have difficulty with writing character deaths and I think he would have some great feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know character death questions would be a great idea for a post! Maybe that could help you think about it too. Thanks for the great idea!!
      As to what you were saying, I’m sure you’ll figure it out with your book! It helps me to think about what I need from the death, what purpose it serves for the story.

      Like

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