Jacquelyn Smith

Death Sentence: Killing off your characters

[“Drop 1” by andrejanel]

I’ve got blood on my hands. That’s right; I’m a cold-blooded killer. I even plan my crimes well in advance, often down to the last detail. My victims never see it coming…


I know I’m not alone. Killing off characters is a big part of writing, especially in fantasy, where there are usually bad guys to be slain. It’s rare to see a hero and villain talk things out and walk away. Yes, that would be a more rational way to resolve their issues, but nowhere near as exciting as a fast-paced battle scene. 😛


Killing off the bad guys doesn’t bother me too much, since most people expect it. It’s killing off the good guys that bothers me. (Which is probably a good sign for anyone who read the first paragraph of this post and thought I was a complete sociopath.) Here’s why:


I get attached to them.


I know; my characters aren’t real people. They’re figments of my overactive imagination. But when you spend countless hours with them, they seem to take on a life of their own. You find yourself knowing exactly what they would say, or how they would react to a particular situation without even having to think about it, just like any real person you know well. The idea of killing them off is uncomfortable.


I also worry I might regret getting rid of them. What if I end up needing them for something somewhere down the road? (Fortunately, I can sometimes use reincarnation as a loophole in my World of Lasniniar Series to bail me out of this predicament. ;))


I don’t want to alienate my readers.


I’ve been on the other side of this situation. I’ve read books where I’ve gotten attached to the main character, and then the author pulled the rug out from under me by killing them off. It sucks! (Especially when the book is part of a series, and the series keeps going without the main character that made you read all those other books in the first place. R.A. Salvatore, I’m looking at you.)


Since I’m not writing horror, dystopian fantasy, or any other genre where killing off the main character is a distinct possibility from the get-go, I don’t want to freak out my readers or turn them off of my books by getting rid of someone they’re attached to. But sometimes in epic fantasy, even good guys have to die. Otherwise, there’s no element of risk or sacrifice—not to mention surprise.


This is a fine line to walk. Sometimes it’s tough to be true to your story and characters while being considerate and fair to your readers. Ultimately, the writer has the final say, but if killing off a character alienates all your readers… Let’s just say it’s tough to win back that trust. With great power comes great responsibility. (…Even when you’re killing imaginary people in an imaginary world.)


How do YOU handle killing off characters? Is there any book or series that shocked or upset you when the main character died?


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12 thoughts on “Death Sentence: Killing off your characters

  1. Diandra

    My characters simply die on me – whether I try to save them or not. Especially with the current WIP, it was indeed a race to try and save that girl, but it did not work out in the end. I was really sad. :-(

    (But we managed to save the kid. Kind of.)

    1. Jacquelyn

      Hi Diandra!

      It’s funny how attached we can get to our characters, and it sucks when you realize one you really care about has to go. Sometimes, there’s just no way around it. :(

      But I like to think that if the writer is emotionally affected, that will also come across in their work, and their readers will be affected too, which can be a powerful thing.

  2. Traci Loudin

    I know what you mean. My last WIP, the outline called for a side character’s death. But when the time came to write the scene, I couldn’t do it. I tried every way around it I could think of, but in the end, he had to die. It was only later I realized it was a good thing… Because if I hadn’t cared whether he lived, his death would have been meaningless.

  3. aniko

    I have no idea why I’m not getting emails when you publish a post. I thought I was subscribed, and I’m sorry that I’ve missed several recent posts. Thankfully, your newsletter arrived and reminded me to hop on over here to visit! :)

    Also: nice newsletter! Everyone should join the Tribe!

    Now, as for killing characters. I do write horror, and I find that sometimes the only realistic outcome is that a likable character dies. My first novel is a bloodbath, and I was absolutely shocked when I realized who had to die to make the whole thing hang together properly. I tried to think of a way around this, a sort of loop hole, but it would have felt forced and false and all the things that are Sins of Writing. There wasn’t any choice but for blood to be spilled.

    I had never considered that killing characters could alienate readers. That is a valid point to consider, especially when writing a series. I think that if it is handled properly, though, and enough other characters are around to keep the series going, it can be done. Not easily done, perhaps, but possible given the correct circumstances.


    1. Jacquelyn

      It’s kind of funny how our own stories and characters can surprise us like that. It can be so hard to resist the urge to try to ‘fix’ things when that happens.

      That’s weird you haven’t been getting your email subscription… Maybe you clicked on the subscribe to comments link instead? To subscribe to posts, you need to click on the RSS button at the top of the screen and then you can select the email subscription option. Hope this helps! I’m glad you like the Tribe newsletter. :)

      1. aniko

        This time I think I got it right! I was signed up only for comments. Next post should arrive in my email – yay!

        Thanks for the instructions,


  4. James Garcia Jr

    Hi, Jacqui. How have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen/heard from you in a while. I hope everything is well with you and yours.
    As for killing characters off, I took one out in my second book who was a secondary character, and have a thought that my lead might not make it past book three in that series – we’ll see. I’m one of those who forces nothing, but believes that the story is already written – somewhere – and I’m merely “catching it” and writing it down. It sounds odd and mystical, but I try not to question where these stories come from. *grins*

    Take care, my friend. *waves*


    1. Jacquelyn

      Hey, Jimmy!

      I’ve been hiding out, working on formatting for Storm Rider, and other book release stuff. 😉 Things are hectic, but going well. I hope you’re rested from your vacation!

      I know what you mean about catching stories. My characters surprise me (and make me laugh) on a regular basis. I love it when you get in the zone and the story just flows onto the page. :)

  5. Grace

    I’m currently in the middle of writing my fantasy novel, and I know I will have to kill my main character’s boyfriend in the end. I’ve become quite attached to him. He’s a great guy and I’m dreading killing him. I think I might (and by might I mean definitely will) sob while I’m writing his death scene.

    1. Jacquelyn Post author

      Hi Grace,

      I know it’s tough, but if writing the scene is an emotionally charged experience, it will likely translate into a strong emotional connection with the reader as well. (Just be sure to have a box of tissues on standby. ;)) I’ve had readers tell me they broke down crying while reading the same scenes I agonized over. Good luck!

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