In 2015, I wrote an article titled How & Why to Kill a Hero (PDF). It offered a neutral take on the pros and cons of killing off beloved characters. Seven years later, I’m here to toss neutrality in the trash. My role is to recommend choices that will pay off with better engagement from audiences, not to be wishy-washy.
In many stories, it’s the heroes that keep the audience coming back. Even if the death of a beloved character isn’t upsetting, it can lower the audience’s motivation to return. This is a quick recipe for rage-quitting. Let’s examine when this risk might actually be worth it.
Which Characters Count?
Most stories feature lots of people, but some of those people may not even be real characters, much less heroes. Will your audience really be upset if you kill Riley the bartender or Jamal the dragon tamer? Not necessarily. Let’s go over how to estimate which deaths will be the most upsetting.
How well does the audience know them?
Most people who die in stories are barely known to the audience. Whether they’re a faceless soldier in an attacking horde or a hapless villager caught in a raid, they’re usually unnamed and barely described before they die. In most cases, their deaths don’t bother the audience at all.
Audiences are rarely attached to people they don’t know. So, the first thing to examine is how long the character has been around and how well they’ve been developed. Does this character have a few lines to their name, or have they been instrumental to half the scenes? If they’ve been a viewpoint character, audience attachment is even more likely.
The timing of the death also matters. The earlier the death occurs, the less time audiences have to bond with the character. Early deaths are also useful for setting expectations for the story’s tone. That way, the audience knows what they’re getting into.
On the other hand, many TV writers try to force a strong bond in a short time. A new named character suddenly shows up, and their backstory is awkwardly worked into the dialogue before they kick the bucket. The intention is to make these deaths tragic. While they have more impact than unnamed people in the background, they still don’t have much. What’s more, this tactic is pretty obvious and tacky. If you want a character to die tragically, you need to plan ahead.
Have they made a good impression?
Naturally, audiences aren’t going to mourn for characters they dislike. That’s why this article is about the death of heroes, not villains. Most villains are designed to be hated, and their deaths are hardly something to cry over. So when assessing the impression a character has made, start by looking at how heroic they are.
A character that betrays the other heroes is less likely to be mourned, as is a character that works for the heroes under duress. A sidekick that’s been consistently helpful to the hero will be better regarded than one that’s always slacking off.
Granted, that’s only a rough measure. For something more precise, you can rate your characters by their likable characteristics: sympathy, selflessness, and novelty. A character that the audience relates to or even identifies with will also earn lots of attachment.
Is the audience prepared for them to die?
A few character traits can alter whether a character is expected to die. The stereotypical character who appears designed for death is an older mentor who’s three weeks away from retirement. In the audience’s mind, the character is going to depart from the story in a few weeks anyway, so their death doesn’t change as much.
Unfortunately, this has a darker side: valuing the lives of older people less. Most people have many happy years left after retirement, but they may need extra support. If our stories foster the idea that their lives are worthless, this will inevitably result in needless deaths. So, I cannot in good conscience recommend creating an elderly character that’s “three weeks from retirement” only to kill them.
Similarly, if the audience understands that a character is already dying or otherwise doomed, it won’t be as crushing if they decide to go out in a blaze of glory. That’s fine. But never ever treat disabled lives as worthless. A character that is chronically ill, loses their powers, loses one or more limbs, etc., still has a life worth living. It’s reprehensible to kill these characters in place of able-bodied heroes.
On the flip side, audiences are less prepared for the deaths of characters perceived as innocent. The death of animals or children will always be upsetting to some people. Characters who are “cinnamon rolls,” known for their modesty, kindness, and selflessness, can also fall into this category. That includes characters like Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Tohru from Fruits Basket.
Altogether, estimating which character deaths could be upsetting is helpful when planning a story. However, the very best way to judge character attachment is to ask your beta readers. Even if they only read the first third of your story, half a dozen beta readers can give you a more accurate measurement of which characters are beloved.
What Justifies Killing a Hero?
Let’s look at the most common reasons storytellers kill off beloved characters and how likely that choice is to pay off.
Catering to a Horror Audience
Just to get this out of the way, yes, you can kill heroes during a slasher or other horror story. Often, they even have extra characters so there are more people to kill. Why is it okay in horror? Mainly because these stories appeal to a more niche audience that shows up to watch people get murdered. They are not for everyone, but if they are packaged and marketed correctly, they’ll attract the right audience.
They are also tonally consistent. As I mentioned above, early deaths can be a good way to establish a dark tone. Horror stories usually have a death or two right away. If you’re writing something with lots of protagonist deaths and no one dies in the early scenes, you’ll want to use another means of setting the right expectations. Otherwise, you can end up with a story that feels light or merely adventurous and then disappoints the audience with an upsetting death.
Even though deaths are expected, horror often benefits from having a beloved main character that makes it to the end. This is why slashers usually sacrifice the characters that are least beloved* first. Watching assholes get killed is less tense but more fun and cathartic.
Dark stories that are quite lengthy also need to be cautious about how many shocking deaths they employ. If they kill off so many protagonists that they have to introduce replacements, they can end up with lower tension. Why? Because after watching heroes get killed off again and again, audiences will deliberately avoid getting attached to new ones that are introduced. This is why horror TV shows are more likely to be anthologies. They provide a fresh slate of characters that might live or die, without the baggage of a long story.
Many storytellers kill characters to demonstrate the seriousness of a threat, particularly if the audience assumes the protagonists have plot shields. If the storyteller kills an important character, the audience may start questioning whether other beloved characters will die. This raises tension.
To bust through plot shields, a beloved character must be killed. These deaths are usually designed to be abrupt and shocking, because they emphasize how anyone might die at any time. The death of Wash in the movie Serenity, the death of Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the death of Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation all fit the formula.
In most cases, I don’t think this pays off. By design, these deaths are especially upsetting to audiences. If the wrong character is chosen, they are more likely to result in controversies or leave permanent scars in fandom memory. The audience also gets little out of it that they couldn’t get another way. We have many ways to raise tension; killing a hero is hardly necessary. Finally, some audiences prefer the comfort of a predictable happy ending over the genuine worry that heroes might die.
That said, similar deaths are also employed to set expectations in dark stories, which works much better. An example is the death of Eddard Stark. He was the presumed main character of A Game of Thrones before he was killed at the end of book one. George R. R. Martin did this to keep readers guessing about who would win the throne. Eddard’s death happens at the end of the first book in a long series. While it’s relatively late, it’s still early enough to shape the series as a whole.
Altogether, tension by itself isn’t a great justification for a heroic death.
Getting a Parent or Mentor Out of the Way
Young and less experienced heroes are easily overshadowed by parents and mentors. That’s why so many stories include a mentor who trains the hero and then dies so the hero has to fight on their own. For a classic example, look no further than Star Wars: A New Hope. The death of Luke’s aunt and uncle gives him an incentive to leave, and then the death of Obi-Wan forces Luke to fight without the help of a more experienced Jedi.
To judge whether this is worth it, first estimate how attached the audience will be to the parents and mentor. In Luke’s case, the audience hardly knows his aunt and uncle, so they’re unlikely to care that the two are dead. Obi-Wan is a somewhat mysterious figure, but he’s been around for a while. Mainly, his death doesn’t have as much impact, because as an older character who is also a mentor, viewers expect him to die.
Even though audiences are less likely to be upset by the predictable deaths of parents and mentors, I think these deaths are best avoided – precisely because they’re predictable. At this point, it feels a little cliché. Killing a mentor often means yet another death of an elderly person – thereby devaluing their lives and robbing them of good representation.
While it can be a little trickier, we have other ways of keeping these characters from overshadowing the hero. Mythcreants has a convenient list of what else you can do with parents. If you have an older mentor, their age might keep them from taking on physically demanding tasks. Similarly, an injury can take powerful characters out of action for the climax. If you need to prevent parents and mentors from going on journeys with the hero, give them other responsibilities they can’t abandon.
That said, mentors aren’t always old, and in some stories simply killing them is the most practical option. In that case, reducing their page space and development can prevent audiences from getting too attached to them before they die. If your beta readers love them a whole lot, look for another option, even if it’s awkward.
Motivating a Hero
The deaths of friends, allies, and loved ones are often used to motivate protagonists. One common trope is the “woman in the fridge,” in which a female love interest is murdered by a villain to create drama and motivation for a male hero. This trope is notoriously sexist. Again, when killing off characters, it’s important to look at the power dynamics of the situation. Killing off marginalized characters to benefit privileged heroes is not a good look.
However, if these power dynamics are reversed, this trope can work out. That’s because it’s usually done before the audience has time to get attached to the character that’s killed. It might be early in the story or shortly after the love interest is introduced. For instance, the TV show Cloak & Dagger used a reversal where a male love interest was literally stuffed in a fridge. This created drama for a female cop who was trying to fight corruption in her department.
While fridging is usually done early, other stories wait until right before the climax. That way, the hero goes into the final fight with extra resolve. However, that also means the audience has had most of the story to get attached to the character that dies. The character also doesn’t get to do anything heroic during the climax. This isn’t worth it. The benefit to the story is relatively small, and it can be achieved through other means.
Most obviously, the villain can kidnap the hero’s beloved instead. Then, the kidnapped character can have agency in their escape rather than sitting around waiting to be rescued. Another option is destroying a place the hero loves rather than a person.
Depicting a Heroic Sacrifice or Downfall
In this case, I’m assuming the one and only main character dies at the end. If your heroic sacrifice involves a secondary character, it doesn’t count here.
Some audiences are always going to be unhappy when the main character dies. But since the story is already over, it won’t stop them from continuing – not unless this book is part of a series. I do not recommend killing the main character and then continuing the series with someone else. In most cases, that won’t go over well.
Main character deaths are glorified in a way that side character deaths aren’t. In most cases, the main character makes an intentional sacrifice to achieve a victory. Then, the epilogue usually focuses on how other characters honor them after they die. While the audience may not walk away happy exactly, they’re usually pretty satisfied. These aren’t the most popular endings, but they aren’t hated, and many people find them meaningful.
If your main character is on a downward arc and dies because of bad decision making, that’s a step harder. It means you’re writing for a niche audience, similar to horror. These stories can be meaningful, but they’re a tough sell. You’ll need to decide whether the big downfall you’ve planned is worth it.
Meeting Expectations for Warfare
Some stories set the expectation that a significant character will die. Most commonly, this happens with stories that involve warfare. The story might be about a war, or it might build up to a big war that happens in the final season or last book. Wars kill a lot of people. If the story portrays a whole war and the only characters who die are insignificant, that cost will feel sanitized.
Even outside of war, if your characters continually face overwhelming odds to survive, audiences may expect a death. In the book The Guns Above, author Robyn Bennis makes a big deal out of how dangerous working on an airship is. These airships are used in warfare, and they are incredibly fragile. After hearing about all the ways people die on airships for the whole book, it feels wrong that only a few minor characters die during the story.
In both of these cases, the storyteller uses a scenario that comes with many deaths to raise tension for a prolonged period. If a significant character death doesn’t appear in these scenarios, the audience will feel misled, and everything the protagonists went through will be cheapened.
A big and exciting fight doesn’t mean your story has reached this threshold. A team of heroes can face certain death at the climax and still survive as long as your story isn’t dark and gritty. The lower the realism of your story, the more expected it is for protagonists to walk away unscathed. On the other hand, if you have lots of unnamed people dying in the background, that’s a sign that a protagonist death could be expected.
Once you reach a threshold that’s similar to warfare, killing a well-liked character becomes the only way to avoid cheapening the conflict. It does mean you might upset some readers. However, it also avoids making many readers feel dissatisfied with a cheap ending.
Designing a Hero’s Death
Let’s say you’ve decided to kill off a character the audience cares about. What’s the best way to do that?
Choosing a Character to Die
A death that feels natural comes with less scrutiny. What feels natural? It’s a balancing act between two opposites.
- Easy deaths. Characters that are “three weeks from retirement” or already dying fit into this category. If the character you pick is unimportant to the story, already on their way out, or clearly your least favorite character, the death will feel contrived. The death is also less likely to achieve its purpose. An easy death won’t make warfare feel like it has a cost, and it will only strengthen the impression that important characters have plot shields.
- Manipulative deaths. On the other hand, some character deaths appear designed to maximize impact. If you have a precocious child character, cinnamon roll, or a loved one that the main character fawns over, their dramatic death could make the audience feel manipulated. Again, this comes off as contrived rather than natural. Since these deaths are more likely to be upsetting, the audience can get angry at the storyteller.
Altogether, you’re looking for a protagonist that’s not too major and not too minor. Choose someone who will be missed but whose death won’t create a huge scene.
Avoid killing your most marginalized characters. Marginalized audiences get less representation, so when the few characters that do represent them die, it’s more upsetting. If a character is the only one with a specific marginalized trait or they have more marginalized traits than others, it’s better if they live. In many cases, you can remove marginalized traits from a doomed character and give them to someone who lives.
Choosing the Type of Death
Similar to the choice between easy or manipulative deaths, the type of death also says a lot about the impact you’d like the death to have. Let’s look at the two opposites we have here.
- Heroic deaths. These are deaths where a hero goes out in a blaze of glory. Most often, the hero knows that making a stand or saving others could be fatal. The hero dies after making an intentional sacrifice. This is less upsetting to the audience, because the character still had their moment in the spotlight. The audience can also take meaning away from the death. However, since these deaths clearly follow story conventions, they’re lower in realism. That means they won’t raise as much tension.
- Shocking deaths. These are deaths that happen without warning and often without much reason. Characters have no control over them, and the audience is given no meaning to take away. They’re usually designed to convey a sense of realism and raise tension. They’re also designed to be shocking, but I don’t consider that an objective in itself. Altogether, they make dangerous events feel more consequential but at the cost of making deaths more upsetting.
The type of death you use should fit the story you are telling. In most stories, it’s better to give protagonists heroic deaths. If your story is a slasher or otherwise dark and gritty, you’ll want mostly shocking deaths. If your story isn’t dark but you need to convey that lots of people have died, consider giving major characters heroic deaths and minor characters shocking deaths. That will add to the weight of your epic conflicts without making your most upsetting deaths even more upsetting.
Choosing the Timing of a Character Death
This one’s pretty simple. The most upsetting deaths happen after the first third but before the climax.
The first third of a story is roughly the period in which expectations are being set and the audience is still getting to know the characters. Early deaths are therefore not only less impactful but also more useful for setting a dark tone. Dark stories with lots of deaths should probably have one in the first third.
Deaths in the climax or later allow doomed characters to be present for most of the story. They can still participate in the climactic conflict and affect the outcome. This means the audience doesn’t lose as much when the character dies. These late deaths are a good choice when your story isn’t particularly dark but you feel obligated to kill someone off to meet expectations.
If you’re killing off beloved characters mid-story, that suggests a much darker tale.
Making Your Character Dead, Dead, DEAD
This is your reminder to make all permanent character deaths crystal clear: cut them into pieces, burn them to a crisp, make another character bury them, etc. If you kill minor characters offscreen, the viewpoint character should see the bodies up close afterward.
With so many storytellers depicting death fake-outs, anything less can leave the audience wondering if the character is really dead. That will break immersion, prevent them from fully experiencing the moment, and possibly set up expectations you aren’t prepared to meet.
I don’t recommend trying to convince your audience a character is dead only to reveal otherwise. It’s been done too much, and you don’t want the audience to rage-quit over something that didn’t actually happen. However, sometimes it’s useful for one character to think another is dead, without tricking the audience.
In that case, you can be vague about what happened and offer no proof of death. For instance, maybe the character is only assumed to have been in a building that went up in flames. Then, some of the bodies found afterward were unrecognizable. From this, a protagonist can assume their loved one died, but the audience will probably know better.
In most stories, an impactful death is something to avoid. Even so, there are many cases where a death can add meaning to the story or provide a better experience to the right people. If you’re considering a death, ask yourself what its purpose is and what the audience should take away from it. Then, you can judge whether the gain is worth the loss.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?