Death be not proud (or something like that)

Geez, with that kind of opening, I feel like I should be wearing black and hefting a skull in my hand…

This is a post about fictional death, not about death in real life. But in the interests of full disclosure, I think I need my audience to know that I recently experienced the death of someone I considered both a good friend and a truly good man. The world is a poorer place without him.

In my typical bookish fashion, I suppose I’ve been musing over fictional death as a way to cope with my own personal grief. Whatever the reason, I’ve certainly thought a lot lately about the ways writers use death. These are the thoughts I bring you today, and even if you disagree with me (which is fine, of course), I ask you to be gentle with them, because death comes for all of us, and it’s never pleasant when it does.

*clears throat awkwardly after admitting to Vulnerable Emotions*

Anyway, let’s talk about killing characters.


The thrust of my argument in this post is that writers tend to overuse death. We don’t understand it, we don’t grasp its full significance, so we end up cheapening it. That being said, I don’t want this post to turn into a diatribe against killing fictional characters. I’m not here to tell you that if you kill a character you’re a bad person, just because I, Charles Baker Harris, prefer to be shielded from uncomfortable emotions in fiction. That would be silly and selfish of me. Death is a natural fact of life, and sometimes we need to write about it.

But we need to find a healthy balance in the way we approach death. To me, that balance seems lacking, especially in Christian fiction circles. I’ve read Christian novels so liberally doused with death it feels like somebody handed the author a saltshaker and forgot to say “when.” On the other hand, I’ve had Christian peers earnestly attempt to convince me that the modern classic The Book Thief is “evil,” because it’s told from the point of view of Death, and Death is “evil.” I can only imagine how those Christians would feel about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Look, death is hard. It’s hard to know how to write about it appropriately–it’s hard to know when to write about it appropriately. I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, especially in light of my own recent experiences. Nevertheless, I present for your consideration some reasons why death isn’t always the best way of advancing your plot or developing your characters.

First, death does not automatically elevate your story. Killing characters is not high art. We’re conditioned to believe tragedy has greater inherent artistic value than happiness or joy. It doesn’t! Do not (I beg of you) kill a character because you want to be thought “deep.” Only kill a character if you’ve determined their death is the best possible ending to their story arc.

A word to the wise–if you’re not sure what that character’s arc is because you only introduced them in order to kill them off and motivate another character in doing so, you have fallen into the great and terrible trap of Fridging, the downfall of so many brave writers in the days of yore. But don’t despair! The quickest way to escape the evil jaws of Fridging is good old-fashioned character development. Make sure each of your characters has their own independent goals and their own individual purpose, even the side characters. Then, if you still really want to kill them, make sure you’re doing it for a reason connected with their goals and their purpose, not someone else’s.

For more tips on avoiding fridging, check out this excellent Trope Talk from Overly Sarcastic Productions.

Killing poorly defined side characters in order to further the main character’s journey is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Most writers would agree this is an obvious problem. But there are other, subtler ways death is overused in fiction. Let’s explore the issue further.

Character death is often the go-to choice for raising the stakes in an action or adventure setting. It’s a familiar formula–“whoops, somebody died, things are getting serious.” However, death is not the only way to raise the story’s stakes. Don’t automatically assume killing a member of the crew is the only wake-up call your cocky protagonist will heed. Instead, ask yourself what your characters fear besides death… what they value even more than their lives. Is there another, more unexpected disaster you can hit them with?

The good thing about death from a storytelling perspective is that it’s universal. The bad thing about death from a storytelling perspective is (oddly enough) that it’s universal. Fear of dying, fear of losing loved ones, is a common emotion we can all relate to, but fear of death will not make your protagonist unique. What else are they afraid of that’s specific to their own story?

Be aware, too, that far from being blindsided by your tragic plot twists, many readers expect character death and may even be actively calculating which of your cast members won’t make it to the end. Especially since most authors aren’t as good at disguising their intentions in this department as they think they are. If you really want to surprise your audience, don’t do it by killing Fresh Faced Kid No. 243. There are better, more original ways to raise the stakes that grow naturally out of the soil of your particular story. You just need to find them.

What about war stories, you ask? It’s true that war stories, more than adventure stories, have a deeper need to engage with death. Because war is such a horrible and often senseless situation, these stories should be allowed more latitude to kill their characters, and even to kill a character in a seemingly random or pointless way that doesn’t clearly stem from their personal arc. That’s what warfare is about, after all. Many novelists have delved into the ultimate meaninglessness of wartime death to great effect, like Joseph Heller in Catch-22.

However, not every story which incorporates war as part of the plot is necessarily obligated to kill a main cast member, and I’m wary of any arguments to the contrary. I remember when Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles came out, it was fashionable to criticize Meyer for “failing” to axe any of the Gang of Eight (the four princesses and their love interests) in the war between Earth and Luna. There was a whole interplanetary conflict, for gosh sakes! Shouldn’t at least one of the gang have died?

Well… no… not really… not in a series of fluffy fairy tale retellings and happily-ever-after romances that just happened to take place in a galaxy at war. The Lunar Chronicles never set out to deal with the horrors of violent conflict. Catch-22 this certainly was not. Pretending to be something it wasn’t would have made the story worse, not better.

Now we come to my biggest pet peeve about character death, the one I wish I could emblazon in giant glitter letters dancing across the screen. Which is… *drumroll*…

Death and grief go hand in hand. You should not, I repeat, should not be writing about death unless you are willing to write about grief.

Everywhere I look, I see stories that flirt with death but shy away from grief. Stories looking for short-term drama without long-term consequences. The spilled blood, the dying breaths, the whispered confessions, the passionate tears and larger-than-life funeral celebrations. We revel in the extravagant emotions for a couple chapters, then sweep it all under the rug and get back to saving the world. Because that’s totally how losing someone you love works, right?

Spoiler alert: IT’S NOT.

Grief is not a brief, extravagant emotion. It’s a process more than an emotion, and there’s nothing brief about it. It’s endless. It’s exhausting. It’s confusing as hell, honestly. It’s being buffeted with waves of doubt and anger and guilt and despair, all swirling together until you can’t tell one from another. Grief shakes your deepest convictions and rewrites your inmost thought processes. Without going into private details, I can tell you I will never be the same person I was before I lost my friend on December 9, 2022. I will never look at the world the same way. And this wasn’t a spouse or a family member, either. This was a friend. I swear, when I look at the ways “death of a friend” is commonly presented in fiction (“it’s what he would have wanted, he died doing what he loved, and anyway the final battle is over and the book is finished so we don’t have time to talk about it, ‘k thanks bye!”) I want to punch someone.

Wow, that got pretty raw all of a sudden. Deep breaths, I suppose. 😛

Do you see my point? Grief is awful. If you think what I’m describing sounds depressing and harsh and lonely and the sort of thing that would really drag down a story and put a damper on the audience’s fun, you’re right! If you don’t want to put your readers through the wringer of that prolonged psychological struggle, that’s completely understandable! But in that case, the solution is avoiding killing your characters, not… ya know… killing them anyway and giving us a fast-food drive-through version of the surviving characters’ grieving process because your story doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to explore that process honestly.

I’m aware there are probably a few hardy souls reading this with the opposite reaction; writers who are intrigued rather than intimidated by the challenge of representing grief realistically in their stories. Writers who love to paint human suffering in vivid blues and midnight blacks. To those writers, the “I volunteer as tribute” types, I have something to say, and I hope to say it as gently and empathetically as possible.

It’s okay not to write about sad things.

You, too, have permission to avoid killing your characters. You, too, can give yourself a break from grief and loss. You, too, can have an “everybody lives” moment like Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who. It doesn’t mean you’re scared; it doesn’t mean you’re dishonest; it doesn’t mean you’re selling out your artistic integrity or giving up your right to be viewed as deep or interesting or worthy. Not every story needs to be a tragedy. I say this as someone who’s been through some dark times in my personal life and whose early writing tended toward the dark and gritty–I still “go dark” on occasion, but there’s a whole side of my brain I didn’t fully unlock until I started writing comedy. Turns out silly escapism was good for me. It might be good for you, too.

I’ve been speaking in general terms for most of this post. Now I’d like to cite a concrete example where letting a character live actually made a story stronger and more original. Let’s take a look at Season Four of The West Wing.

Television shows are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to cheap character death. This is partly due to the episodic nature of these long-running stories. The writers need to punch up the sagging plot every now and again, and they figure death is an easy way to do it. Actors leaving the show when their contracts run out is another big factor. The guy who plays Barry Frost can’t come back for the next season of Rizzoli and Isles? No problem! We’ll just kill him in an offscreen car crash in the final moments of the season finale.

me, watching at home: sir, you just fridged that African American man

What does any of this have to do with Season Four of The West Wing? Rob Lowe, the ’80s teen heartthrob who’d matured nicely into the idealistic young speechwriter Sam Seaborn, chose not to return for Season Five. A lesser show would have killed Sam off. But the West Wing writers were made of sterner stuff. They knew Sam’s death wouldn’t fit his character arc. Worse, it would directly contradict the show’s themes of hope and optimism. So instead of removing Sam from the cast by killing him, the writers set out to create a plotline where Sam would leave President Bartlett’s White House of his own free will.

Their solution? Sam’s idealism (an established trait long known to get him into trouble) would lead him to a quixotic campaign to win the Orange County House seat as a liberal Democrat. The defeat he suffered would naturally push him to withdraw from politics for a time, allowing Rob Lowe to exit the series. But because he wasn’t dead, just down for the count, Sam would triumphantly return in the final season to help his old friends serve a new President.

In my opinion, this storyline turned out to be one of the best The West Wing ever produced. Certainly it led to some of the show’s greatest moments. And it goes without saying it was far, far more interesting than Sam Seaborn’s tragic death from an aneurysm at age thirty-five would have been.

“You’re gonna lose, and lose huge. They’re gonna throw rocks at you next week. And I wanted to be standing next to you when they did.”

“I wanted to be standing next to you when they did–“ PARDON ME WHILST I GO SOB INTO A PILLOW.

Remember, kids, you don’t have to write about death to tap into deep emotions.


Well, I think that’s about all I had to say in this post. It feels cathartic, rather, to lay all my feelings out. I’ll be curious to see the reaction, since I haven’t talked about character death much in the past, so I don’t necessarily have a sense of everyone’s thoughts. But… yeah?

*awkward finger gun exit*

16 thoughts on “Death be not proud (or something like that)

Add yours

  1. Hi, I might be absent, but I am alive, and I’m HERE for once right now! (I’ve been thinking of you a lot!)

    And I just want to say, my friend, that this is an EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT post, just as I hoped!!

    You said it! Finally! THANK you.

    I have been thinking a lot about this since last year, especially after losing people in my own life and reading two very very helpful posts saying the truth about character death. It wasn’t what the rest of the world was doing. But it gave me such relief, and that clear knowledge that THIS is right, when everyone else is debating endlessly and creating confusion…or else saying the same thing over and over and it’s wrong. 😦

    I don’t kill characters for shock. I don’t enjoy causing pain. I don’t kill them for no reason. I don’t want to kill characters when it has NO effect on the other characters, and no resulting grief or honest, realistic reactions. They shouldn’t just disappear. Seriously, so many books just forget the person existed. (I’ve read very few novels for young people in which the young main character actually felt the loss of a parent in a realistic way, without going overboard.)

    I read one post suggesting some helpful considerations for “is this a good and vital character death?” Helped me so much–and I realized I can save some characters who had unnecessary deaths (or I’d done it already in my quest for better character deaths), but the deaths I DO include are vital and right.

    And another post I found gave me relief and took away years of stress from hearing “you can’t have stakes or a book about war without deaths!!” It just depends. What’s right for the story is most important. It’s NOT better to kill a character randomly just cause we need death to be realistic!!

    This post said–stakes do not depend on death! Stakes depend on how much the character has to LOSE! The more good things a character gains in life (a career, a family, people to love), the more they can LOSE. That’s how you up the stakes in each successive book. They’re afraid to lose things….not having nothing meaningful in their life, and then losing things they DON’T care about and aren’t affected by.

    And please please please show characters grieving realistically and processing the loss. Please. We all need it.

    Death in fiction isn’t for fun or for excitement. Or to show there’s somehow meaning in pointlessness and emptiness and suddenness…ugh. I’m so sick of that.

    We especially shouldn’t kill a character for no reason! Authors don’t have the terrible excuse of needing to remove an actor from the show. XD I mean, I don’t like it when a character is recast with a different actor. But at LEAST say that they got a job in another state, and give them some closure! Death makes no sense in that context and isn’t the right solution. It’s not realistic.


    I’m SO glad that you and I thought long and hard about this and arrived at some similar thoughts. I think everyone I know who thinks about this and cares, has come up with these thoughts too. I’ve been very helped by those friends!

    Thanks for expressing all this! It’s what I’ve wanted to hear and say!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. MARY HELLOOOOOOOOOO! It’s been so long since we’ve had a chance to chat! I was just thinking about you the other day! I hope you’re doing well ❤

      I'm sorry for the real-life grief you've experienced this year. It's really hard and lonely to go through something like that, and it never just "goes away." I think too many authors include death in their stories because they assume they SHOULD or that it's the only way to be realistic; but they never wanted to write about grief, just about death… so they skip over the grieving process. Which is wrong and hurtful to those readers who have actually lost someone; as well as giving false expectations to readers who haven't been through grief themselves yet.

      Oooh. That's a great point! Stakes depend on how much a character COULD lose, not on how much they actually end up losing. And the "list of things to lose" should be much longer than "well, my life I guess." Death shouldn't be the only bad thing that could happen to your characters.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mary! You made my day! 😀


  2. I hate death. I hate it with a burning, fiery passion. It sucks. I’ve lost all four grandparents, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost pets. It never gets any easier. Grief takes years, if not decades. It rises up and punches you in the face at the most unexpected of moments. Each loss adds another wave to the tide of grief, and it never ebbs away completely. I hated killing off characters in my Tudor books, and I chose to stop that series before I had to kill off the ones I loved the most. I figured, I’ve had enough grief. I have wallowed, I have had them mourn, I’ve had the aftermath ripple for many pages, chapters, books, afterward. I’m done.

    I advocate for saving your characters, unless a death is monumental within the story. There was no need to kill off Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda, no need to kill Beth in Little Women. For gosh sakes, let them live. They deserve better than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grief really does suck. I’m sorry for the family and friends and pets you’ve lost, as well. ❤

      Yep. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that most stories would be better off without character death, because most stories don't actually WANT the character death to be central and important, since that would be "too depressing." They just want it to be a peripheral event that catalyzes the plot. And because they don't really want to deal with grief, they just brush it off and pretend the characters are "fine" so they can get on with Important Plot Business. Not cool, writers… not cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this. Also, *gulps in writing apocalyptic novel* I think I leaned too hard into my first character death as a badge of “being a legit author”, when in reality, my real heart wants everyone to live happily ever after or at least bittersweetly. I appreciate your thoughts on fridging as well (why is it always the Black or female characters, hmmm?!). You’ve given me a lot to think about as I dive into this current story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You got this, Kate! *cheers you on* And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think writers should NEVER KILL characters or anything like that. Just that we should think about it more carefully to avoid overusing death or cheapening it.

      Seriously!!! It’s really disturbing to see how often women and people of color are killed off in fiction in order to let the Really Important (read: white male) characters do the Really Important Plot Things. And with Barry Frost on “Rizzoli & Isles” in particular, I was super annoyed because it would have been so easy to write him out of the story without killing him!!! Literally just promote him or move him to a different department! Argh…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have like dozens of thoughts on character deaths but I need not share them because YOU LAID THEM ALL OUT. Every single one. I was just sitting here nodding vigorously at each new sentence. All I can say is just…YES. SO MUCH YES. 100% on every bit of this. This has long been an issue I’ve had with fiction, ESPECIALLY how hardly any story carries on the grief. Because yes, the death of a loved one doesn’t just last for one big dramatic moment and then FADE AWAY. That is not how it works in any way and it is unfair of stories to portray it like that. Plus, as you so brilliantly pointed out, sometimes NOT killing the character ends up being far better storytelling. There is a time and place for character deaths, but it needs to be handled with care and have a VERY specific reason (that is NOT just to tug at the heartstring for two pages).

    Basically just…everything you said! YES. So much yes to this entire post! Thank you so much for saying something because it NEEDED to be said!

    And my condolences for your friend. I’m so sorry, friend. *hugs*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Christine! 😀 I AM GLAD YOU AGREE!

      I’m convinced that most writers just don’t want to write about grief. They want death because it creates drama, but they don’t want grief because it (very reasonably and realistically) slows down the story while the characters actually try to grieve and process and heal. Well, guess what, suckers? You can’t have death without grief! That’s not how human beings work! If you don’t want your characters to grieve, stop killing their friends and loved ones!!

      Thank you *hugs* I really appreciate your kind words. ❤


  5. “This is a terrible pilates video” made me Actually Snort, thank you so much for including that

    I really, really appreciate this post. In so many ways.

    First, it’s a great point that death isn’t the only or best way to raise stakes. I have read Too Many books that I don’t care about by the end because you killed off too many people…either my favorite characters, who were why I was invested in the first place, or simply so many of the people the protagonist cares about that he barely sees the point anymore and I don’t see it at all. Frankly? Character deaths are, more often than not, uncreative. (“You don’t have to write about death to tap into deep emotions”<—THIS.)

    I've also never understood the charge against serious, gritty stories, even ones about war, that they can't be taken seriously if none of the characters die. I may be wrong but I don't think that's how the odds work. Like, it's entirely possible that there's a group of people who go through a war together and they all make it through. That's not far-fetched at all! I'm pretty sure it's happened many, many times in real life! But even so, it's not as if fiction is first and foremost a mirror of real life; first and foremost it's a story about characters, and the story must be served and the character arcs must be served, and my personal philosophy is that if you must sacrifice a particularly statistical brand of realism for those two things, you ought to sacrifice the realism.

    Also, yes. Grief sucks. Lack of creativity is hardly my biggest issue with authors writing about death; my biggest issue is absolutely that they're not willing to also write about grief. And in a sense that's fine with me. Grief sucks. I don't want to read about it all the time. But DO NOT kill a character and pretend that grief isn't going to follow that–or that it isn't messy, ugly, long-lasting, and sometimes utterly debilitating. It's isolating, and it only feels even more isolating for the grieving reader when no one else seems to undergo grief like hers.

    Like I said, I really appreciated this, as someone who's experienced grief as well as her fair share of infuriating character deaths. And I'm truly sorry about your friend. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad to hear it XD My dear friend Grace, who shares my disgust with unnecessary character deaths, sent me that screenshot and obviously I knew I HAD to include it. It was just too perfect!

      RIGHT. Yes, exactly. We don’t write fiction to mirror real life in every sense imaginable; we write fiction to tell stories with meaning. Which means giving our characters meaningful arcs. Which means you have to think hard before you kill a character about whether it ACTUALLY serves their arc or not.

      What I’m saying!!! I understand if authors don’t want to write about grief, but I say again, and say quite firmly, that you can’t get around the problem by divorcing grief from character death. If you kill the character, you have to write about the other characters grieving. “If you do the crime, you gotta do the time.” And if you don’t want to write about grief, then for Pete’s sake, just let your characters live!

      Thank you, buddy. ❤ I appreciate your empathy and kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this so much, Katie. You said so much that’s been on my heart for a long time (regarding the importance of comedy and the superabundance of heavy fiction), but that I’ve not yet been able to put into words. So thank you.

    And I’m so sorry about your friend. ❤ Prayers for all involved, dear.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh, I’m so glad you loved the post and found it spoke to you! I feel like I need to write a whole thing now about why comedy is underrated and underappreciated. People look down on comedy or assume it has to be crass or unsophisticated or just evidence that you’re not a “serious artist.” And I’m like, my dude, have you even READ P.G. Wodehouse?

      Thank you, dear. ❤ The prayers and good wishes really help.


  7. I need to remember this post so I can print it out and staple it to the foreheads of some authors I have run into who think killing characters willynilly elevates their writing.

    (And I’m not even talking about Deborah Koren, who has a bad habit of killing off characters after I have formed deep and emotional attachments to them. Because they die for real reasons and their deaths have repercussions.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha!! I am glad to be of service 😉 and glad you enjoyed the post so much! ❤

      Exactly. Death can be a meaningful part of your story, but only if you take the time to really sit with it and give it its proper weight. Some authors understand that; others don't, and It Shows.


  8. Yes. Just . . . yes.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in fiction, lately — when it’s cheapened, when it’s assumed to sophisticate a story, etc. I have Thoughts (TM) percolating which I hope someday to publish in post format. ;-P

    Also: I’m so sorry that you lost your friend. *hugs you gently* I love you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh. Yes. I would be MOST intrigued to read your thoughts on the overuse of violence in fiction. Because that’s a whole thing in itself, “I wanted my movie to be grown up and mature so I spattered some blood everywhere! Now you HAVE to take me seriously!”

      Thank you, dear. *hugs* I love you, too.


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