I have a confession to make – I’ve killed someone before. Luckily, it was only on paper, but I’m guessing the NSA guy surveilling me will only take that first sentence into consideration.

My first (unpublished) book was called A Flock of Crows, and it was about 2 boys who murder their friend’s abusive stepfather, cuz he’s, well, their friend’s abusive stepfather. But while I have no experience with it in person, I can tell you that killing someone on paper is difficult, too, and often authors have to do it without a lot of help. So I’m here to show you how to murder characters (effectively)!

Questions to ask yourself when considering the death of a character: 

1.) What kind of death is it?

All the episodes of Law and Order that are running should have already proven to you that there are many different types of death. People have different means, motives, and opportunities for the heinous crime of taking someone’s life, or sometimes people are just dumb. Were they equals, fighting to the death? Did one character sneak up on another? Was it a crime of passion or pre-meditated? Are they a child? Is it an accident or can it look like it? The more questions you ask yourself about the type of crime you’re writing about, the more authenticity will ring from it. (Pro tip: Don’t call your local police station to get any answers, sweetie. Trust Google.)

2.) Does the story require it?

Most of the time, murder works in a story and has its true and fullest emotional impact when it is required. If you kill a character that nobody cares about yet (like almost all Disney-Pixar parents), then it sets up the protagonist well, but they won’t care about the person dying.

But…when I read Pillars of The Earth, there was a character that I needed to die from about page 100 (and it’s a 973 page book.) That kind of brutal tension and interplay between the author and the reader of a character nobody likes can make a great candidate for murder, but you have to do the backwork first.

Just a general rule of thumb is try to get through the story without killing someone, and if you can, do it. And for the love of God, don’t murder someone just to spice up your story, we can all tell, and we all hate you.

3.) How does this change the story?

You have to consider how the death changes the story, before it, and afterward. Remember, if you’re looking to be an author, and writing things people love, you might want to think of how your book reads the second time, when the reader already knows what happens. Does the reader feel cheated knowing how this character dies, or does that bring a fresh perspective to reading them alive again?

In my book, The Lights of The Arno, I thought someone was going to die, and then they didn’t, and the book was better for it. Like I said, if you don’t have to pull that lever, don’t, but if you do, make it the most appropriate for your novel, so your audience can feel it.

Be the murderiest murderer. Say that five times fast.

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