101 Ways to Kill Off a Character

Fans packed Embassy D-F (Hy) Saturday night, eager to hear the panel of distinguished authors discuss captivating techniques to annihilate characters. After a brief round of introductions, the fun began when E. C. Ambrose described the death of a naughty queen by turning her into a sculpture of salt and accidentally dumping her in a river. Dissolved queens are far less troublesome. Dave Farland contributed another intriguing method from one of his books: nanobots that convert all carbon into graphite, thereby destroying all life on an entire planet.

Author Elizabeth Donald, pointing out the importance why a character dies, asserted that sacrificing his or her life to save others is most effective. Farland added, “Killing is almost always fascinating. Take your time and make it delicious.” To the crowds delight, Janny Wurtz said, “There are probably a few vampires out there right now…looking for inspiration.”

Killing a character is only part of the equation, according to James A. Moore. It’s also important to consider the ripples. A character’s death must have an impact, or the death is a waste of time. One of his favorite examples is Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery, in which the entire plot revolves around the father being unable to accept his son’s death. It’s also important, Ambrose said, to strike a balance between fear and hope.

In deciding whether or not a writer should kill off a character, Farland advised fewer deaths in YA and middle-grade fiction, but he noted that adults want something with a little more bite. “Not all people associated with the protagonist should survive,” he said. To personalize catastrophic death tolls, Moore suggested showing the scene from ground zero. Farland said it’s effective to personalize the carnage, to let your hero walk through the mass of dead bodies.

What if killing off a character makes your editor or your readers unhappy? The panelists agreed that although it’s wise to keep editors and readers happy, in the end, the author must be true to the story. Sometimes a character must die. The important thing is to make that death have the greatest possible impact.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.