Writing Excuses 7.39: Death

Death! DEATH!!

Let’s talk about killing characters.

Howard starts by relating a time when he did it poorly, and why he feels like it didn’t work. Brandon discusses the academic, clinical aspect of the matter, and how he in particular handles planning (or not planning) for character death. Dan talks about the email he gets about page 267. Mary talks about the differences between deaths in the various genres in which she writes.

There’s lots more. If characters risk death in your writing, this ‘cast will certainly affect their odds for survival.


Find a way to kill a character. Then write it in three ways: sad, heroic, and accidental. As an alternative, take a story you’ve already written, and write a different ending so that someone dies instead of living, or lives instead of dying.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty, narrated by the Grammar Girl herself

30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.39: Death”

  1. Timely episode. Two weeks ago I realized I needed to kill off a certain major character to give the rest of the book more impact, and I can’t put off writing that scene any longer. (Killing off minor characters and bad guys is easier, but this guy had real potential.)

  2. I would really like to know what would have happened in Mist Born if you-know-who hadn’t died in the first book.

    It seems to me that that character HAD to die for the story to go the way it did.


  3. Since I somewhat recently killed off an important minor character, this really hits home. Though for me the problem I had writing it wasn’t so much personal pain as I wrote it from the PoV of the character who cared most about him, that was also the one who found him dead. Being in her head for that was… not fun. Necessary for the story, but I really got twisted up inside reading it.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who goes through that 🙂

  4. The comments about Feed/Fed made me wonder what your reactions might be to the ending of Heinlein’s “Podkayne of Mars”, which Baen published with both endings a few years back. So, which version is better: Poddy dies, or not? (The book is way past the statute of limitations for spoiler warnings, sorry.)

  5. I wished you talked a bit more of writing AFTER a important character death. Some of the best stories have these holes after a major death. Sometimes is competency in an specific area or just comic relief, but the loss makes you remember the character 100 pages or 2 books later. How do you make a character gone but not forgotten?

  6. Dan, I LOVED page 267. I had tears running down my cheeks when I read that chapter, and oh, how I loved that book for making me feel so attached to a fictional character. John’s trauma was even more heart wrenching following that death because I was so sad myself.

    Great podcast.

  7. Man, a lot of these points make me feel I need to re-read a lot of material. I don’t remember Shvuu (sp?), nor do I remember page 267 (though I think I have an idea).

    I also can’t find Fed. By “worst ending” do you guys mean “the ending is done poorly” or “the ending is done such that it rips your soul out even more than the one in Feed did.” Either way, I want to read it, but I would like to know what to expect.

  8. Inspiredly, he mused about death as a metaphor – so, how about a cast on Points of No Return? There can be a peculiar emotional twang to those, lethal or not… And thanks anyway.

  9. main character death is huge in my books. in a bout of discovery writing i killed off a main character in chapter 4 of my first book. it took me a long long time to figure out what the book was then, going to be about. (the death just HAD to stay in) consequently the book is so much better off for that having happened.

    ive worked the premise of my second book specifically to kill my hero. it happens to be a cat with nine lives, so i get to kill her often. the first line of it is “The cat dies in this story.”

    i think killing characters is not only a really great way to explore connecting with the reader but its so so so fun! i recommend trying the writing prompt. Do as many rewrites as you can killing your characters in different points of the story just to see what happens.

  10. Well, weren’t you all just a lively bunch for this particular topic. It was bubbly macabre. You’ve trained them well, Dan. Great information and it gives us more perspective on what to look for with emotion when making the lives of those we’ve created end.

  11. Great podcast as ever and good timing too. I’m currently outlining for the 2012 NaNoWriMo event. In the early outline, I planned to kill a important character and realized that her death wasn’t going to be as meaningful and wouldn’t have the impact I expected it to have. So now I was thinking of giving that character more presence and maybe even a POV in order for people to understand the “why” in my main character motivation.
    On the same topic I would like to ask this question: Did you ever developed a character knowing that he or she will die from the beginning?

  12. Mary Robinette’s comment about how the death at the beginning of Serenity was given some meaning reminded me of Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja series (or at least the first two). Any time a new POV character was introduced and you got ten pages of their life’s trials, tribulations and hopes, that character would be murdered at the end of that scene. As a reader, this had little impact because after the first one or two you could see it coming. The examples are from two different mediums, but perhaps subtlety is important?

  13. I needed this episode so much. Thank you guys! I love Brandon’s “They’ve already lived and died” thing, that will help me I think.

  14. I absolutely love the podcasts. I’m learning so much from them, and they inspire me to pursue writing. Thank you all.

  15. Could not agree more, Mr. Wells. In my own Work-in-progress, I have this character that I absolutely love, and from the time I wrote the first chapter in his perspective and found his character to be quite lovable, I knew that he would be dying around the end of the book. What you said was one of the motivations at the time, but it was also because I couldn’t see his story past Book 1. I would have had to force it, thereby making him a weaker character in my eyes, as well as the eyes of any person reading my book.

    This was a great Writing Excuses. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  16. Every once in a while I learn that a character has to die. I usually fight it and it ends up happening anyway. When a character dies it’s always a pivotal moment. If it’s not, the death is wasted.

    Mary, PLEASE speak up. I can hear all the men, then you start talking and I have to turn up the volume.

  17. I have mixed feelings about character deaths, because they hurt me, as a reader, a lot (as a writer, not as much only because I can prepare myself for it). But if I know in advance that the main character is going to die, I won’t read that book or watch that movie – that’s just too hard. (I saw Andre Norton at a con, and she said, in an almost indignant voice, that she would NEVER kill off the hero or heroine.)

    It does depend on the genre, I expect more death in a horror or a thriller. As long as I have one character I can attach myself to, who I know is going to make it, as long as I know Ripley, at least, will make it out allive, I can handle it. Start to kill Ripley, and I’m lost as an audience.

    That being said, as far as p. 267, that character had to die, as painful and awful as it was. I tried to think of a way for the book to work without it, and I couldn’t come up with one. There is a price for that, though. When I pick up books in a series, it’s often because I want to hang out with that gang of characters again. Kill off those characters and that changes the gang, and the dynamics. Killing off that character in IDWTKY means I don’t get to see that character anymore, I don’t get those interactions anymore, and the next book will be substantially different. (I think Dan Wells is taking the right approach and giving the series a rest, and maybe starting it up again several years later.)

  18. Laruen: This is a balance issue on the day we recorded these. Since we did a bunch of episodes all at the same time, we are stuck with the way levels were set that time. Sorry. It’ll probably be like that on other episodes until till we are through that batch.

  19. Are you guys planning on doing any more episodes where you take scenes that are entirely dialogue that the we’ve written and analyze them? Because I really liked those, and found them especially helpful.

  20. How do you time these podcasts so well? This is like the fifth time, I was working on something and then your podcast becomes totally relevant at just the right moment. I’m working on a key death scene right now. And the guy was such a nice chap, too. Thanks again for a great podcast!

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