Why They Die — Mastering the Art of Killing Off Characters in Fiction

Janet Stilson
Published in
3 min readJan 9, 2023


Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

“He’s scared to look at me in the eyes and start to understand what’s about to happen to him. You know, he picked the wrong family. We’re not scared of conflict. We’re not running. We’re coming at him.”

Those are the words of Steve Goncalves, speaking to CNN’s Jim Sciutto about the alleged murderer of four University of Idaho students. Among them was Gonclaves’ daughter, Kaylee.

This recent example of senseless violence is horrifying, and it’s so easy to get behind Goncalves’ rage and overpowering need for justice. And at the same time, we can be haunted by other forms of death, which might seem quiet by comparison but are devastating.

Because the final act in the lives of other people can impact us so deeply, it’s only natural that writers echo them in stories. But killing off a character takes careful thought. It’s really an art form if you ask me. It draws people in and makes them empathize with the extreme emotions characters are feeling. And it can provide momentum as the characters who are still living seek vengeance or go down other paths that make us wonder, “What comes next?”

Have you ever found, as a reader, that you get so wrapped up in a particular character’s life that you fear for their lives in harrowing moments? Only this morning, I mentally telegraphed Becky Chambers with the message: “Don’t you dare kill her! Not now! I can’t take it!” The character I was concerned about is named Kizzy in Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.” Kizzy is a wildly colorful tech whiz. And Chambers’ is a freaking genius storyteller in my world.

On the other hand, have you ever stopped watching a show or reading a book because a character was killed off in some seemingly arbitrary way — or the death was just another plot point, and you totally lost interest? In other words, your magic carpet ride of suspended disbelief came crashing to earth.

That’s why I bow down to the true masters of character demises. Take, for instance, the shocking death of a key character in the first “Game of Thrones” fantasy novel.

George R.R. Martin built up his imagined hero so that he was fully formed in the readers’ minds. People were invested in the character’s storyline. Most of us weren’t used to having someone with a major presence killed off so early in a book. It set Martin apart on the literary scene because the death was so unexpected. He got away with it because sometimes death can be stunning and incomprehensible. Just ask the families of those University of Idaho students. And in “Thrones,” the killing ricocheted through the emotions of a whole cluster of other characters, shaping their backstory and their actions, which most readers could get behind completely.

Murder comes in so many different flavors. For example, recently, I watched some episodes of “Dead to Me” on Netflix. It’s a lighter story with black edges, about the unlikely friendship of two women — one of whom killed the other woman’s husband in a hit-and-run car accident. (This comes out in the first episode and is the premise of the whole series, so I’m not giving much away.) The dead husband is someone we, the audience, never knew when he was alive. So his impact on the grieving wife is felt from more of a distance.

That was okay by me because the creators of “Dead” are focused on the intensifying relationship of the two women as the plot twists and twists and twists in entertaining and deliberately absurdist ways.

When I was planning out the sequel to my novel, “The Juice,” an editor suggested that I kill off a certain character who was at the heart of the first book. The editor thought that my girl, Luscious, should be snuffed out either before the second book began or shortly thereafter.

I couldn’t. Just couldn’t.

Yes, I believe in killing your darlings as a writer. But the reasons have to be earned. And I had other plans for Lush that are paying off big time as I write the sequel. I want all my deaths to be real doozies in the most carefully crafted ways.



Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.