Writing fiction is a little like playing God. No, scratch that–actually it’s a lot like that. You create an entire world, a universe in your head and on paper, and you have total control over the lives of the people in it, at least theoretically. This aspect of writing has always fascinated me, and in fact the ethical and cosmological implications of writers creating universes and characters is the entire basis of my novel Life Without Giamotti.

As God of your particular universe, there will come a time when you have to decide that someone in your universe dies. Handling character deaths, though, is rather a tricky business. While I said that you have total control over your characters, I said theoretically. As a practical matter, this power to destroy is subject to certain limits. Character deaths have to fit within the context of your story, and they can’t violate the implied contract you, as the author, have with the reader. Here’s a couple of guidelines that I try to stick to when I’m thinking about destroying somebody.

Character Deaths Must Have a Purpose.

This is the cardinal rule of killing off characters: it’s got to mean something. This is true even if the purpose is to demonstrate the impact of a meaningless death. You can’t just off somebody for no reason, or as a means to “shake up” your plot. Even if you’re writing a book about World War I–and almost all stories about World War I end with everybody dying a senseless death–your purpose is to demonstrate how cruel and senseless World War I really was.

The best way to measure whether you need to kill a character is to evaluate what role they play in the story. Are they a foil for another character? Is their purpose to convey information, to motivate action, or to thwart some other potential result? Killing off a character can either remove a factor from the story, or serve as a motivation for others.

Here’s a famous example. The basic plot of Gone With The Wind is this: Scarlett loves Ashley, but Ashley loves Melanie, and Rhett loves Scarlett. (Everyone has known how Gone With The Wind ends since 1936, so I assume I don’t need a spoiler alert). Melanie’s purpose in the plot is to explain why Scarlett can’t end up with AshleyMelanie dies toward the end of the story, thus removing this obstacle. To what end? Well, now theoretically Scarlett can get what she wants, but–surprise!–she doesn’t because she decides she loves Rhett after all, even though this realization comes too late. This development, which is (I’m convinced) what Margaret Mitchell started with when she began writing the book in 1926, is impossible without Melanie’s death. It’s just impossible. A shrewd reader will know, about 50 pages into the book, that Melanie’s going to bite it eventually. It just has to happen. This is a powerful example of motivation through character death.

A Counter-Example: “The Needs of the Many…”

Here’s an example of a character death that doesn’t work, and it’s likely to be a controversial one: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Spock famously dies at the end of the film, in (naturally) heroic circumstances of saving the USS Enterprise from certain destruction. The reasons for killing the character were not endemic to the story. It came about as a result of contract negotiations, whether actor Leonard Nimoy would return to play the character of Spock in another Star Trek flick. At the time the film was initially made he’d decided he wouldn’t come back. Thus, Spock died.

But what role does this serve in the story? Star Trek II is a classic nautical adventure story projected into space. Several of the novels of Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester have exactly the same plot. It’s a grudge match between Kirk and Khan, and they sail their ships all over the world–er, I mean, warp their starships all over the universe–trying to kill each other. Spock is essentially first mate aboard the ship, and the #1 character every Star Trek fan loves. Why kill him? What does his death have to do with the Kirk/Khan conflict? You can say, and I’m sure Star Trek fans will, that “It’s about sacrifice,” or “It ties in with the whole Kobayashi Maru idea,” etc., etc. But those are justifications, not reasons. What possible purpose could the elimination of Spock from the Star Trek universe serve?

If you think I’m wrong about this, consider this: why, if Spock’s death was so necessary, was the whole next movie–Star Trek III: The Search for Spock–centered on bringing the character back to life?

Killing Characters as a “Plot Twist”: The Shower Scene.

Okay, so you want to twist your plot in a knot, surprise the reader and take your story in a new direction. Killing a character, particularly a main one, will do this. But you’re really playing with fire here because it’s almost impossible to pull off successfully. By killing a main character, specially a sympathetic one, you’re asking your audience to cash out the emotional investment they’ve made in the character and transfer that capital over to a new one. That’s a huge thing to ask of your audience.

Let’s look at one of the most famous example of this, both from cinema and literature. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic shocker film Psycho was made in 1960, based on a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch. In the movie version, the first 45 minutes of the film is the story of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), a morally ambiguous real estate secretary who decides on impulse to abscond with $40,000 of her employer’s money. Hitchcock shows us the whole caper in excruciating psychological detail: Marion’s character, her outlook, her temptation, the decision to take the money, and her nervous botching of the crime as she drives cross-country with the money in her purse. She stops at the Bates Motel, meets Norman–whom she does not know is a serial killer–and then she even decides, at the end of this lengthy sequence, to repent and return the money. Then she takes a shower…BAM!

This is one of the greatest plot twists in the history of movies. Only Hitchcock could do it, because he was a master. Suddenly the audience is confounded. But…what about Marion? What about her story? What about the money? Now, suddenly, 45 minutes in, Marion’s corpse is wrapped in a bloody shower curtain at the bottom of a swamp. Big twist, right?

But note how even this almost doesn’t work. After the famous shower scene, the movie Psycho struggles curiously for about the next 20 minutes to find its footing. The audience is now asked to sympathize with Lila (played by Vera Miles), Marion’s sister, who’s searching for her. But we haven’t seen Lila before in the movie at all. And she doesn’t quite come across as sympathetic. We don’t care about her as much. The movie also tries to get us interested in Arbogast, the private investigator, but he gets killed too before any real emotional connection is made. At its very end Psycho becomes the story of Norman Bates, which is the real story. Nevertheless, the movie never lets us into Norman’s head until literally the last scene of the film. That’s by design. How could we sympathize with a brutal, psychotic serial killer? Hitchcock decided not to go there.

Comparatively few people have read the book Psycho. If you do, the one thing you’ll notice is that Marion Crane is an extremely minor character. The story of the theft, her flight and her ultimate redemption is the back-story. The main character in Psycho is Norman Bates. We’re in his head on the very first page. Robert Bloch set himself up a monumental task by establishing Norman as the protagonist–a brutal, psychotic serial killer–which is why the book Psycho doesn’t quite work either. We, the reader, are strung along because we’re horrified by what’s happening but at the same time we’re macabrely fascinated by Norman’s awful crimes. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a fun movie to watch. Robert Bloch’s Psycho not a very fun book to read. I felt dirty and unpleasant after I put it down. I prefer the movie.

Bottom Line: Be Careful.

These examples, both pro and con, should demonstrate the very tricky business that is killing off characters. You really have to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

You, the author, have immense power. But, just as in the real world, with that great power becomes great responsibility. You must use it judiciously. If you don’t, your readers will abandon you, and your story won’t work.

Be careful when you deploy the Grim Reaper. His scythe might end up cutting you instead.