I’ll be writing about the video Writing Deaths Of Main Characters – Building Suspense and Raising Peril and Stakes in your Story, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
If you’re writing a book or script where there is risk or peril, and you want your audience to believe in it and feel tense during scenes with fights or danger, you need to be willing to kill your main characters. But killing them needs to be done in a way that actually causes the sense of tension you need your audience to feel.
Character Deaths Build Tension
If you kill characters to create that sense of tension and fear, but only kill side characters or characters you have introduced clearly with the sole purpose of killing them, you will do nothing to build suspense or a sense of danger. Your audience will simply not go with you on that emotional journey and will therefore be outside of your story and less invested.
This is a frequently occurring problem in series’. It’s natural that if you’ve set up a group of characters that you love writing, and you’ve built a whole world for them to have adventures in, that you want to keep those characters alive so you can keep telling those stories.
However, if your gang of main characters are going into frequent dangerous situations where you want your audience to be scared or worried for them, and time and time again they magically survive, your series will lack impact.
Write Them To Die
To avoid it feeling like nobody important will ever die, and if you struggle with getting so emotionally attached to your characters that you can’t kill them, design a character with the intent of writing their death. But don’t make it obvious to your audience, because if they read like they were written to die then their death won’t carry any weight because everybody will see it coming.
Surprising your audience with the death of a character is the way to shatter the expectation that everybody is safe because they’re the main characters, so when you write your character to kill, write them as if you have a whole journey ahead of them planned out.
Write a plot and character as dynamic and complex and motivated as your other characters, with hopes and dreams and goals, and write them going for what they want with the same enthusiasm as you write your surviving characters. There should be no sign in the way that character comes across that you’re building to their death, because then when you kill them and their journey is cut short, their story is left unfinished and that is the shock.
Make Your Audience Worried
By using your audiences intuition about where a character’s story is going against them, and cutting it short without any kind of conclusion for that character, you make it feel like nobody is safe and your audience feel the sense of danger you want them to have.
Once that character, or characters, your audience believed was safe has been killed, your audience will go into any future battle or danger scene with the uncertainty of who will survive. You have immediate suspense and tension, and your audience will have a better and more exciting experience of your story.
TV And Film Is Different
With a TV or film series it’s different to a book because you have contracts with actual people who need a job. So killing a character comes with extra issues, but in a book series you don’t have that problem.
Alternatively, you might have to write an unintended death scene due to an actor becoming unavailable for some reason. So be prepared for screenwriting to carry different issues to navigate with deaths of characters than with books.
Whilst there is no “right” way to kill your main characters, remember that if you kill them too quickly they feel written to die, and if you never kill any of your main characters then your scenes will lack drama and tension.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!