Character Death Should Be Premeditated

I'm a big fan of fiction and screenplays that kill off major characters mid-stream.  It happened in Breaking Bad.  It happens all the time in The Walking Dead.  The problem is that an amateur writer will kill off characters for the sake of killing them off or for shock value without thinking through the character death and what it will mean for the other characters and for the furtherance of the plot. I have three rules about character death:

  1. There Must Be A Reason - Unless you are writing an absurdist novel, character death has to have meaning.  Yes, I know that real death doesn't have meaning to most, but character death should be about loss, about the fragility of the human condition and to give depth to the plot.  Killing off characters for the sake of killing them off is meaningless and useless.
  2. Does It Further the Plot? - Think very carefully about what the impact might be if the character were to die either tragically or quietly in their sleep.  If the death does not spur the others on to action (as Agent Coulson's death did in The Avengers) or it doesn't cause some type of reflection among the other characters it is probably a poor plot choice.
  3. What If They Lived? - I always ask myself this question.  If the character doesn't die, then what impact would he/she have on the rest of the characters in the story?  What kind of purpose would it serve?  Would their life be enough of a drag on the narrative to justify erasing them from existence?

The main point, here, is to be sure that the character death is part of the grand plan you have for the entire novel.  I once killed a character mid-way through my last novel only to resurrect him in the rewrite because he left such a hole in the plot.

If you have decided that someone in your novel needs to die, then do it with finesse, not with a sledge hammer.  Remember that you run the risk of alienating a reader with their death because you have introduced these characters to them and the readers have invited these people into their homes.  Sometimes they grow very attached to them.  Killing off a character without good reason could cause a reader to quit reading your book.

Above all, always think about how the reader will take the character death.  What do you want to accomplish emotionally by killing that beloved character?  If it is a villain who dies, then make sure you have an even nastier person to take their place, unless it happens at the end.

If you have any other ideas about killing off characters (i.e. the "do's" and "don'ts") then please post below.