As a writer, this, to me, is not to be taken lightly. I don’t do it often, and only if I feel the story requires it. The purpose of a character death is either as a plot device, development of another character, or to cause an emotional reaction in the reader (or viewer if the death occurs in a visual medium). My thoughts on character death concern how much the reader/viewer is expected to care about the dead.
1) Plot device – when the character’s death is central to moving the plot forward.
a) Specifically – For any sort of mystery novel, this is absolutely critical. After all, if there’s no murder, there’s no murder mystery.
Do we care? – In this case, the reader/viewer may or may not be expected to have some kind of emotional attachment to the recently deceased depending on when in the story they get killed (i.e., the story starts out with a dead body, or someone in the story is killed).
i) He was dead at the time (the story starts) – In this case, there’s really no emotional attachment. This is a cold open, and many murder mysteries start this way, especially in a visual media. It’s kind of hard to be emotionally attached to Mr. Boddy.
ii) Hey, it’s that guy – In this case, we’ve had a chance to meet the characters and there are hints that something terrible is about to happen and we’re kind of hoping it’s that jerk who really has it coming and not that nice, affably clueless person.
A) Naturally, if the body turns out to be that jerk who had it coming, we’re not very sorry, and may have less emotional investment in determining who the killer is. Although often in these cases, the nice, affably clueless person is wrongfully accused, which does encourage the reader/viewer to invest in the murdered being brought to justice. We really don’t want Grady Fletcher to go to jail.
B) But if it the body turns out to be that nice, affably clueless person, then we are sorry and perhaps have a greater emotional investment in determining who the killer is.
b) Specifically – outside of mystery novels, character death as a plot device often involves an important leader dying/being killed.
Do we care? – Again, it depends on when the character dies, how they die, and what we’ve been shown of their character to this point. Emotional attachments actually play out the same way as listed above.
2) Character development – when the death of one character prompts a profound emotional/character change in another character.
Do we care? – The recently deceased must have been a powerful enough character on their own that their death actually means something to the surviving character. Common examples are the death of the wise mentor, respected parent, or love interest. There is a distinct danger of falling into clichés with this kind of character death.
a) Stuffed into the Fridge – this is the worst example of a love interest getting killed for the purpose of developing another character. It also overlaps with character death as plot device since lovers getting brutally murdered often provides motivation for the revenge sequence that follows. This is not limited to comic books, of course. Many many video games also start with this premise.
b) I really can love! – This is common when the main character rebuffs the love interest time and time again, claiming past trauma or other circumstances prevent them from truly falling for the love interest. Then the love interest dies and it turns out the main character was in love all along.
c) Wise mentor – In many stories, the death of the wise mentor is almost inevitable. They pass along all their wisdom to the main character and show the main character yes, they really can be a better person. Sometimes they pass away peacefully, and sometimes they are cruelly cut down. Either way, the main character knows that have to find that inner strength because wise mentor believed in them.
d) Respected parent – Often the same role as the wise mentor, although the respected parent, if cruelly cut down, the agent of death is some kind of disease or accident (whereas wise mentors are more usually cruelly cut down by ninja assassins or mob hitmen or Sith lords).
3) Emotional reaction – it is possible these deaths advance the plot or lead to further development in surviving characters, but the main purpose seems to be to make the reader/viewer have a strong emotional reaction, whether it’s anger, sadness, or even just confusion.
Do we care? – We’d better care, or the writer has not done their job correctly. These kinds of character deaths are the most likely to break the fanbase.
a) Slow and lingering – if we know a character is terminally ill, or involved in the kind of situation they know they won’t get out of, and therefore we the reader/viewer know they won’t get out of, then at least they don’t feel like they just come out of nowhere. The emotional reaction comes as the reader/viewer is pulled along in this hopeless journey, wishing there was a way for the main character to survive and at the same time readying themselves for the inevitable. If a character doesn’t die after all this build up, that actually feels like cheap manipulation.
b) Slow, lingering, and pointless – this is when a character is involved in a train wreck of a hopeless situation that can only lead to their death but the reader/viewer is not emotionally invested (or as much as the writer wants) because they simply don’t understand why the character is being put through the situation. The death feels like a cheap stunt, made worse because everyone can see it coming and no one can stop it. Frankly, the “Death of Superman” felt like this to me, and actually a lot of comic book deaths can end up like this.
c) Heroic sacrifice – very, very common. This is when the main character must die to save the day/ship/world/love interest, etc. Whether or not the character that dies is a hero is not actually crucial to the emotional reaction of their death. As long as it is a sacrifice that makes sense in the context of the story, even if a villain is the one dying, we the reader/viewer will feel that emotional punch when the death occurs. Unless, of course, there hasn’t been enough time or too much lazy writing to really build up the character so that when they sacrifice themselves, it feels like a cheap dramatic trick (i.e., the wrong character is yelling, “Khaaaaaaan!!!”).
d) Anyone at any time – This is when a character (or a whole bunch of characters) is killed off unexpectedly. At best, it provides an emotional punch to the gut of the reader/viewer as they experience this sudden death along with the characters (see also “Whedoned”). At worse, this doesn’t seem to advance the plot (and in fact may seem to hinder it) and doesn’t build character development because there’s no one left to build up. I may possibly be referring to a recent episode of a popular fantasy TV series based on a popular series of fantasy novels in which about a quarter of important (up to that point) characters were killed. Not only can this easily feel like cheap emotional manipulation, these kinds of deaths can make the reader/viewer wonder if they should continue in the series (assuming that’s not the end) or continue with that writer (assuming that is the end of a series but they have others). Readers/viewers do emotionally invest in characters and to have them killed for what appears to be no good reason except reader/viewer shock breaks the trust the reader/viewer had in the writer. Also, while “anyone and any time” can be a bold narrative choice, in actuality, most readers/viewers really don’t want to see anyone get killed at any time.
As a writer, I try to make sure my reasons for killing off a character are sound. It is difficult to write compelling characters and honestly after going through all that work I want to make sure there’s no other method besides death to achieve the end of the story. If characters aren’t compelling, the reader/viewer isn’t going to care they’re dead. Even if characters are compelling, deaths in stories can so easily end up cliché or overdone or trite. Trite is dangerously close to mediocre, and I want to write better than that. So, if there must be character death, I want to make sure it really means something. I may not always succeed, but I will always try.