How do you decide who to kill off next?

This is a decision which crops up maybe several times in a sensation, crime, mystery or adventure novel. The other day I reached a point in my current work where I knew there was to be a surprise death… but who?

If you are the kind of writer who has a complete plan before you start your first draft then you already know the answer but if you are like me, one who has, when they set out on the journey to final buff-up, a vague plot, a vague arc and an even vaguer end then you are faced with deciding who to get rid of on more than one occasion. Even those who pre-plot must surprise themselves sometimes with a change of plan, especially if their novel is character-driven. My characters frequently creep up behind me and surprise me with a tap on the shoulder and a whispered, ‘Psssst, I’m not really like that, I think we should do it this way, don’t you?’

How do you decide?

Sometimes its obvious – and if it is I think again. Bumping somebody off must surely be something of a surprise, if not, then you are losing dramatic effect (I suppose there must be an example somewhere which contradicts this – but I can’t recall it). So firstly, ignore the obvious.

What I do is write down a list of all my characters, right down to all the ones who don’t even have names because they are just part of the cast of extras. Then alongside their names I write out a reason why they should NOT be eliminated. Some are, of course, indispensable; after all you are going to have a difficult time with the ending if you have your protagonist poisoned three-quarters the way through – perhaps not impossible but very difficult I would say.

At the end of compiling this list I have a list of characters who would certainly not be killed off and  about the same number with ‘possibly’ written  alongside their names. In addition I have the category – ‘someone else not yet in the book’ and two other alternatives – ‘no death but some big revelation’ and ‘something I haven’t thought of yet.’

Now I wrote down all names in the ‘possibly’ category and add underneath what their loss would mean to, the MAIN characters, the workings of the drama, the reader and the mystery, secret or case under investigation.

Some examples of what I came up with were:

‘Personal loss, loss to business but no loss to the case.’

‘Personal loss to protagonist, practical loss, loss to reader as he is such a lovable character – but on the dramatic side would be a real shocker.’

‘Great loss to case but not a heartbreaker.’

‘Loss of valuable witness, not a heartbreaker but could be built up into a short term one and a triumph for the villain.’

‘Too inconsequential.’

‘Low impact.’

‘Loss of witness, triumph for villain but mechanically far too implausible.’

‘Someone else not yet in it? Depends on what crops up.’ That’s definitely a ‘flying too close to the sun’ risk but one which could lead to an exciting plot change or disruption!

I still haven’t decided who it will be but have narrowed it down yet again. As I am about 75000 words through a 90000+ novel I need someone whose death will do the villain some good and likewise I need someone who has a significant effect on the overall case in hand. Of my eleven possibilities four fit the bill to varying degrees and also there still remains the option of introducing somebody new for a brief cameo role! In the end it feels like I will make a decision on the basis of an emotional decision, it just has to be someone the reader has a good feel about and as such becomes a great triumph for the villain – in other words it will be someone I will feel sad to lose.

How do YOU decide?

As it happened I ended up killing off the VILLAIN! But she wasn’t the real villain, she was working for others with greater power, that we didn’t know about.