by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion about killing characters this week, as HBO revealed whether a key character on Game of Thrones was actually dead or alive. The discussion had merit, as HBO, and especially Game of Thrones, has a habit of killing off significant characters in their narratives. Obviously, any conversation about killing key characters is going to be clothed in spoilers – so reader beware. Death, of course, is a universal experience in life. Everyone will die. However, knowing if, who, and when to kill characters in your story can be a high stakes game. Here are five character archetypes you might consider killing in your script.
1. KILL THE MENTOR
One of the chief goals when creating a character in a story is to build empathy for him or her. Taking away someone they love is a powerful way of accomplishing this. Every person either has lost or will lose someone they love. We all know how it feels. It’s hard to dislike a character who goes through this experience. Of course, before we take away a mentor, we have to establish how much they mean to our protagonist. We have to take time in the story to demonstrate relationship. We often want to show our protagonist butting up against the advice or training of the mentor, before they see the wisdom that was taught. These things take time in a story.
Killing a mentor is usually not a good idea to consider unless you are at least half way through your story. You also don’t want to wait too late to kill the mentor. You must give your character time to respond to the mentor’s death and then to use the wisdom they offered. Mick, Rocky’s mentor, doesn’t die until the third installment of the series. Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda both die, but only after they have invested in Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. Not all mentors fit the wise old sage trope. Royal Tenenbaum is practically the opposite of Obi Wan Kenobi, but still manages to teach his family lessons before his death at the end of the story.
2. KILL THE PROTAGONIST
When we talk about killing a character in our stories, our minds immediately gravitate to the possibility of killing the protagonist. While this can be an effective strategy in storytelling, it’s not one without risks. Killing the main character takes perfect narrative timing. In the minds of many audience members, once the person they consider to be the main character dies, the story is over. For this reason, many storytellers wait until the end of the film to kill off their protagonist. Ben in Seven Pounds, Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, and William Wallace in Braveheart all die, but not until the end of the story. More recently, a few storytellers have experimented with killing main characters earlier in their narratives. Bill Pope in Criminal and Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines both die early on in their stories. Psycho, Malcom X, Saving Private Ryan, Into the Wild, American Beauty, and Gladiator all kill off their protagonists in different ways.
3. KILL THE ANTAGONIST
Much more common than killing off the protagonist is the idea of killing off the antagonist. There’s a catharsis the audience feels when the antagonist gets what is coming to them. Unsurprisingly, many storytellers use this built-in emotion to conclude their stories. Rarely, if ever do we see the antagonist die before the end of the story. When John Fitzgerald is left to die in The Revenant, Hugh Glass’s journey feels complete. When Javert dies at the end of Les Misrables, Jean Valjean is finally free of the weight he has carried throughout the story. The look on Jack Torrance’s dead face at the end of The Shining is somehow just as chilling as the moment he breaks through the door with an axe. Seeing Hans Gruber descend into oblivion at the conclusion of Die Hard makes us all feel like John McClane.
4. KILL THE LOVERS
There’s perhaps no love story more well-known than Romeo and Juliet. The timeless tale ends with both lovers dead. While it’s not necessary for both lovers to die in order to build empathy with the audience, taking away something one character values greatly is impactful, and has an even greater effect than taking away a character such as the mentor. Jack Dawson’s icy death in Titanic breaks our hearts because we know what he meant to Rose. Satine’s death in Moulin Rouge has a similar impression on Christian. Atonement, A Walk to Remember, and Leaving Las Vegas all portray the deaths of either one or both of the lovers involved. Even Forrest Gump brings a tear to our eye when he gives us the details about the death of his beloved Jenny.
5. KILL EVERYONE
From Greek tragedies through Shakespeare, there’s a long tradition of killing off nearly all the characters in a story. This plot device only works in certain types of stories and can risk alienating the audience. However, many narratives accomplish great things and still manage to end the lives of most if not all the characters in the story. In Green Room, only Pat and Amber are left standing after an army of friends and enemies meet their demise. Both Thelma and Louise cruise into the great beyond together at the conclusion of their story. Nearly every character in The Departed dies before the film is over. Historical films often lean on the true stories of massive deaths. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Young Guns II, and Platoon are but a few examples where nearly all main characters meet their fate.
Of course, no discussion about killing off characters would be complete without honoring the work of Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, The Hateful Eight, and most of QT’s other films all kill off a great number of the cast before the final credits roll.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.