Image from Thelma & Louise distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (no infringement intended)
Sometimes even your characters know that their death makes for the best ending. Recently we caught just the last 20 minutes of the movie Thelma and Louise. I thought through how these characters would rather die than to be captured and go back to their previous lives. As a student of better writing I am always looking at how stories began and how they end. It’s quite obvious this was a study on endings both of the story and in this case the main characters.
There is a vast array of ways for characters to dying aren’t there? Either it’s the main plot line in a story that is purposefully plot driven or is the fate of a character driven storyline. The character either succeeds or fails at, well in this case, living. The story of Thelma and Louise is character driven as there is no plot without these characters and how they evolve. It is what keeps the story going until its time to end. Otherwise, it’s just a murder at a bar with an arrest made… THE END.
With all this in mind, when do these two characters know that they must die? Can a character who evolves like this ever do any better, ever be any more? You can’t take them back home, and you may rather die yourself than to see them captured and in prison.
When killing off a main character, we have to be careful that they have completed their character arch and know what the consequences of that character loss will be for the rest of the story line. If this happens well before the end of the book there are also many other things to consider. What if you also kill off the secondary character, or kill the villain but then have the hero die unexpectedly also. Multiple deaths can add unpredictability and interest, but also chaos for both the writer and reader as they try to keep up.
In a piece of fiction I am working on from time to time, I’ve written the reaction scenes to the death of the (somewhat) villain. The actual dying scenes are next and as I work backwards, I’m thinking about how this character even within his mind and actions, knew it was his time to go. With that thought process I’m hopeful that I can create thought-provoking dialogue between the dying man and others.
Obviously if the death in the writing needs to be unexpected the writer doesn’t face the dilemma of a character knowing they are about to die. When you write about a character dying and they know, or they sense its imminence, how quickly do you expose that to the readers to make for the most drama?