Flotsam and Jetsam (Random Thoughts)

The Kill List: When It’s Time to Off Characters

Every author needs to keep a kill list tucked away somewhere
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

What’s the best part about writing? Getting to engineer horrible deaths for your characters, of course! You are free to commit murder! (It also provides a reasonable answer for your suspicious search history) There’s no limit to the mayhem you can wield. Well, other than avoiding outlandish nonsense your reader won’t put up with. And using the actual names and likenesses of the people you might have modeled certain characters on. That can land you in hot water. But you are otherwise free to go on a murder spree. Or are you? See, when a writer gets “kill-happy,” they often land themselves in hot water. Sometimes irreparably. That’s why you always want to have a kill list handy. Trust me: it’ll save you aggravation down the road.

Threatening Worlds

Do you HAVE to kill a character?

If you’re writing children’s books, no. (I think it’s frowned upon in that genre) You’d likely struggle to sell a picture book with a murdered character. I won’t say it’d be impossible – stranger things have happened – but you’d be looking at an uphill battle.

But if you’re in any of the speculative genres, you must be prepared to offer a sacrifice.


Because your readers need to believe your world is dangerous. And if everyone dances around, free from harm, then there’s no risk to living there. Which means your characters are relatively safe. And that is BORING. (Even Disney characters face death, if you think about it)

Someone has to bite it. Even if it’s a secondary character. There has to be SOME hazard hanging over everyone’s heads. That way, your reader knows they need to sit on the edge of their seat and expect something to come flying out of the woodwork at any moment.

Maybe it’s the world itself. Or the flora and fauna populating the world. More than likely, it’s the characters themselves. But SOMETHING needs to be lethal. So a body has to hit the ground.

Drafting the Kill List

I first learned about needing a kill list during a talk by David Weber. (Incidentally, he’s a brilliant speaker. If you ever have a chance to sit in with him, take it) He mentioned having his kill list for the Honor Harrington series. It consisted of characters he was allowed to eliminate and those he needed to keep alive.

And my favorite takeaway? Honor WASN’T on the “keep alive” list! (Nimitz was, though)

You need to keep a physical document of your characters and put some notation next to their name for “survivor” or “victim.” (No, a mental list is NOT sufficient. You WILL forget what designation you chose) And each time you sit down to write a confrontation, you can pull out that list to ensure that the right bodies go into the firing line.

So you don’t inadvertently off someone you need six chapters later. (Or three books later)

Because nothing smacks of lousy writing quite like:

  • “Ta-Dah! I wasn’t really dead!”
  • “That was my evil twin who died.”
  • “A necromancer resurrected me.”
  • “We went back in time to stop the [insert traumatic event here.]”

Unless you happen to be writing a soap opera. Then have it.

The Keeper of the Kill List

Now, realistically, you – the author – cannot be trusted with maintaining the kill list.


Because you – sadistic writer that you are – will happily eliminate everyone without thinking twice. (And then wonder why you can’t write anymore) It’s who we are. Our brains are wired strangely. There’s nothing wrong with it, we just get so wrapped up in creating horrible scenarios for our characters that we tend to forget we still need someone to stumble across the finish line at the end.

And we tend to take a perverse joy in destroying our readers’ well-being.

So you have to find a trusted person who knows your story and characters well to help you compile and maintain the list. Someone who genuinely cares about your writing and the tale you’re weaving together. Maybe your significant other. Possibly your beta reader. SOMEONE within your writing network should stand out to you.

Explain the list to them, show them your draft, and then let them make edits to it. WITHOUT protesting. They DO know better than you in this situation. (Weber’s wife served as his Keeper – which was why Nimitz made the survivor list and Harrington didn’t)

Ideally, you need someone who’s a little twisted. After all, they need to understand that there WILL be death. But they need to exert balance over your crazy brain.

You’ll probably be surprised at some of the characters they grant amnesty. It’ll shift the direction of your writing. Probably for the better, though. And you’ll find yourself with new material to work with. So it’s a helpful exercise to go through.

And, yes, you have to abide by their decisions.

Even when they decide your antagonist gets to survive. (Work with it)

Who Lives? Who Dies?

Before I sat through that talk with Weber, I never killed ANYONE in my writing. I always pulled out that last-second recovery at the end so everyone was happy. And I couldn’t understand why things felt flat and unsatisfactory.

Then I gritted my teeth and started compiling kill lists for my books.

The writing gained intensity and depth. So did my characters because they had to react to the deaths. (Not to mention looking over their shoulders for the axe to drop!) My worlds improved, too, becoming treacherous pits populated with lethal creatures.

In short, I discovered how much fun it is to deal death and mayhem.

Is it more work? You bet. I have to research more to keep things accurate. And fight scenes? Don’t get me started on fight scenes.

But the writing is BETTER.

So do yourself the favor of sitting down and dividing your characters on that kill list. You’ll thank yourself. Even if your characters don’t.

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