As writers, we all know you need to make your readers invested in your characters in order to have a successful tale i.e. one that people will want to read. People need to identify with your protagonist, feel his/her tribulations, rejoice with him/her in the high moments, suffer with him/her through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and in general care about the character. And not just the protagonist, either. Readers need to identify with the supporting characters, too, caring about them only marginally less than the protagonist.
Particularly if you intend to kill them off. Perhaps especially if you intend to kill them off, I’ve decided.
Okay... and what has prompted this strange observation? I hear you asking. Well, the other day, I was talking with one of my literature classes about good and evil, heroes and villains. We paused to examine a J.K. Rowling interview where she spoke about some of her thoughts on the matter, and in the course of that interview she mentioned Cedric Digory and his untimely end in Goblet of Fire. She felt that the death was so shocking that she wanted to be there when her then-young daughter first read the passage in question. Funny thing was, her daughter was not, apparently, all that upset by the death. And neither were my scholars. In fact, for most of them who had read the book, their reaction was a gigantic shrug. Why? I asked them.
Mostly, it seemed to boil down to the fact that they just weren’t all that invested in Cedric (aside from a vocal minority who said they actually cheered Edward Cullen’s death --- a reference to the actor who played Cedric also playing the lead vampire role in Twilight). There were several reasons for this: Cedric was in Hufflepuff house, not Gryffindor; he was one of Harry’s competitors in the Triwizard Tournament; and most tellingly, most of my scholars felt Rowling just hadn’t done much to develop the character or endear him to readers, so that when his end came, the response was mostly just a ‘meh.’ This, to me, is a weak point in that story (although far be it for a mere mortal such as myself to tell Jo how to write her immensely successful narrative). So there’s a lesson in this, I thought: make sure that any character you kill off is one that readers are heavily invested in. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of words and attempted dramatic effect.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about a Game of Thrones style wholesale killing off of characters, either, where there’s practically a revolving door of people meeting various and sundry messy ends. In fact, I think an argument can be made against that, too, because characters are killed off so routinely, I know that I, for one, have become extremely wary about getting attached to any of them, good or bad. There’s no point: it’s only a matter of time before a given character, regardless of their morality or seeming importance to the narrative, gets snuffed, either in some rather off-handed manner or usually in some more spectacular fashion (read “bloody”). This, I would argue, makes for detached viewing/reading, which is Not A Good Thing. (Far be it for me to tell George how to write his immensely successful story, either... but it ain’t how I would do it. Just sayin’)
If you’re contemplating killing off a major character, I think you first need to examine why: is this moving the story forward, or are you just looking for cheap shocks ‘n thrills? Because audiences today are far more jaded about that sort of thing (witness my scholars’ reactions to Cedric’s demise), particularly if it seems unnecessary to the plot.
Second, if you’re going to all that effort of killing off a character, you might want to draw it out a little. Cedric’s death seems to occur suddenly and with very little buildup, and there’s not much afterwards because Harry is too busy fighting Voldemort. Yes, there’s some grieving later, when all the shouting and fireworks are over, but even then...
Third and perhaps most importantly, if this is to mean something in the greater scheme of things, you need to establish a real, personal and deep connection between your protagonist and the character getting killed, so that when it finally happens, the reader genuinely grieves along with the protagonist. (“I cared for that character! Their death is devastating to me, too!”) Establishing that connection is not a quick process in a story, any more than it is in real life.
Because you want your reader’s gorge to rim (rise) at news of that death... just like Hamlet’s did. Alas, poor Yorick!