I think one of the most difficult things about writing character death is the aftermath and effect on the characters that are left behind. There are a lot of different approaches to this, but I’ve found the most helpful strategy is ensuring that your story can answer the following questions:
On Death Itself
- What is the significance of death in your world? Death generally falls somewhere on what I’m going to call the Marigold-Morbid spectrum, which can (and should!) affect the way that your partner and supporting characters approach the death of their loved one.
Closer to the Marigold end of the spectrum is the idea that death is simply a path to the afterlife and, while saddening, is ultimately part of the balance of the universe and the plan of some arbitrary deity. On the Morbid end comes the idea that death is dark and depressing and should only be discussed in whispers behind closed doors.
Where your world falls on this spectrum is important, because the attitude surrounding your partner character will move forward following the death. A positive atmosphere will guide them faster toward the acceptance stage, whereas a more nihilistic outlook will make them dwell longer in the depression/anger phases.
- How does the character’s death affect the world as a whole? Your character may or may not make a significant impact on the world, but their partner is likely to see remnants of them in the things that were left behind. While this particular detail isn’t the most important, it may be helpful to consider what impressions were left behind and how they affect your living characters.
Another thing to consider here is that your character has magical powers, so their death may have a greater meaning depending on how magic is handled in your universe. Is there an environmental impact as a result of their death? Will the loss of this wizard create a power imbalance? If so, how will that manifest?
- What is the reason behind this character’s death? In fiction, death is rarely a thing that just happens. To the primary protagonist of your story (their partner, I’m assuming), this death carries a weight that will follow them through the remainder of their story arc. Even if the character themselves doesn’t recognize it, you as the writer (and we as the readers!) should be aware of what this death means for the rest of your story.
Because I’m me, I’m going to take a few examples from Harry Potter. There are a lot of significant deaths that happen throughout the series, and each of them means something different for Harry and his journey. The first real death is Cedric Diggory (collateral damage), which sets our expectations for Voldemort’s brutality with the murder of an innocent child. Dumbledore’s death (death of a mentor) symbolizes a loss in hope and peace and is a chilling reminder of what’s to come. Fred Weasley (loss of close friends/family) represents the real and personal casualties of war and reminds us that some deaths are unfair, unnecessary, and really difficult to move on from.
Even if your character’s death seems meaningless to the overall narrative, it will have an impact and mean something important to the people they were close to, and you’ll want to be prepared for whatever that understanding means for your partner character.
- Was the death sudden and/or unexpected? While the death of a loved one is never a positive thing, the partner’s emotional reaction may vary depending on the circumstances surrounding it (i.e. whether they had time to prepare). While a death following a long sickness or period of suffering may bring some comfort with the knowledge that things are better, a sudden death can be jarring and will likely trigger a much stronger negative reaction.
On Your Character(s)
- How long are their respective lifespans? When you’re writing about characters that have powers/special abilities or are in any way non-human, it’s important to consider what their expected lifespan is and how this will affect the partner character. Did they approach the relationship with the knowledge that one of them would die relatively early in their time together, or does this come as an unexpected turn in what should have been a long life?
- How long were the characters together before their death? This question isn’t quite as important because time doesn’t automatically signify a stronger connection, but you should consider if enough time has passed that the characters are integral to one another’s daily routines. Where are the places and times that the partner notices the character’s absence?
- What is their relationship and understanding of death? Everyone has a different approach to death based on their respective experiences and exposure to it. “Desensitization” doesn’t quite convey the proper tone here, but it’s true that a person working in end-of-life care will have a much calmer approach to the idea of death than, say, a barista or social worker.
Your partner character is a death wizard, so I assume that he’ll be familiar with the idea of death and what it means. That being said, it’s very possible that he’s not well-acquainted with it on a personal level— perhaps this is the first time he’s lost someone that’s truly close to him, which will be a far more emotional experience than the sort of death he’s surrounded with on a more regular basis. These will be important considerations when trying to pin down his exact emotional reaction.
- How do they proceed through the stages of grief? This step is quite possibly the most variable depending on your character’s personality, but it’s also the most important when it comes to determining which emotions are present and how they’re conveyed.
The five stages of grief take your character through five different primary emotions, but it’s not always a cut-and-paste ordeal. The stages may overlap, or the characters may repeat stages or spend the majority of their time in one before rushing through the rest. This, and the way these stages are represented through their thoughts and behavior are entirely dependent on your individual character and how they react to different triggers. Personally, I suggest spending the most time outlining this stage and how it will play into the rest of the story, as it’s likely to make the strongest impact on how your character acts through the rest of the story (e.g. how they approach their daily life and interact with other characters).
I hope this helps! If any of our followers have suggestions on the dos and don’ts of character death, please feel free to pitch in— we love your input!