Character Death in YA Fiction
I was asked recently if it was all right to have a character die in a teen novel. The question brought out memories of well-written novels over the past several decades where that happened. My response was short but very much on point…
Yes, you may kill off a character in a teen novel.
The reality of that situation, however, is far from easy. This isn’t a situation where you can suddenly decide a character that isn’t working out is about to die and do it in a manner designed to shock the reader. Nor is it a situation where you open the novel with a death, simply to grab the reader’s attention. Killing off a character must be carefully plotted and only used if there is no other recourse for your story.
The best example for killing off a character for me began with Softly Say Goodbye. Erin is a strong person in her own right but she’s deeply attached to boyfriend, Bill. Attached to the point where she depended on him so much that she wouldn’t move forward without his advice. Theirs was a strong relationship, what some may call a lifetime relationship, and Erin was fully committed to the guy she loved.
Therein lay my problem. I could foresee her weakening as a character and being unable to bring about a satisfying ending to the book if she was still with Bill. Breaking up wouldn’t work, as they were very much the same when it came to thoughts and ideals. The storyline already had them separating as she went to college and he enlisted in the Marines after graduation. That might have provided Erin an outlet to take a stand alone, but she would still have Bill in the background, giving her the necessary strength.
Killing Bill and his best bud, Jake, seemed to be the only way to motivate Erin and her closest friend, Shari. Yet, I stalled, looked for other options. That pivotal point was written and rewritten dozens of times, in an effort not to kill a beloved character.
None of those options worked. Erin continued to become weaker as a main character if Bill was there for her to lean on.
There was only one method left to prove Erin was a strong individual, capable of standing on her own and willing to take on the Kewl Krew. After fighting this over and over again, I proceeded to write what I now call the “Bill and Jake are dead” scene.
Don’t get me wrong. The decision to come to this point wasn’t easy. I thought it was the hardest decision I would make regarding this book. I was wrong.
The hardest decision I had to make was how to write the scene. Dare I do this in the moment, where the reader was caught up in an act so horrific that it would be embedded in their memory forever? Should I make the scene happen out of sight, where Erin and the reader learn about it after it has happened?
Again, I toyed with different scenes. Erin witnesses the accident that takes her guy. She’s in the vehicle with him. She and Shari are part of the problem and their boyfriends could possibly be intoxicated. Nothing seemed to work.
The final “Bill and Jake are dead” scene was a “Hail Mary pass” situation. I’d discarded this idea early on, thinking that I’d cheat the reader of the lovely, descriptive scene of Erin witnessing the loss of the guy she loved. Yet, once I started writing it, I realized this was a scene that would become a hallmark for the book.
Once the decision was made on how the scene would be written, I developed background, created the moment when Erin would discover how she’d lost the guy she loved so much. This particular scene, in all its goriness, never made it into the book. It took quite a while to craft but it was for background only, for a dialogue bit where she learned how her guy dies.
I was now at the point where I could craft a death scene in a teen novel that would be memorable but not one that would be unnecessary. Again, I took my time, going back over early chapters and inserting bits of information that would make this seem to be the only solution. After writing the scene, and crying copious tears, I put that away and worked on other stories for a week or two, in order to return and see if what I’d written was as powerful as I thought it was.
It was and I was able to continue this book to a satisfying ending where my girl remained strong but was also still grieving a guy she loved so deeply.
So, yes, you can craft a death scene of a beloved character in a teen book. There is only one thing you need to be aware of while doing this…
Is this scene necessary?
About the K.C. Sprayberry
Born and raised in Southern California’s Los Angeles basin, K.C. Sprayberry spent years traveling the United States and Europe while in the Air Force before settling in northwest Georgia. A new empty nester with her husband of more than twenty years, she spends her days figuring out new ways to torment her characters and coming up with innovative tales from the South and beyond.
She’s a multi-genre author who comes up with ideas from the strangest sources. Those who know her best will tell you that nothing is safe or sacred when she is observing real life. In fact, she considers any situation she witnesses as fair game when plotting a new story.
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