We who write live inside our imaginations. The story unfolds before us when we are laying down the first draft, and the characters reveal themselves as we write. The side characters make themselves known to us, and gradually, we come to understand who they are and why they are willing to endure the hardships and support our protagonists in their efforts.
Sometimes, the story demands a death, and 99% of the time, it can’t be the protagonist. But death must mean something, wring emotion from us as we write it. Since the character we have invested most of our time into is the protagonist, we must allow a beloved side character to die.
Killing a side character should not be a means of livening up a stale plot. It must be an organic part of the storyline, move the other characters, force them to continue despite the struggle.
But who is Character B as a person? When the first draft is done, side characters can seem two-dimensional. The second draft is where we inject emotion into the narrative. We must make Character B’s sacrifice feel like the tragedy it is.
We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.
First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.
That emotional attachment is why every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning. It must advance the plot, or your reader will hate you.
As I write my first draft, I uncover hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. I begin to see a person with values and discover their boundaries. I begin to know what they will (or will not) do.
At the outset, my characters have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will take with them to the grave. As I write, these secrets unfold before me, and I feel such love for them, for all their flaws and insecurities.
Before I became a writer, I was a reader. I am still a reader and go through one or two books a week. I seek out stories in all genres featuring characters I can empathize with. I want to meet characters who behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.
If Character B must die, I want to feel as if I have lost a dear friend. Character B’s motivations must be clearly defined.
- You must know how Character B thinks and reacts as an individual.
- What need drives them?
- What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
- Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?
Next, ask what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others?
We have designed the plot, so we know the magnitude of the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations can change the story. Character B’s decisions are as crucial to the plot as are those of the protagonist.
In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.
When we allow the protagonist/antagonist agency, they will make choices that surprise us. When we are writing the first draft, our characters will make decisions that might take the narrative in a new direction. I love it when that happens.
Character B dies. Why? What purpose does that death serve?
The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):
Mortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. 
Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”
It becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate when they have unique personalities.
When I first began writing, allowing my characters to grow their own way was difficult. I had this notion that the original plot was engraved in stone. Eventually, I learned to relax and let them do as they would.
And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.
You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Or are they a “Spock,” the beloved friend who offers themselves up to save others?
Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.
When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock for the Enterprise crew, you see their decision is not out of character.
The death of a character must raise the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader. A complex, memorable novel rewards the reader for their investment of time by making the story feel personal.
Credits and Attributions:
 Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).
Images: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.