How to Ethically Kill Marginalized Characters
You are about to commit one of modern fiction’s most cardinal sins. You are writing the final battle scene in your epic fantasy series and plan to kill off a large portion of your main cast. You just finish the part where your super friendly trans masculine gnome is skewered by an enemy broadsword. You question if you’ll be “canceled” for killing off your only queer character.
Maybe. But not definitely. Let me explain:
The outrage centered around the killing of marginalized characters stems from two main places:
Marginalized characters tend to get axed more than non-marginalized characters on average.
The death, more often than not, is meant to serve the non-marginalized character’s personal arc.
When killing any character, privileged identity or not, consider the narrative purpose behind the death:
Why does this particular character have to die?
What are the aftereffects of their death?
Did this character have an arc of their own before they died?
Is their death merely an excuse to make the white cishet characters melodramatically ponder how precious life is?
Let’s take the trans masculine gnome example from the beginning and outline it in two possible scenarios:
Scenario 1, the trans masculine gnome has a personal life goal and works towards it just like every other character. He has flaws and pitfalls but demonstrates progress in moving past them. He learns and grows with his fellow party members and understands that he may die in the battle with the Evil Overlord. A sacrifice he is willing to make because he killed the Evil Overlord’s nephew earlier in the story. In the end, he perishes with half of his comrades. They were made up of both LGBTQ+/POC and white cishet characters and all of their deaths mattered to the story.
Scenario 2, our gnome is the only marginalized character in the party. He does not have an internal struggle, flaws, or anything to make him more than two-dimensional. He jumps in front of the broadsword to save the white cishet hero’s life. When he dies, he is given a lovely funeral and fondly remembered amongst his party. The only purpose his death serves is to give the white cishet characters something to react to.
In Scenario 1, the marginalized character has much more agency over his life story. He has goals, dreams, flaws, and actions that are independent of his white cishet counterparts. His purpose in the story is to grow and deal with the consequences of his actions like any other character. His death is a direct result of something that he did and, because of that, it makes narrative sense for him to die.
Scenario 2 is, unfortunately, a very common fictional representation. Marginalized characters are often underdeveloped side characters without their own arcs. Their deaths are almost always meant to be sacrificial to save the white cishet characters or to “teach” them the gravity of their situation. Their deaths are often used as cheap ploys to bolster the privileged characters’ arcs or give them narrative brownie points for caring before their friend is never mentioned again.
The deaths of marginalized characters are often trivialized and fetishized. This is why so many readers are sensitive to this kind of material. In everyday life, we have a greater chance of dying than our white cishet peers. It is upsetting when we inadvertently expose ourselves to the revelation that the character we identify with has been gunned down to serve someone else’s development.
It is possible to kill marginalized characters without upsetting and triggering LGBTQ+, POC, and disabled readers. Here are some suggestions:
Be sure the marginalized character’s death is absolutely essential to the plot as well as their personal arc.
At least one other character from that same identity group must survive.
Have more white cishet characters die on average if death is necessary for your story. (I would argue that a contemporary novel with a low-stakes plot does not need a death at all, particularly a marginalized one.)
The death should be a direct result of their own actions, if applicable. This could help you with establishing flaws, foreshadowing, and backstories.
Have them be survived by a child or protege of the same marginalized group, showing that the cycle of life will continue.
Although killing off a marginalized character sn’t entirely taboo, tread with caution. Give some serious thought to why this character needs to die and what message it sends to your readers.
Nathaniel Glanzman is a literary agent currently employed at Dudley Publishing House. He has sensitivity read for both private clients and “Big Five” publishers since 2018. When unsure of what to do in a social situation, he asks the other person what their favorite part about space is. You can request Nathaniel as a reader for your project on the Writing Diversely Directory.