You know how you start a book or chapter, and it’s with some random-face Other Character that you know doesn’t figure prominently in the plot? You know that feeling you get? That “this character’s about to DIE” feeling? Yeah. That.
I’ve read books where we meet this character, and I really don’t like spending a lot of time with them. A couple pages, three or four at most. And that’s only if part of that is the Them Dying bit.
Why do I feel like this?
As readers, we can sense their impending fate, so we don’t really want to spend a lot of time getting to know them, their habits, how often they feed their dog, or what they think of the suspicious mole on their arm.
If you’re writing/revising, and you have a character that bites the dust early on, make sure you’re not wasting your (or the reader’s) time. I mean this in a loving way. Truly. When I know a throw-away character is going to die, I want to see it. I want to move past it and get back to the characters I care about. This feeling is good, because it means that I care and am invested in the story.
There’s no hard and fast rule about it. This is just opinion. But let’s get some math in the mix:
I can tolerate maybe 3 book-pages of a person that’s going to get the ax. Average words/page in print is about 250–300.
That’s about 750 words. This is a rough approximation. My advice is to take a look at the scenes where your characters are fated for death. How much of the text is used in introducing them and their backstory? How much is dialogue (dialogue is easier and faster to read)? How much is on their death?
The struggle: getting readers to care about the doomed character.
Well… I have some very personally-biased opinions on this. If you’re going to kill a throw-away character, chances are that your readers can tell. And I don’t want to get attached to a character you’re about to toss off a cliff. I want short and sweet and on with the main plot!
Essentially, don’t try to endear your dead/dying characters to readers. It either won’t work (and that’s a time/space waster), or the readers will feel cheated.
To help you make a decision on this, take a look at your overall manuscript length. Is it too long? Too short? Do you suffer, like me, from the JUST ONE MORE SCENE disorder? Cutting away at these types of scenes will help hone your manuscript down to its focus, which, hopefully, is your Main Character.