Happy subject for the holiday season!! But really, I think this is an important thing to touch on for writers, especially inexperienced ones. I think everyone has trouble with death scenes--at least when it comes to killing off good-guys, but I'll also be getting into villain deaths as well.
First off, the different levels of character death:
One: Death before the book actually begins or in the prologue. This is a popular plot choice to give your hero some angst or make him an orphan or such things. If your hero has no parents and might have to fend for himself at an early age, this might change him into the kind of person you need him to be later on. I use this myself in Ballad of the Highwayman where Kilroy's father is executed, thus giving me my whole plot line, as he tries to find the man responsible for betrayed him. Louis L'Amour also uses this plot in several of his books like The Lonesome Gods and To Tame a Land. Or Marcus' father in Eagle of the Ninth.
Two: The extras. These are the lackeys and unnamed soldiers your hero or villain cuts down in his course of action. These are what movie makers call "extras". The gap fillers. No one really cares about them enough to cry when they die, but they serve their purpose as well. Especially when it comes to the villain. It's important to show the reader what the villain is capable of before he gets his hands on the hero so the reader will have terrible anticipations about what might happen when he gets into the villains clutches. These people are the front line, the message boy who brings bad news to the baddie and such like that.
Three: Sidekick/mentor deaths. These are a little harder to write as these are usually main characters who might be in it just as much as the hero, but are still dispensable if need be. It's not popular to kill off a sidekick, but it can be done if you wish. Sometimes in a book you need to get rid of one of the good characters to drive the hero. Best friends will work or even killing off their love interest (which is a very cruel and overused plot anyway) Usually the mentor/father figure is the one to go. I've always been a fan of the mentor/father figure characters in books, though I'll admit that I have not yet killed one of my own off.
Four: Actual hero deaths. You can always choose to kill your hero off. Even if he's just mostly dead or something. This is usually called a tragedy (unless he's mostly dead like in The Princess Bride), for those of you who have not studied literature. Though if you're writing a historical fiction, you cannot always help the fact that the person you chose to write about is going to die. That's just what you get for writing about people like William Wallace or Joan of Arc!
If you know your character is going to die--because, face it, some characters just have to die, it's the way it is--than you will probably be dreading that part of the story until you get to it. There are several points to touch on when thinking of a death scene, here they are:
One--How much gore is there going to be? This is a question I'm sure anyone writing a death or even a fight scene will ask themselves. Truthfully, this depends on the writer, and the audience you will be writing for. If you're writing for young readers, then you should probably tone down the blood as much as possible, but in young adult to adult, hey, make it as gory as you like. Especially if you write Medieval because Medieval is one of the most gory time periods to write about. If your characters are using rapiers of light swords and such, it's probably not going to entail as much blood as broadswords. (See my previous post "Hack and Slash or Dash" for details)
Two--Emotions. I think death scenes need emotions; I don't like reading books where someone dies...hey, who cares? The character you're killing off has to have some kind of importance, or his/her death will seem pointless. Your aim is to make your reader feel the same as your other characters do about your character's death. Which means you have to make your characters feel these emotions well enough to convey that to the reader. Even if they're guys who loose a comrade on the battlefield, don't hesitate to let them shed a few tears. Your hero needs to be brought low sometimes too and if he doesn't cry when he looses his friend/brother etc. no one will care for him because he obviously doesn't feel anything. This is the power of angst.
Three--Historical deaths scenes. If you write historical fiction, then, using characters who die is your call. Unless you are writing an alternate history, you're probably going to end up having to kill someone off eventually. Especially if you write Scottish or Irish historical fiction. All their heros ended up dead practically, and most of them met really bad ends. You can choose though to tone things down a bit, if someone meets a particularly bad end like Wallace. Nigel Tranter did well with his death scene. It was visceral (for want of a better adjective o_0) but it was also poignant and compassionate to where it was more heartfelt than unfeeling. I've read so many Wallace novels, but his is still my favorite. I didn't care for Henty's version of Wallace's death because he seemed to mention it more as an aside and then--Hello Bruce!!! (Despite that his book In Freedom's Cause was very good) Jeff Shaara, another amazing historical writer, also did a very good job with both Raoul Lufbery's and Manfred von Richthofen's death scenes in his book To the Last Man. Lufbery met an especially nasty end, but Shaara toned it down in the book. I run into this problem a lot as most of the people I want to write about met some unfortunate end. When you write a novel with three major death scenes, all before you get to a lovely execution scene in the end, it's really something to take a toll on you! But it won't stop me from writing historical novels either.
Four--Villain deaths. On to something most people enjoy; killing off the villain! All readers root for the hero to finally get his man. You need to ask yourselves the same thing about villain deaths as hero deaths. How much gore? Unfortunately, if your hero is a gentleman, then he's going to need to be all chivalric and off him as quickly and un-messily as possible. Though (once again see "Hack and Slash or Dash") there are those heros who don't follow rules and don't care what other people think, and, frankly, sometimes you just have to have the "bad boys" around to give you satisfaction when there are really nasty villains. No one wants to see a terribly nasty scoundrel get off easy with a bullet between the eyes. Come on people, we all know we like to see justice done. That's why you should usually pair the nasty villains with the grey heroes. Grey heroes are going to get the job done the "right" way--if not the-ahem- chivalric way.
So how do you know when you've written a good death scene? Well, if you find yourself vegging out on the couch watching cooking shows when you're done because it thrashed you emotionally...then...yep, I think you nailed it.
(By the way, Mr. Pepys is still and always accepting letters to his advice column. Just email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Pepys' Advice Column as the subject. Don't know what to get someone for a Christmas gift? Have problems with the in-laws? Ask Mr. Pepys, he's always there to help!)