The death of a popular character has caused more than one angry fan to send email to the author and unfavorable reviews to chat groups and review sites. So, when you absolutely must cause a character’s demise, how do you do that without enraging your readers?
When and how you choose to kill off a character can make or break a story. It’s quite difficult for authors. The characters are very real. Permanently dispatching them is a bit like purposefully ridding oneself of an ally.
Characters should be killed off when the purpose of their demise will be the most impactful. Death may occur near the story’s end such as in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, once we really feel for the victim. Or, like in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where deaths frequently happen with no warning, establishing the theme that the characters are never safe.
Okay, let’s talk about character death. Warning: I’m going to mention specific character deaths in real books. But it’s only a moderate warning because, with popular books over a decade old, I doubt the character deaths will come as a surprise. Still, here comes a spoiler for a popular series!
Here it comes! Ready?
I was pretty thoroughly enraged by Prim’s death in The Hunger Games trilogy. I considered that gratuitous — no. Worse than gratuitous: an utterly transparent manipulation inserted as a deliberate and unnecessary tear-jerker. One other aspect of the ending struck me as even worse, a complete missed opportunity, but this post isn’t about missteps in the ending, but about character death, so let’s stick with that.
I can’t offhand think of any other character death that made me madder than Prim’s but I can think of an author whose transparent manipulation of reader emotions via character deaths turned me off: Stephen King. For a while there, every single time I picked up one of his books — this was some time ago, so I mean books published maybe fifteen years ago — early in the story, a female character would step onstage and I could instantly peg her as the tear-jerker death that would happen at the end. Every time. Didn’t matter how contorted the plot needed to be in order to kill that girl / young woman. She would die no matter what. That happened in Cell, in Duma Key, I don’t remember which others, but it was one after another of the books published around that time. I quit reading anything by King at that point and have never since picked up any other book of his.
That’s what I mean by “transparent.” It’s fine to set up pathos, but the reader shouldn’t see you set it up, certainly not the first moment that character steps on stage. For crying out loud, that’s a huge failure of craft!
A character’s death ought to be inevitable or at least strongly justifiable given the plot. The plot shouldn’t need to undergo contortions to kill the character, because the death should arise naturally from the plot. And the death should be thematically right for the story. Elizabeth Bear didn’t infuriate me with the character death at the end of the Eternal Sky trilogy. That was tragic, but fine. It wasn’t gratuitous, it wasn’t shallow, it wasn’t manipulative, the tragedy arose naturally from the story.
Let’s see what the linked post suggests for this topic:
1. Make the Death Meaningful
2. Foreshadow the Character’s Death
3. Avoid resurrections.
4. End on a Positive Note
#1, make the death meaningful, sure, that’s definitely a good idea, unless you’re creating the sort of grim, nihilistic story where life is cheap and lots of people die and nothing means anything. I guess some readers like that, but ick.
I’m blinking at #2, since I just said I absolutely can’t stand it when I see the author set up the death of the character. But of course successful foreshadowing isn’t the same as a failure of subtlety when setting up the end of the story. The death in Bear’s trilogy was foreshadowed in the right way: by making the reader feel in retrospect that the death was inevitable and necessary, not by adding big neon This Person Will Die arrows pointing at the character in the earliest scenes.
Okay, #3, avoid resurrections, well, I sort of didn’t follow this rule at all in [gestures vaguely] that one book. I’m sure that by the time [this or that character] died, the reader was pretty sure I wasn’t going to leave everyone dead. This is something I’m only going to be able to pull off once. No doubt some readers don’t think I did pull it off, though hopefully most readers followed along and accepted the way all that stuff happened and the way it all worked out. But my point is, if anybody ever dies in a future book, that’ll be a final death, no resurrections.
I agree you probably want to be cautious with resurrections. I was fine with bringing Spock back to life because I wasn’t okay with his death in Wrath of Khan. But in general, the comic-book style death-and-resurrection is just silly. You definitely don’t want your readers to think your story is silly unless you’re actually aiming for that kind of silly tone in the first place.
And #4, end on a positive note, strikes me as a reprise of #1, make the death meaningful. The way you make the death meaningful is to bring positive value to the world by means of that death. That is what makes the death meaningful AND it means that you’re ending on a positive note, that something important has been saved or something important has improved. Not sure you can do one without the other.
Okay! This is all reminding me of a conversation I had with Sharon Shinn, about how letting every important character survive is often not at all realistic, yet we sometimes can’t bear to kill anyone. She said she faced that dilemma with her Twelve Houses series. Oooookay, I’m rolling my eyes pretty hard at Ace. This is a five-book series, but Ace has Amazon showing it as two unlinked two-book series plus an unlinked standalone, and I’m like, Really? Really? For your convenience: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4, Book 5. It’s a good series; my personal favorite is the fifth book, which stands alone perfectly, by the way. The first four comprise a single overall story, then the fifth book takes place after that main story has been concluded.
But back to the topic of character death. I’m thinking about it again, and in Sharon’s case, I’m not sure that’s really a dilemma. Her books are so often romances, and these are. Once you set up a series where every book is a romance, it’s tough to kill anybody in the main set of characters. Granted, you can set up secondary characters and kill them, but protagonists, not really. Therefore, if you’re following romance beats, no matter how implausible it might be to have all the pov characters survive to the final denouement, probably that’s what’s going to happen.
In non-romance, it’s harder. Now that I’m finally working on SILVER CIRCLE, naturally the Black Dog world is back in my mind. Obviously a whole lot of people died in the backstory of Black Dog, and then various named characters died during the course of the story. No pov protagonists, but I hope characters that people liked and were sorry to see die. Ever since, few if any named characters have actually died, though a few, yes. Also, plenty of characters have had a tough time now and then. But … is it plausible that all the pov characters will live to the end of Silver Circle? Really, that is not very plausible. This is a dangerous world. The backstory establishes that death is likely. And here we are, going into the endgame against powerful enemies.
So let’s have a poll! This is the first time I’ve ever tried to embed a poll, so we’ll see if it works.
This is, I should emphasize, strictly for fun. In this series, there are characters I know for certain aren’t going to die and other characters who might in theory die if the story goes that way. I do know which of these characters are in which category. I’m not going to tell you, obviously, but I think it’s likely you can guess for some of them.
I bet some of you are now thinking that even if a certain character’s death is (a) meaningful, and (b) foreshadowed, and (c) not a cheat with a resurrection, and (4) the story ends on a positive note, you would NEVER FORGIVE ME. I wonder if everyone agrees about which character(s) should most definitely survive? Emphasizing again that I do already know who is in which category! Some characters are FOR SURE not in danger of death, though they may, of course, have a difficult time.
But one point here is that NOTHING ON EARTH could make you accept the death of certain characters. Isn’t that right? I’m sure that’s true. It wouldn’t matter if I had foreshadowed that during all four of the previous novels, made the death meaningful, and brought good things to the world by means of that death.
This is absolutely for sure true for many characters in many novels. If Cajiri died in the Foreigner series, that would be totally unacceptable. If Dr. Mensa or Ratthi died in the Murderbot series, no. Ludvic in The Hands of the Emperor, no. Huge numbers of characters occupy that kind of role where they can’t possibly die.
It’s a bit amusing for me to think about this, because how many of you would have been fine with it if Ryo had died at the end of TASMAKAT? What do you suppose the star rating would be in an alternate world where I had done that? Even if I’d set it up perfectly, wow, I bet I would have gotten tons of mail and also the star rating would be two point something. It’s funny to me to think of what reader reactions would have been if that had happened because there was never the remotest chance.