I was reading the other day a fascinating post, Killing the Mary-Sue, by Chiyome. As I am currently debating killing a character or two in my WIP, the fourth book of my epic fantasy series Pearseus, her musings made me wonder about the role death plays in our works.
Both Schism and Rise of the Prince (the two first Pearseus books) had their fair number of untimely death, culminating in a couple of (hopefully) unexpected ones. However, everyone said those deaths made perfect sense, and accepted them.
Mad Water, the third book, also seems to have a successful ending, even if the death toll is lower – leading a reviewer to comment that it was closer to a TV series, where characters manage to cheat death more often than not.
So, why am I agonizing about death in the fourth book of the series? Probably because death, even in fiction, is such a final thing. So, it needs to make sense in order to be accepted by readers. The very first question, then, is this: Is Death Necessary?
My short answer: Yes. It can be. Characters must evolve. They have to grow up, mature, and become better, more complex people. What better way to do this than the death of a friend?
As Chiyome points out, the death of a character forces the hero to:
The death of a character is a wake-up call for the other hero(es). When a character is moving in one direction, the experience may jar them into re-evaluating their whole life. An entirely new direction may then be possible. For good guys, this may be to turn bad (e.g. by doing something illegal in order to avenge the love of a loved one). For bad guys, they may turn good. In any case, a death can be a pivotal point, allowing characters to evolve along a new line.
Confront a Fear
Death can help people confront their fears because it reminds them of their own mortality. After a death, people may realize how short their life is, and that they have to stop worrying and living in fear. Carpe diem may become more than a nice phrase — it can lead them to overcome fear of failure, fear of confrontation, fear of experimentation, fears that keep you too safe and keep you from fully living your life the way it was meant to be lived. This even works for immortal characters, who may have to get over the fear of losing someone and accept that death is inevitable for normal, mortal people.
Confront Inner Darkness
The death of a character can cause the other heroes to take a look at their own psyches. The trauma of experiencing a death can shake loose severe emotions, so they come boiling to the surface. For some people, those emotions are dark and violent and have been buried for a while. The hero may feel such anger that they want to act out destructively, or such despair that they want to kill themselves to escape the pain. The pain gets worse before it gets better, but after they’ve confronted that darkness and conquered it, they can begin to heal and become stronger.
Often when a character dies the other surviving characters begin to have second thoughts about what they’re doing, because their confidence is so shaken by what has happened. They doubt their strengths and worthiness, and question their role and their motives for what they’re doing. They might find that they haven’t been honest with themselves, or realize that their motives aren’t as benevolent as they had originally thought. They might lose all confidence in themselves, later reaching an epiphany which causes them to regain that strength and become the hero they once were.
Confront The Villain
In fiction, some heroes hedge against the thought of finally taking on the main villain either. This can be because they’re convinced that there’s a way to defeat them without direct violence, or perhaps they’re not convinced that the villain is really that dangerous. Or maybe they’re waiting for the opportune time to strike. By waiting too long, however, the villain strikes and kills one of their own. This finally lights a fire under their butts and they fight back, taking down the villain. This is a Pyrrhic victory, however, as even when the villain is defeated the heroes grieve that they had waited too long to fight.
Sometimes a hero becomes too much of something: too strong, too powerful, too arrogant, too distant, too oblivious, too confident. When someone they care about dies—especially if this character has sacrificed themselves for the hero, died in a way that could have been prevented by the hero or was accidentally killed by the hero—the hero snaps out of it. Wracked with guilt, they begin to see their faults and realize that they aren’t gods. They, too, make mistakes, and sometimes people—people they love—are paying for it. There is no way to make up for the mistakes now, so the hero learns humility.
In many cases the death of one character causes the surviving characters to unite, strengthening their bond in order to defeat the bad guy. Prior to the death, they may have have squabbled amongst themselves and refused to cooperate, but after the death of a character that they are all friends with, they realize that they must join together to take down the villain.
Show, not Tell
The death of a character shows us exactly how evil a villain can be, what lengths they’re willing to go to. It’s one thing to say that a character is evil; it’s quite another to have him murder one of the heroes in cold blood. Death allows the author to show readers exactly how heartless and vile the villain is.
Which leads to the final point: not only does the death of a character serve as a catalyst for the growth of other characters or to illustrate the wickedness of a villain, it also forces readers to feel emotion. Fear, shock, rage, disbelief—if the author has developed the character well, readers will have a visceral reaction (even if they knew it was coming) to what happened, and that’ll make them turn the page.
So, I think you’ll agree that death can be quite the effective device to propel your plot forward, or shoot the story/character arc into a completely new direction.
Or, just screw with the reader’s head!
Reminder: For a few more days, The Power of Six will be on sale. Read seven short sci-fi stories for only 99c!
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Sweet, thank you so much for sharing it!
Hope you’re having a lovely holiday season 🙂
Great post. I just killed a character last night. I had to stop writing to mourn him.
Oh no! I know the feeling… One of the main characters in Pearseus died on me, despite the fact I had already planned out his upcoming adventures. Yet, I found myself typing the details of his death. I was as shocked as the next man, took me weeks to figure out how to climb out of the hole he’d dug me into…
Characters certainly do need to evolve and it’s a natural part of life! It’s not easy when the time comes to write a character out but sometimes its a necessary ploy. 😀
I’m currently struggling with just that, as I’m trying to decide whether to off one of the characters in book 4. So far, the option is still open. 😀
I loved this post. Sometimes our characters die, even if it’s not what we as the authors want. But, alas, our characters always seem to know best. 🙂
It’s so annoying, but yes, they do. I had one die before my very eyes. I had his entire life plotted out, but no, the stupid man had to go and die on me… Took me weeks to fix the story! 😀
Thanks and welcome! I love your photo – very stylish look 🙂
Oh no! He had other plans, I see. 🙂 This time around I’m giving my character options. I think I know what will happen to her, but I’ve planned other scenarios too. She can pick with the time comes.
And thank you! 😀
Another excellent share of thought here Nicholas. Surely if death is a part of life, even in fiction people must die to be believable if the story calls for this type of action. Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. 🙂
Well said! 🙂
A fantastic post with some great tips. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
Now that is a fantastic post Nicolas!
Thank you so much, and welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
This is really going to help me with my WIP. Thank you so much! @v@ <3
Really?? That’s the best comment ever, thanks! 🙂
Very interesting post.
Kinda bloody, but I’m glad you thought so 😀
Important characters always die in epics. Look at the Iliad! Hector, Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Priam … And The Song of Roland – everybody dies in that poem! I don’t think you can write epic fantasy, whether it’s an original plot or an adaptation, without killing off characters.
You know, I had never thought of it this way. You’re absolutely right! Thanks for that!
Several characters in my first novel carried baggage from ineffective individual coping with death. The psychology of bereavement is fascinating. A good resource is “Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy,” by J. William Worden. I think it’s in its 4th edition, now, but any prior edition will serve well.
That’s a brilliant idea – to study the psychology behind it. Thanks for that, and for the tip! Here is the link for anyone interested (you’d probably want to buy used, as it’s a little pricey…)
The publisher has the Introduction & Chapter 1 online, in downloadable PDF format:
Mine is a 2nd edition that I bought new, many years ago, so I borrowed the 4th edition through a public library and annotated my copy, but there weren’t many additions, and nothing that would make an older version obsolete. I hope other writers will find it as useful as I have.
Thanks for that! I’d noticed that older editions are much cheaper and was wondering if the new ones were worth the extra cash.
Death for all the reasons above but most of all, it must fit, make sense and sound natural. Fabulous post. 🙂
Thank you, you’re such a dear! 🙂
I’m glad to finally read someone else saying ‘Death is such a final thing’. (Not counting comic books where death is more of a revolving door.) I’ve been screaming this since I first published my book because my first book came out a little before a new season of Game of Thrones started up. So I ended up getting compared to it and routinely got messages telling me that I needed more death in my book to make it readable and interesting. People didn’t want the adventure. They wanted a surprising body count, which was bizarre to me.
I really don’t think character death is something to be taken lightly or used until the reader is numb to it. There should be impact and a major point to it because once that character is gone, they’re gone for good. You can have them return as ghosts or in flashbacks, but their evolution has stopped for the most part. As someone who loves evolving characters and making that a focal point of a story, that’s an endgame for me.
I couldn’t agree more, although my body count is higher than many. I consider it a failing if people are unaffected by a death in my books, as it means I’d failed to make this character come to life.
Personally, I don’t blame GoT so much as TV shows.
I only point the finger because that’s the one that I keep getting compared to. My body count is low, but I try to make each one memorable. If I get messages that I killed a character then I guess I did it right.
I was telling Electra how many characters I’ve killed in the fourth book. “This is a regular bloodbath!” she laughed. I do hope they’re memorable ones, too! 🙂
That’s always the goal. 🙂
Very good points. Especially the one about showing the villain as evil.
Thank, glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
Great post! I write romance and I’ve killed off characters here and there to advance the story, to create turmoil for the other characters, to cause the hero or heroine to take an inward look. I want the death of an important character to mean something, even if that something seems to be absent at the time. Even a senseless death can have deeper meaning. There’s always a reason, even if the reader has to wait 200 pages to find out what it is. I enjoy the journey of discovering the reason for myself.
Death in romance! MMJaye would be shocked! 😀
I totally agree with you: no death should be taken lightly. It’s a great opportunity to push the story forward, and a big shame if it fails to do so.
When my Raymond died it certainly spurred me into action. I had to make nearly 100 pressed tongue sandwiches for after the funeral. You don’t mention your characters making sandwiches anywhere in this article… Did you forget.
By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your “Power of Six” the other day, and I will review it when I get the chance, but things are a bit mad here on the other side at the moment as an old friend has just passed over, so we are all making a fuss of him.
I might read “Mad Walter” next… Such a good title!
My apologies, I should have thought that this would be a delicate matter for you, dear Auntie! You’re right, the hundreds of sandwiches completely slipped my mind. Not to mention all the weeping and the cleaning up afterwards – it must be hell.
Thank you so much for reading Po6 and for your kind words! I’ll look forward to your review, once the new arrival has been shown the ropes of the afterlife. 🙂
Also, I’m terribly grateful to you for your interest in Mad Water (it’s good to know one’s passion for reading doesn’t simply vanish). May I suggest you read Rise of the Prince first? The story will make so much more sense if you do… 🙂
Great article! Indeed, loss leads to self-realization. The good thing about writing romance is that you introduce a character AFTER the tragic events in her life, already broken with a distorted self-image and outlook. Then, someone enters her life (or his life) and forces her to take the path you present that will eventually restore all distortions. All the good stuff minus the acute sense of loss. Yeah, I’m not switching genres any time soon… 🙂
Lol – you’re such a giiiirl! 😀
Seriously though, that’s a great idea – deal with the afterward of the traumatic event, revealing it through people’s reactions. Nice 🙂