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!
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