We’ve all read heartbreaking character deaths. And I’ve seen a billion posts on why writers should kill their characters, and ways to do it well.
There are tons of reasons to do it.
Firstly, memento mori: remember you will die. (A Series of Unfortunate Events taught me all the Latin I know.) Everyone dies. So it’s realistic for characters to drop off in fiction. If no one ever died, not only would the world be overpopulated, but it would be illogical (I’m not Vulcan, I promise).
Then there’s “enforcing a theme”. That’s always good. If it’s going to emphasise a point, it’s going to be useful.
The three act plot structure–the one with the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s always great to break the reader’s heart, right in that dull bit, after the middle. It’s a fool-proof way to make the audience keep reading. But the real reason for the Dark Night of the Soul is that the character has to get out of it, and push for the climax. Because few things give the character strength quite like weakness.
But! There are reasons why the character shouldn’t die, and the list applies to side-kicks, best friends, love interests, and enemies, and random civilians.
1. If they die simply to make the battle more realistic… Readers hate being cheated of a good character, just because someone needed to go. There’s a particular character in Insurgent who was warming up to be epic… before he got shot. What’s with that? So much potential… dead.
2. If they die to fill in a blank spot… Deaths are a good way to get rid of writer’s block, it’s sadly true, but… Per say, Isle of Swords by Wayne Thomas Batson. There were plenty of random little spurts of violence, or characters dying gross deaths to keep the stakes up. (I hate to say it, but I disliked that book to the point that where I didn’t care about the dead guy.)
3. If the character’s death is cliche… So, there are just some deaths that should be avoided unless they can be done really, really well. This is because other people have already done them really, really well. Example? Classic war story: bloke deserts, is caught, gets shot. This was done beautifully in Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. (And I’m guilty of this example, which is why it comes to mind.)
4. When the book is too dull, so violence breaks the monotony… I know death doesn’t seems to have point in real life, but in a book, there needs to be a master plan. So when there’s a violent and gross twist in the climax, completely unforshadowed, I get kind of turned off, grossed out, and it can be, unless it’s done well kind of untasteful.
5. When it fosters a sense of vengeance, which then goes undealt with. I’m afraid Ranger’s Apprentice‘s Will did this a little too often. I hate you. I shoot you. Die, badie, die.
6. When MC does the killing, and doesn’t think about it again for the rest of the book. Aka, most epic fantasies. First off, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, you just stabbed a Calormen. Not. Okay. Ew. Nasty. Violent. (I know, he had a lot on his mind throughout the rest of The Last Battle, but still. All the Telmarines in Prince Caspian, too. I don’t recall anyone feeling repercussions about the masses killed in battle.)
7. When the MC has known this person for their whole life, yet doesn’t show enough concern. Betsy and the Emperor by Staton Rabin. Please, Betsy. He died. Show some more grief.
I did want to make this an even ten so badly, but my mind went blank. Anyway. I’m by no means saying “Don’t kill characters!” (I’d be every fangirl’s friend if I did, though.) I’m saying, there needs to be a point. Make their death count, or the reader doesn’t give you the reaction you deserve. (I’m also plotting a second post on 7 ways to make your death epic.) The death can look illogical, but I love it when there’s psychology to it when you really start thinking about it.
Mime is interested to find out Betsy and the Emperor is under development for a film. Who knew, right? She also keeps spelling it “Besty” instead of “Betsy.” She realizes this changes the genre from historical fiction to chick-lit. She is practising like crazy for the eisteddfods and welcoming the return of summer clothes to her wardrobe.