So I spent about three hours last night on Skype having a debate with my writing sensei about major character death.
Occasionally, my sensei has enough time to drop in and give me advice about my novels–particularly brainstorming ideas on how to get the story unstuck, smoothing out character motivations and actions, or giving me a good kick in the seat of my pants to get me back on track with my word count. I honestly wish I weren’t a vagrant and could pay him for it. He’s a kick ass screenwriter and independent filmmaker so he knows a thing or two about damn good writing and how to whip a story into shape.
Still, we disagree on certain points and this was a huge hot button issue that neither of us had talked about before, hence the three hours. It got me thinking about myself, my writing, and my general philosophy about fiction. This post might be a long one so I pray that you’ll stick with me as I try to explain my position on major character death in fiction.
Disclaimer: I’m not against it.
I do, however, believe that it is overused and often simply a cheap trick to squeeze some tears out of your readers. Not always, mind you. I can name examples of fiction that did it correctly. By the way, BIG FAT STINKIN’ SPOILER ALERT FOR A BUNCH OF DIFFERENT BOOKS AND MOVIES SO PLEASE READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
Here are the examples of using major character death properly (in my opinion):
-Dumbledore from Harry Potter
-Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop
-Trinity from The Matrix Revolutions
-Susan Rodriguez from the Harry Dresden novels
-Kamina from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (*debatable, though, because I loved him so much I couldn’t continue watching the show after he died.)
-Shepherd Book from Serenity
-Sam Winchester in Supernatural’s fourth season finale (I had to specify since he’s died at least three times in the show’s run, if not more. Yeah, it’s that kind of show.)
-Captain Roy Montgomery from Castle
-V from V for Vendetta
-Jason Todd from the Batman comics (granted, they brought him back, but whatever.)
-Rue from The Hunger Games
Each of the above deaths, to me, served definite, thematic purposes. These characters meant the world to the people they were supporting and their deaths caused major shifts in the narratives. It deeply affected the protagonists in various ways–motivating them to defeat the bad guy, to seek revenge, to end a conflict, to inspire greatness, or simply because there was no way for them to continue in the world they existed in. These are deaths that make sense on paper and naturally draw emotions out of the audience because we’ve come to know and love them, and have to say goodbye whether we like it or not. These are deaths that feel organic and not forced. To me, a good major character death doesn’t have to be one that you see coming, but it should be one that you can understand and justify in your head even through your hiccuping sobs (seriously, Capt. Montgomery and Spike’s death scenes made me sob like an infant.) They should die for a reason, and one that is more layered than “it’ll make your audience bawl like three year olds” because that is cheap emotional manipulation. I’m against that. Which brings me to my next point.
Here are the examples of using major character death improperly (in my opinion):
-90% of the characters who have died on Supernatural (but if you want to get specific, Meg, Gabriel, Balthazar, Jo, Ellen, and Pamela)
-Wash from Serenity
-Robert Neville from I Am Legend
-Captain Pike from Star Trek Into Darkness (I could be persuaded otherwise, but my initial reaction to this was that it was misused.)
-Majority of the characters who died in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
-Primrose from Mockingjay
-Irene Adler from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
-Billy from The Expendables II
-November 11 from Darker Than Black
The deaths of the characters listed above may be for one or more reasons that I disagree with from a writing standpoint. That is, using the death as a cheap trick to make your readers/audience cry, not wanting to develop the character further, using the death as a lazy method to make the hero worth harder for his/her end goal, using the death as an easy way into a revenge or hunt-for-the-killer plot, or trying to shock your audience with a high body count.
To illustrate my point, I’ll use the three examples that make me the most irritated: Sherlock Holmes, Supernatural, and Serenity. Irene Adler was literally the best thing ever in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. No disrespect to RDJ and Jude Law, I adored them, but she was the most bad ass woman I could remember seeing in recent films. She was smart, quick-witted, resourceful, manipulative, and brave. There was none of that sexist crap that you see in stuff like the new Riddick film. She was beautiful and dangerous and powerful and everything that a well-written female character should be. She showed all shades of being a woman. She was balanced. She was interesting. Above all, she was important to the plot. And they just killed her off in the first ten minutes of A Game of Shadows despite being the third biggest character in the first movie. And she doesn’t even get a meaningful death scene or a tear out of her lover. The movie just sweeps her under the rug like she was nothing. That is an injustice I simply cannot stand. Her death should have meant something more to Holmes. It should have enraged him, made him hunt for Moriarty even harder and want to kick the son of bitch right off that waterfall at the end of the movie. Death needs to have an impact that resounds throughout the rest of the story, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or literature. It’s not something to be taken lightly, which brings us to example numero dos.
Supernatural is by far the worst offender when it comes to death. It’s in season nine and they have killed over half of the recurring major and minor characters that have passed through the show. Think I’m joking? Google it. I’ll wait. Believe me now? In the first few seasons, we were devastated to lose major characters that we knew and loved and who were part of Sam and Dean Winchester’s lives. However, the writers seemed to think it was a good idea to kill literally everyone and guess what happened? I stopped caring. If you do the exact same thing with every single recurring character, what is the point of investing in them? They’ll be dead by their second appearance. Death has no sting when you use it over and over and over again to the point of accidental parody. It becomes dull when your audience is just checking their wristwatch to see when a character is going to bite it because they know this is your go-to move. The biggest disappointment in relying too heavily on death to get a response out of your audience is that it wastes the potential of the characters whom they barely got to know. In particular, Supernatural does not treat its female characters very kindly. They tend to die just because it will make the Winchesters feel guilty about being unable to save them, and it frustrates me because these women (especially Meg and Pamela) could have been welcome additions to the cast. They could have balanced out all that pouting, lying, and arguing that the Winchesters do all season long. It would’ve been a breath of fresh air to see Meg join Team Free Will, but instead, she got the shaft and now it’s back to the boring status quo.
And now, the kicker. Wash. I cannot think of a more polarizing death. Firefly was murdered in its crib and they finally managed to resurrect it and what does Joss Whedon do? He bumps off not one but two of the main characters. My writing sensei posted a quote where Whedon explained why he did it–to upset the norm, make the threat real, etc–but I disagree with the Whedon method of “kill everyone you love and in the most horrifying ways possible.” I think Book’s death served those purposes more than enough. It made everything hit home for the crew. It made them see even more than ever that time waits for no one, that the ‘verse is an ugly place, that some threats can come for you in the night and take everything you love. It was harsh and ugly and absolutely tear-jerking in every sense. But Wash’s death was just a suckerpunch. It felt like Whedon came up behind me and pantsed me and then kicked me and pointed and laughed after I fell. It was unnecessary. We already felt devastated at losing Book, and Wash died for the exact same purpose, so to me, it was an extraneous manipulative gesture. It just made us want to cry for the sake of crying, not for the sake of the story. I’m not saying Wash shouldn’t have died at all–I think he shouldn’t have died in Serenity. Wash’s death would have had more of a punch if there had been a second season of Firefly and he died at the end. The crew would have had time to come to terms with Book’s death and maybe they would have fought to be more cautious and then Wash’s death would come as a blindside to show them that they weren’t ready. But that’s a conversation for another day.
The main reason why I have no desire to bump off a major character in my own work is because of my personal philosophy about stories. It’s no secret that the world is an awful place. It’s just downright sickening sometimes. Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” That is a quote that I live by, through and through. Books are an escape. They can be a safe haven for some people, myself included above all. I look to them for comfort, for inspiration, for solace, for love and brilliance and creativity. That is what books mean to me. I’m not saying it’s what anyone else believes–it’s just true for who I am as a person and as an author. That being said, I don’t want my books to turn into one of those bad examples up there. I don’t want to kill off one of my main characters just to make you cry. I want my readers to feel everything–anger, sadness, joy, comfort, hope–and I believe that there is a way to do that without killing off a major character in the final novel of the series. I feel like it’s something that many writers rely on too heavily in their story arcs. I think many writers do it because it is expected of them to “raise the stakes” by murdering one of their darlings. I have already pointed out that when it works, it really works, but when it doesn’t, you just end up with a bad taste in your mouth.
Many famous authors emphasize that one should write the story they would want to read. And that’s my biggest reason against killing off a major character in the final book. There are millions of trilogies out there that have survived and become legends without killing off main protagonist characters–Toy Story 3, Star Wars (Darth Vader doesn’t count because he’s a villain, leave me alone, nerds!), The Dark Knight Rises, Indiana Jones (THERE IS NO FOURTH FILM DAMMIT), and that’s just franchises off the top of my head. I’m in no way against killing protagonists because it is an effective storytelling method, but for me, it has to fit the story naturally and be for a good purpose because the world that I’ve built for people to read should be one that I would be satisfied with reading, and I don’t believe that it will improve the work or the message behind the work if I kill that particular character. I believe in second chances. I believe in rewarding people for their faith in a story and in the characters who make up that story. I don’t believe that everything should have a happy ending, but since life is a steaming pile of camel manure most of the time, I think the least I can do is create a world where sometimes there is a silver lining. Maybe there isn’t a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow, but I really don’t think there should be a homeless man waiting there to shank you after your hard and grueling journey.
But maybe that’s just me.
Thanks for reading, darlings.
About the Post Author:
Kyoko M is an author, a fangirl, and an avid book reader. Her debut novel, The Black Parade, made it through the first round of Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. She participated and completed the 2011 National Novel Writing Month competition. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Lit degree from the University of Georgia, which gave her every valid excuse to devour book after book with a concentration in Greek mythology and Christian mythology. When not working feverishly on a manuscript (or two), she can be found buried under her Dashboard on Tumblr, or chatting with fellow nerds on Twitter, or curled up with a good Harry Dresden novel on a warm central Florida night. Like any author, she wants nothing more than to contribute something great to the best profession in the world, no matter how small.