: And why you must never waste a death

In real life, people die for no reason or purpose most of the time. They die of old age, illness, and less commonly in tragic accidents, and there’s no meaning in it—only the grief of the people who’ll miss them. But to satisfy a reader, fiction has to be smarter, more coherent, more meaningful than real life—and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the death of your characters.

Sometimes beginning writers, who are afraid there’s not enough emotional oomph in their story, throw in a death to “make it more dramatic.” This usually happens in quiet stories of emotional growth… “But then the car her mother is driving skids off the road, and the heroine is horribly injured and her mother is dying, and she realizes that all the stuff they were fighting about is meaningless compared to the bond between them, and has to risk her own life to get help.”

This is dramatic, I grant you, but there are two problems with it: The first is that your quiet emotional story has suddenly turned into an action adventure, where the heroine is struggling, not with family conflicts, but to survive and rescue her mother—a shift in the story’s genre that badly jars the reader. The second problem, which is more subtle but even more important, is that instead of the climax resulting from the protagonist’s actions, the climax is generated by a random accident. It’s a resolution that’s handed to the heroine by the author, instead of forcing the heroine to reach that resolution on her own.

It’s not just beginners, writing quiet stories, who make the mistake of wasting a death—when an actress wanted to leave the series, some highly professional action/SF writers did the same. But no matter why you do it, nothing will turn an audience against your story faster than killing a character who doesn’t “need” to die. In an early Star Trek Next Generation episode, Tasha Yar came across an alien monster who, with very little warning, simply killed her. And that’s probably how many soldiers actually die. But because her death was meaningless, because it came out of nowhere, randomly, and accomplished nothing in the story’s universe, there was a storm of criticism from fans. In fact, they raised such a furor the studio brought the actress back, more or less as a ghost, and wrote several episodes that created cause and effect around her death, and a way for it to make a change in the story’s universe—in short, they had to make her death.

Another, much more recent example, is Hiccup’s father’s death in How to Train your Dragon 2. I loved the first movie, and I’d heard a lot of criticism of the sequel, but from the clips I’d seen and the reviews I’d read, I couldn’t figure out why people were reacting so negatively. As I watched the movie I was even more baffled—the story was working fine, and discovering that Hiccup’s mother had gone off to train an army of dragons was utterly delightful. But then, without any need for it in terms of story structure, Hiccup’s father was killed in the final battle. I grant you, it did show the audience how powerful the evil dragon’s control over other dragons was, and it set up a conflict between Hiccup and Toothless. But that wasn’t a sufficient justification for an event that tragic…and further, it created a problem in the climax where Toothless overcomes the evil dragon’s hold on his mind. If Toothless could shake off the evil dragon’s power then, why couldn’t he do it earlier? It wasn’t just a bad death, it was bad logic…and it really bothered the audience, even if most reviewers couldn’t pinpoint why they didn’t “like” the second movie as much as the first.

But if random or insufficiently justified deaths can destroy a story, what’s a “good” death, and when does it work in a story’s favor? When is it right to kill a character?

First, I need to define “a character.” For a death to matter, a character has to be someone the audience knows well, and cares about—not just a walk on. Most mysteries start with a murder, but A) we’re not attached to those people, and B) without their death we wouldn’t have a plot, so the reader expects it. The murderer may kill a few other people as the plot goes on, but it’s never someone the reader expects to see survive from one novel to the next. I consider these unfortunates “victims” instead of “characters.” And if your murderer ever kills a real character, someone the reader loves and expects to survive the story, then their death had better fall into one of the “good death” categories, or readers won’t forgive you. I don’t know much about horror, but I suspect most of the deaths in horror novels happen to “victims” as well.

But victims aside, the most acceptable reason to kill a character is because their death either unites the rest of the team, or it motivates the protagonist to go on and succeed in the climax. A good example of uniting the team is Agent Coulson’s death in the first Avengers movie—in fact, Nick Fury deliberately uses Coulson’s death to bring the feuding heroes together—but this kind of death also works when no one but the author is pulling those strings. As for motivating the protagonist, think of any action movie where someone dies in the hero’s arms, murmuring something along the lines of “Win this one for the Gipper.” (On looking it up, that quote’s actually non-fiction—but there’s a reason that story became a movie.) On a structural note, these deaths almost always happen near the end of the second act, because this kind of motivating death is perfect end of second act escalation of the stakes.

Another death that works is heroic death in battle. In The Hobbit: Five Armies, when Killi and Thorin are killed, the viewer grieves…but she accepts it. Indeed, you almost have to kill at least one character in a great battle, in order to make the sacrifice of the climax real. Killing Fred Weasley in the last Harry Potter book is an excellent example of this—if no one we cared about had died in the battle for Hogwarts, that battle wouldn’t have mattered.

These deaths usually happen in the story’s climax, and the more important, more beloved, the character you kill, the “bigger” that climax will be…and the darker your story’s tone becomes. If Ron or Hermione had been killed instead of Fred, the reader would still accept it as a legitimate death but the story would have turned into a tragedy. And while you can certainly write tragedy, and it can be very effective, you should think carefully about how you want your readers to be feeling when they put down your book. It should also be noted that you can get nearly the same emotional impact by having the bad guy injure a major character without killing them—and that never pisses readers off. Death is a powerful emotional weapon—it’s your cannon—so don’t go shooting gnats with it.

There’s another authorial use for death in battle, but it’s trickier to make this one work—death to create genuine suspense. In the movie Serenity, Joss Whedon kills a major character right at the beginning of the climactic fight, taking the viewer completely by surprise. And the heroes are so badly overmatched, there comes a moment in that battle where—because he killed Wash—you start wondering if Whedon’s actually going to kill all his protagonists. How often have you felt that kind of suspense watching a movie? Honestly, I can’t remember another example. Even better, after the battle’s over Whedon softens the blow of Wash’s death, not by negating its importance, but by swiftly taking the viewer through all the stages of grief: shock, mourning, acceptance, healing, and finally moving on. But this is master class writing—I’ve got 20 published novels at this point, and I’m not sure I could pull that off.

And finally, there’s death by old age, or for a younger person death by illness, which happens at the end of the story because it’s used to add weight to their wise advice. Maud, in the movie Harold and Maud, almost had to die for Harold to learn her lessons about embracing life. Whatever the theme of your story may be, if it’s the last thing someone said/tried to do in this world, that theme will pack extra punch.

There may be other things that make a death work, which I’m not thinking of at the moment. But the reason these deaths do work—and others don’t—is because they aren’t “just” deaths. They’re deaths used to emphasize something else that matters even more deeply, such as wisdom, heroism, or sacrifice. They’re deaths that change the story’s world, that allow “good” to win. And if good could have won without those deaths, that’s when a death is wasted.

If you kill your characters for the right emotional reasons people will mourn, but they’ll accept it. And if you kill your characters for the wrong reasons, for dramatic impact alone, because you want to jerk the reader’s emotions around, or even because an actress wants to leave the series—then you may end up burying your story along with them.

Winter 2014