How To Make Character Deaths Matter

As morbid as it may sound, we as writers are ruthless killers. It's a simple fact. Tired of the annoying twig character from Chapter 3? Boom. Gone. As easy as it is to kill off characters without a second thought, your readers will see it as exactly that. An offhand swipe of the keyboard that wiped that character from existence, and they just won't care. That is something to fix.

When we crack open a book, in the back of our minds is the hunch that not everyone is going to survive these pages. Our favorite character might die, our least favorite might die. But we read anyway. Why? Because they impact us in some way every time if the author carries it out well.

So. How an you send a crushing blow to your readers with a character death? Simple!

Make. Them. Matter.

Take a character that means something to the protagonist. Someone who's connected to them, to you as an author, and who will in turn be connected to your readers. When they die, they can't just die for the sake of dying. Their death has to mean something to not only the characters left alive, but also to the plot.

Let's take a look at some examples in books.

*WARNING* Spoilers ahead for the following books: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, and The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

If you have not read the above books, feel free to skip the next section, or just read the snippets about the ones you have read.

The Hunger Games:

At first we see tributes dying left and right. Since we don't know much about them (or rather, Katniss doesn't), their deaths don't deliver that mind-numbing pain that comes with a death. We simply pass them by with naught a glance behind our shoulders.

It changes when Rue dies. Katniss had a relationship with her. They were both allies and friends. Because we knew more about her, because she mattered to Katniss (and thus, to us as well) who had made a silent promise to protect her, and her death hits hard. She was more than just another tribute who died. She mattered.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Here the death that hit me was Sirius Black's. He wasn't perfect, but he was the only link Harry had to his parents. He also represented that there was hope for Harry, that he wouldn't have to live with the Dursleys forever, that he could be with someone who cared for him and loved him in a way that they never would.

We root so much for Harry by this point, that we just want something to go right. And that's when Rowling sends the story into chaos.

The Fellowship of the Rings:

After saying the famous line of "You shall not pass!" we see Gandalf fall into the abyss below to his presumed death. This death wasn't so much sad for me as it was shocking. I never dreamed that Gandalf would die and leave the fellowship to its own devices. He was sort of the head of the group even though it was Frodo with the official title of the Ringbearer. Once he's gone, his absence affects the fellowship greatly, because they lose his wisdom, power, and knowledge of the area.

Comments

  1. YES. Good post. That's about all I have to say.

    Wait, no it isn't. It isn't enough to make the character matter-- they could matter to the plot and they'd still not have any effect when they die, because the readers don't like them. Instead, they have to matter to the main character. Rue didn't have any place in the plot except to die. To make the death matter, Collins made sure both the main character and the readers liked her. The same with the other two, though Gandalf was a bit different in that he had something to do with plot.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you.

      Precisely. If your main character has no connection with that character, they won't care, and readers won't care either.

      Delete
  2. Great post. I especially liked how you picked well known characters so the readers of your blog would be able to relate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Cara! Picking well-known characters is always a good idea for blogging, or else you have to launch into a big, long, boring rant about who they are and all that jazz.

      Delete
  3. OH SIRIUS ... ~collapses sobbing~

    In my current WIP I haven't decided exactly who's going to die yet, but there will be someone. OH yes .... ~evil cackles~

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *pats back and sobs along*

      Ooh, this is going to be good!

      Delete

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