As a reader, nothing enrages me more than the arbitrary and unnecessary death of a beloved character! I still remember books that I read growing up where I was absolutely furious at the author for killing off a character that I loved… for no reason. Well, there probably was a reason, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem enough in my mind to justify the death of the character.
Sometimes, it gets to be so bad that I’m afraid to allow myself to like any of the characters beside the main character. Especially if they possess certain qualities like goodness, heroism, selflessness, etc. because the author almost inevitably kills them off!
And nothing makes me angrier than when a character is killed simply to elicit an emotional response from the reader! I don’t like to feel emotionally manipulated. There’s a difference between a moving death scene and a death scene that is rigged to make you cry… I refuse to cry over the latter!
Obviously, since I write in the fantasy genre and my present story falls under the category of high fantasy, and it involves desperate battles, overwhelming forces, and the fight against evil, some of my characters are going to die.
So, an author, how do I approach “killing off” one of my characters?
First off, the death of the character should always be justifiable. A character should never be killed off arbitrarily (and by “character” here I’m referring to both important minor and main characters). The death of a character should always accomplish something – either adding something necessary to the plot or to the development of another main character.
In the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Gandalf’s death in the Fellowship of the Ring was justifiable. It was necessary even. His death stayed true to his character – a sacrificial death to save the lives of his companions. It accomplished something – his death allowed the others to escape. It raised the stakes and added to the tension of the plot – the Fellowship suddenly lost their leader and the guidance behind their mission. And it caused character development in both Aragorn and Frodo – Aragorn’s emergence as the leader and soon to be King of Gondor and Frodo’s resolve to carry on his quest alone so that the rest of his companions would not be endangered.
Secondly, the death should remain true to the character. If your character is a hero, let him die heroically!
In the play Cyrano de Bergerac – yes, I’m talking about Cyrano again! If you have not yet read it, I suggest you get your hands on a copy forthwith and bask in the warmth of the epic genius. I hate to spoil it for anyone, so if you haven’t read it, don’t read the following paragraph!
Cyrano dies at the end of the play. A hero the equal of the Three Musketeers, Cyrano meets a rather ignominious end when he is struck on the head by a log of wood thrown out of a window by a servant… The fact is lamented in the play itself! But although the circumstances of his death are far from heroic, Cyrano meets it with the poise, courage, and heart of a warrior! His response is what makes the death fitting. A humble death met heroically by a hero! And the death scene is amazing! Since I can’t quote the whole thing here, I shall have to repeat my encouragement that you read it yourself!
If you are going to kill a character, make it an end worthy of the character!
Thirdly, don’t let the death be wasted!
Have you read/seen this scenario before?
The battle is raging fiercely. The main character spies the villain and rushes to attack. But, oh no! Suddenly, the main character is trapped or pinned down… he can’t escape… can’t even defend himself! And the villain steps forward to deliver the death blow.
Just then, a friend rushes in, right in the nick of time, and takes the blow that was meant for the main character! “NO!” But as the friend dies, the main character is suddenly so angry that he manages to get free and defeat the villain!
What a wasted death! Certainly it met the first two requirements: it was justifiable (otherwise the main character would die), it was a worthy death (self-sacrificing) but it was wasted! If the main character could have gotten free on their own in the first place, then there was no need for the friend to die!
Anyway, to wrap up my thoughts, if I’m going to kill off a character (that sounds so terrible doesn’t it?) then at least I need to make sure that my reasons are justifiable and not arbitrary, that it is a worthy end, and that it is not wasted!
If you can’t tell, I’ve been writing an epic battle scene lately! ;)
So, what are your thoughts on the death of a character? Any other important things to remember? Good examples? Bad examples?