In fiction, a character’s death is the ultimate spoiler. When I taught high school English one of my favorite books to read with students was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It proved to be a popular one in my class, as we spent weeks on end discussing Gene Forrester’s motives for “jouncing” the infamous limb, and gravely injuring his spirited friend, Finny. The funny part was each time I covered the story, there’d be at least one student who’d read ahead (or perhaps log onto Sparknotes) and do the unthinkable: spread the ugly truth around the classroom in venomous whispers, Finny dies!
As writers, why do we kill our characters? Is death a good plot twist? Does it make a story better? More dramatic? Emotional? Symbolic? Does death effectively touch on the greater human experience?
I’ll admit it. I’m a convicted character killer. Lock me up. I’m not vicious about it though, I simply understand their fates. As sad as it can make a reader or writer, some characters just seem destined to die, and as far as I know there is no set of criteria to follow, except for this: it must reflect the larger web of the story.Otherwise, as my characters’ divine creator, I think it would be too difficult to do.
Some surface elements to consider:
Who: Which characters will be plucked from the page? This needs to be carefully considered. Usually it’s not the main character, particularly if he or she is also the narrator (unless you’re going for a Lovely Bones angle, which I just find unsettling). If you know who will perish in advance, you can characterize accordingly. If not, there’s always revision.
When: At what point will the unfortunate character(s) pass on? Those who die in the middle of the story might have a dynamite personality to make up for lost time. If a character goes early on, perhaps it’s to set a precedent, or to establish an important plot point.
How: Tragic death? Violent death?Peaceful death?Inevitable death? It all depends on the individual character(s).
Why: This is a big one. Does the death serve a purpose? It most likely should.
I’ll take this last point—the “why”—a bit further. Based on everything I’ve ever read, written, watched in films, or seen on television, I’ve come to find that characters almost always die for one of the five reasons below.
1. The Extraordinary Person Syndrome: This character has a spirit that’s too big for life (not unlike poor Mr. Finny). Think of rock stars—Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all robbed of life at a tender age. It’s as if their brilliance was meant to be solidified.
2. The Stigma of the Very Important Person: At least to the main character. In fact, maybe too important to the main character. It could be a friend, lover, relative, etc. of the protagonist. This person’s passing is often a lesson in love or guilt.
3. The Evil-Doer’s Demise: A nasty villain. A murderous creep. An abusive spouse, parent, or significant other. This is someone who has done no good throughout the story, and flat out deserves to die. Perhaps at the main character’s hands.
4. The Magnitude of the Martyr: This character’s death will quite literally shift ‘the sands of time.’ A mother of two estranged sisters dies of natural causes, and thus forces her daughters to reconnect. The passing of a woman’s controlling husband will influence her to take a spiritual journey. A former high school quarterback overdoses and brings countless alienated peers back home to pay respects. Get the picture?
5. The Reprieved: This one is for the disease-stricken, the ill-treated, and the less fortunate. They die because the suffering has become unbearable. In death they are in peace.
I believe there is room for some blending. Maybe one character’s end will fit into two of these categories, or three. Even those who die for political reasons, or while at war will likely touch on one or more of these elements. Our characters are our babies, and with time, we share them with the world. Losing one can no doubt be super sad. But sometimes, for the sake of the story, it must be done.
Have your characters gone on to a better place? For what reasons? I’d love to hear your comments, morbid as they may be.