Fair warning: Harry Potter fans may be offended.
I’ve read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies and listened to a lot of plays, and one thing that often determines how much I enjoy those stories is how the writers choose to handle character deaths.
Shakespeare follows a very specific rule set with regards to killing off characters. In simple terms, any character who kills, threatens to kill, or plots to kill another character has guaranteed his own death by the finale of the play. Thus, Hamlet (who plots to kill his uncle) must die, and Claudius (who has killed) must also die. Part of this is Shakespeare stating his own opinions on the immorality of killing, but it also dictates that Shakespeare will never kill a character for no reason.
There are some writers who find it entertaining to pointlessly kill off characters just for the sake of killing them off and getting a reaction out of their readers (pssst…Harry Potter/Divergent). Frankly, it’s my opinion that killing off characters purely to upset an audience is a poor copout for writing an emotionally effective story.
I am a huge advocate for avoiding needless character deaths, and I typically follow several rules when it comes to writing death in my novels, and after being asked by @Danielle to elaborate on this topic, I’m going to share the two major rules that I follow when writing character deaths.
Rule 1. Death Leaves an Impact
First, think about the facts: many combat veterans deal with PTSD for years after they leave the military, so how come there are so many stories in which violence has little affect on the characters?
However, I don’t believe that a character should die unless it leaves a very definite impact on both the characters and the audience.
Pointless Character Death: Thor 2
So, Loki dies. Spoiler. But he doesn’t… I can see some feeble attempts from the scriptwriter to try to leave an emotional impact by killing Loki. He makes an attempt at resolving Thor and Loki’s eternal brotherly feud and gives Loki a dramatic death. However, once he’s gone, Thor hardly seems to think about it, and it’s only mentioned once.
The thing is, when a loved one matters to you, grief does not disappear instantly, even if, like Thor, you have a wonderful girlfriend whom you don’t actually talk to and with whom you don’t actually have a real relationship with (seriously, he’s probably spent a total of three weeks with her over the course of both Thor movies). Grief takes months to work through. It changes our view of the world and impacts the decisions that we make —I don’t see this happening with Thor.
Impactful Character Death: The Amazing Spiderman
We all remember Gwen Stacy’s Dad, right? He dies at the end of the first movie, but his influence carries on into the sequel, making Peter question whether it’s right to stay with Gwen and ultimately impacting his ethical view of the world.
His death also serves to foreshadow Gwen Stacy’s death (not sorry, spoiler), as we see Peter’s memory of the night he died haunting him consistently throughout the film as a reminder that his relationship with Gwen puts her in danger. Gwen’s father’s death has a profound effect on Peter and his decisions.
Can you see the difference? It’s not even subtle…
Rule 2. Avoid the Resurrection Cliche
So, back to Thor 2 —Loki dies in a futile attempt to evoke emotion from the audience, but because he’s really the only true villain that Thor ever faces, he must predictably come back to life by the end of the movie… The same thing happened in the first movie, so should we really be that surprised? Probably not.
Classic Cliche Resurrection: Harry Potter
Sorry, this isn’t a superhero example, but it’s so bad that I had to include it. You all remember when Harry faces Voldemort and gets killed? And then comes back to life just so he can finish the job that someone else could just as easily have done? The book clearly peaked when Harry died, and ended lamely with an anticlimactic, one-spell duel between Harry and He-Who-Has-No-Nose.
As such, I’m a firm believer that the series would have been much more satisfying had Harry died and stayed dead. It would have left a much stronger impact on the characters around him…and then there wouldn’t have been that awkwardly written scene with grown up Harry married to Ginny and their children in the train station. Lamest ending in existence.
I have one exception for the resurrection rule: resurrections that leave as strong an emotional impact as the initial death.
Impactful Resurrection: Sherlock
We all remember the dramatic ending of season 2, Reichenbach Fall, in which Sherlock fakes suicide in order to protect his friends. His death clearly leaves a strong impact on John Watson, who is still dealing with grief two years later when we enter season three.
Sherlock returns predictably, however, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (screenwriters) don’t just bring him back and say, “hey dolly dolly!” Everything isn’t instantly okay, because these men are realists. John Watson reacts with anger —he feels betrayed by Sherlock and doesn’t speak to him for months.
The death also reveals much about Sherlock’s character, as we realize how insensitive he is to other people’s feelings —how utterly cruel he has the capacity to be. It reveals his weakness and leaves an impact on the people associated with him.
That is a character resurrection that I can put up with.
54 thoughts on “The Rules of Character Death”
[…] The Rules of Character Death […]
I’m surprised you didn’t mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby lol. Gatsby’s death is tragic.
[…] Fair warning: Harry Potter fans may be offended. I’ve read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies and listened to a lot of plays, and one thing that often determines how much I enjoy those stories is how the writers choose to handle character deaths. Shakespeare follows a very specific rule set with regards to killing off… — Read on mbtifiction.com/2016/03/23/the-rules-of-character-death/ […]
I’m surprised you didn’t mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s death is tragic.
Don’t think that comparing Harry’s death in Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes death in Sherlock is effective. Of course Watson will be angry and betrayed when Sherlock came back he had time to go through the stages of grief and accept the tragedy. On the other hand the events of Harry Potter happen over the course of like maybe 30 minutes in the middle of a battle. No one (maybe besides Hagrid) has time to process his supposed death, they thought he was dead for maybe 10 minutes before finding out he was alive. At that point they’re just relieved he’s alive and then bam they’re fighting for their lives again. The major difference is they haven’t even really started going through the stages of grief unlike Watson. And Rowling didn’t right enough in the immediate future for anyone to say that there wasn’t any impact for Harry’s actions, though I personally believe that with everything else going on and all the other actual deaths there wouldn’t be much emotional impact on other characters. The impact of Harry’s death was to kill Voldemort (something no one else could do because of the prophesy) not create powerful emotional response. Now had Dumbledore come back and everything was thank god hunky dory I’d agree with your assessment. However as explained above I think you’re leaving a lot of contextual and circumstantial information/perspective out of your argument.
All very fair points
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