Character death is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. With my beta reading I had a score of dead characters over a variety of manuscripts. Just the way this week goes, I suppose.
The thing is it has led me to think more about what I need out of character deaths. At first glance, and advice I always dispense with myself, the answer is… make me care. But I’ve changed my mind on some things from some of what I’ve been reading.
In some books, lots of people die. Whole towns, villages, the world. I saw a story that killed a family in front of the MC. A story where some random guy falls out of a building during a board meeting. These kinds of deaths can be awesome and move the story along without any tears… although I have experienced some shock.
Thinking about extras dying made me realize I didn’t need to care about them, just their impact to the story so that brought me to a few other things.
Minor Character Death
If a minor character is developed and only pops in a couple of times, the death should mean a bit more than an extra. Maybe that minor character stands for something. Maybe that minor character inconveniently dies, at the wrong time, when he has information you really want.
A minor character death is important for what it does to the story. But I can’t think of a time I was crying over this case either. Not a bad thing. Not an unnecessary thing but frankly, we don’t always care when people die.
Supporting Character Death
A supporting character is a bit different. You’ve built them up. They are a part of your world. You’ve gotten to know them. Sometimes you love them. Sometimes you hate them. Actually… how you feel about them has a lot to do with reader reaction to this situation.
I’ve been relieved when supporting characters have died. I’ve also felt deeply betrayed and upset and a million-other-things it’s so unfair that writers can make me feel.
I’ve learned this about supporting character deaths:
- I care if they stand for something. Or symbolize an ideal.
- The reactions of other characters tend to impact me more than the moment of death itself
- If there isn’t a build up to the death scene where I’m worried they won’t make it, it doesn’t impact me as much when they die
I don’t have to always feel impacted by supporting deaths. Sometimes they just die at the right time and I accept it. This doesn’t bother me, it may bother some though.
Main Character Death
Recently, I read a book where the main character dies in the beginning and I didn’t feel anything but it was appropriate because it was an “underworld” kind of story. I also read one where at the end the character dies but it didn’t make me care about the death, it made me care about the life. Sometimes, death really isn’t everything but it should be something that I think about later.
If the character death is a pivotal emotional moment for the book there are some things that make me care:
- I have to like the protagonist (I’ve read stuff where I liked the supporting characters more than the main character… it made the death seem unimportant and I didn’t react)
- The death has to have resounding impact.
- There should be a self-assurance in me as a reader that things will be okay even though they are going terribly wrong.
Main character deaths are difficult and their impact has everything to do with my feelings on the protagonist and whether their development is solid.
When an antagonist dies, there’s a whole range of things I could feel. If I don’t know them very well, it does nothing. Villains are varied. Some of them you sympathize with and some of them have you rooting for their destruction. And everything in between. It makes the topic difficult.
There are some things that are crucial:
- The lead up. If their isn’t a climax to the moment, it doesn’t work. If the stakes aren’t high (this could be a showdown, a moment of humanity, etc.) it won’t matter.
- They need to seem flawed before that point. Their needs to be something in them that is fatal… if not, the death can be unbelievable.
- It has to mean something. To someone. Somewhere. It can be good or bad but it has to mean something.
From what I can tell, reading many manuscripts, these deaths are the hardest. Don’t be afraid to like the bad guy a little. Or a lot. It helps.
Hopefully, my antics for today have helped or inspired. I would love to hear what you think/like in a good character death. Thanks always, WordPress family, for letting this blogger vent!