Episode 131: Kill Your Buddy

On January 30th, we revisited the topic of the best friend, the buddy with this look at BFF deaths. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Kill Your Buddy

Agenda

  • Events & Opportunities
  • How the death of a specific character impacts the story
  • Cliches and tropes to avoid with this
Long before they die, the BFF needs a critical role in the story and long after they’re gone, the sacrifice needs to be felt and mourned. Photo by Atypeek Dgn on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Last week we were talking (longer than we should have probably) about Top Gun. The pivotal scene in Top Gun is when Maverick’s RIO, his co-pilot, Goose, is killed. Goose’s death does several critical things:

  • Makes Maverick’s ambition to win the Top Gun trophy seem trite
  • Shows Maverick as being fallible — he didn’t cause the wreck, but he’s human and mistakes have consequences
  • Makes Maverick doubt his own capabilities
  • Creates sympathy for Maverick in his rival (Iceman) and his allies (Charlie, Viper)

When we talk about “Be Mean to Your Character” as a strategy for upping the drama, we mean to do so with purpose. So today we’re going to build on our June 6th Episode 98: Sidekick, Battle buddy, Best mate by talking about what to do with this character. How what happens to them affects the story and how to avoid common cliches and tropes associated with this very important character.

But first, housekeeping:

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Segment 2

Now back to the topic at hand. How should we kill our best friends?

Some famous examples of best friends’ deaths that help the main character become a better person (here’s an entire list of YA novels with dead BFFs)(here’s a list of heartbreaking deaths):

  • 13 Reasons Why — became a Netflix series
  • Romeo & Juliet — Mercutio’s death changes the dynamic between Romeo and the Capulets
  • Little Women — Beth March (while not technically a BFF) dies and spurs her sisters to move on with their lives as adult women, no longer girls
  • Charlotte’s Web — Charlotte, the spider, though she feels more like an older sister / mother than a BFF, her death is both inevitable and a specific ending to the story
  • Bridge to Terabithia — you might only remember this book as “the one where the girl dies” because for many young readers in the 80s, this was the first time we saw this dead-friend dynamic
  • The Outsiders — Johnny Cade knows (we all know) he doesn’t have a future. He’s likely to end up dead but we don’t know when or how. Then he makes a heroic choice and we’re proud of him and that means his story is over. So what does it do to Ponyboy? Does it reinforce the brutality of their existence? Does it make him want to go after his dreams?

This seems to be particularly prevalent in YA or coming-of-age stories. Maybe it’s because the best friend’s death is a life-changing moment. Your main character has lost the person who chose to be “family.” The person who was voluntarily in the MC’s corner. This was a powerful ally and now s/he’s gone.

Is killing the best friend a cheap device? Not a literary device like these, but a choice the writer makes for the inevitable consequences it will present.

So why do we do it? Here’s a link and some reasons:

  • To take away the safe choice — including the MC’s excuse to do nothing at all
  • To get empathy for the main character — in the same way that the simple existence of a best friend indicates this main character is liked by somebody, that person’s death inevitably makes the reader like the MC too
  • For catharsis — when the struggle has been going on for 50, 100, or 150 pages, the death can deliver the catharsis we need
  • Inject despair — when the MC depends on this person and then that person is no longer available, then the MC will be truly desperate to resolve the conditions
  • For a twist — what stories have you read that you didn’t expect the person to die? That twist can add salt and shock to the story
  • Avoid complacency as a writer — if all your stories are HEA, if you never kill anyone cuz ew, then you need to shake up your own worldview. Who knows, writing about death might give you your own insight and catharsis.
  • To create a new arc — kill the mentor, kill the mother, kill the best friend – all of these losses will provide a sharp edge to your main character’s arc; now they have to overcome not only the external challenge, but the internal challenge of doing so without the help they’d always relied upon
  • To offer justice — the MC can’t just go around killing all the bed guys without suffering a loss himself; the death of the BFF is a sacrifice, one that must be borne for the greater good
  • To get closure — unresolved baggage will just weigh your MC down. Kill that baggage by eliminating the tethers to home, to the past, to the person your MC used to be.

Segment 3

Is there a risk of cliche / trope / predictability? Yes, absolutely. Here’s a link and some thoughts:

  • Killing the best friend can have a serious (and possibly terrible) impact on the MC
  • S/he becomes angry, ruthless, and vengeful
  • S/he becomes lethargic, bereft by grief, and frozen
  • Sidekick/BFF awareness of their risky position in the role could provide comic relief
  • Readers may expect the BFF to die and find the situation too predictable
  • Death is complicated – how it happened, when it happened, what happened next (wills, burials, etc) so knowing what to include and what to omit can be a challenge
  • Death is personal – every reader has experienced death in their own lives in a certain way and they bring those experiences to the book, like it or not
  • The closeness of the friends can determine the level of grief people expect (this link)
  • Any death has to be a turning point in the story, but especially this one.

Cliched deaths for BFFs:

  • Sudden tragic accident (Bridge to Terabithia)
  • Illness expected end (Beaches)
  • Murdered by a rival (Gatsby)
  • Suicide (Ophelia, Inspector Javert – Les Mis) (a list of literary suicides here)
  • Saving the MC (Jack in Titanic) (a sacrifice that works list here)
  • Sacrificed for the fight (Obiwan, Gandolf) (link here to a list)
  • Murdered by the MC (Fight Club)

Segment 4

How and when to do this? Here’s a link and some suggestions:

  • Write the death for the character, not the character for the death
  • Make the method of death appropriate (see segment 3)
  • Include the ‘sadness’ or the ‘mood’ that reflects the other characters’ disillusionment with the world due to the injustice of this death
  • Eulogize the character — put the death into context, let’s understand how the world is different without this dead character
  • Make the loss matter — what can’t the MC do now because the BFF is gone? What did we actually lose with this death?

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