On January 14th, Kasie and Rex broke down the purpose for and inevitability behind some characters’ deaths. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
Character Month: Characters Who Have to Die
- How you know this one has to go
- The many purposes of a character’s death
- Ways to hide the inevitable death until right when it happens
- How to write characters readers will mourn
Last week we talked about basic character types: antagonist, protagonist, the confidante or best friend, and the love interest. We didn’t spend much time on the love interest, honestly, but don’t worry we’ll get to it.
Today we’re talking about the character who has to die. And there are a good many of them:
- Goose in Top Gun
- Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind
- Piggy in Lord of Flies
- Aunt May in Spiderman No Way Home
- Uncle Ben in all the other Spidermans
- Bruce Wayne’s parents
- Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle
- Obi Wan Kenobi
So how do you know this character is the one? Are they a barrier to the protagonist getting what they want? Melania Hamilton and Uncle Owen are. Are they too good to be true? Melanie Hamilton, Uncle Ben, and Bruce Wayne’s parents are – they are worshiped in life, but in death they become martyrs
Writers want you to be attached to the character without going all to pieces when the character dies, so they’ll get a few endearing scenes, but mostly they’ll be side characters. Someone imposing a conscience on the main characters (Ben, Melanie, Piggy, Aunt May), Someone expecting the character to be better than they are. Or, someone providing the character with an excuse to not be better – Uncle Ben, Beth March. Is it someone the character will outgrow with time or training (Obi Wan)? Do they represent the old life? The before-arc-protagonist?
If the character is in the way, s/he has to die.
So let’s talk about the functions of a character’s death:
- To remove barriers to the hero accepting the call – a la Luke’s guardians Uncle Owen and Aunt Veru
- To motivate the hero to take on the big bad – Shuri in Wakanda Forever – when her mom dies she goes revenge-crazy even seeing her cousin in the beyond; Samuel and Tristan in Legends of the Fall
- To get the protector out of the way so the protagonist can fulfill their destiny – Beth March in Little Women – being sick, had provided Jo with an excuse to not pursue her own life
- To force the protagonist to recognize their own failures/weaknesses – Melanie Hamilton, Goose, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) in Dead Poets Society
- To complete the character’s arc – Shelby in Steel Magnolias
- To demonstrate the threat is real – Ned Stark’s death shocks readers of Song of Fire and Ice (watchers of Game of Thrones) but it demonstrates the full brutality of the kingdom, especially under Joffrey.
- To put achievement of the protagonist’s goal just out of reach (again) – Bonnie’s death in Gone with the Wind.
We did an episode called “Kill the Buddy” where we talked about all the great stories wherein the best friend has to die. We don’t want to be redundant (though it’s been a long time since that episode) but we want to help readers (and writers) understand why sometimes the best thing you can do for your book is kill off a character.
Let’s put it into context of a plot arc.
Hero’s Journey – deny the call; at this stage in the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist is making excuses for not accepting the challenge. Sometimes a character is the reason – I can’t leave home because my mom/dad/brother/sister is sick/weak/helpless and needs me. So the writer kills that character leaving the protagonist with no more excuses.
“There’s nothing for me here anymore.”
Man in the Hole – rock bottom; in this plot line, our protagonist has to pull himself out of the depths on his own desire/motivation/skills. So any character that would throw him a lifeline has to die. That death could be the beginning of the downward spiral – he’s lost his protector – or it could be the final blow that puts him at the bottom. Whenever it occurs, this death is devastating, so it’s got to be someone the hero depended upon.
Freytag’s Pyramid – climax; at this point in the plot, the character needs a realization, a decision, and a redirect – what better way to force that than taking away the person he thought he was doing it all for? And this, Abby, is where Rankin’s death lives. When a character dies at the climax, we see the character experience a kind of re-evaluation of his mission/purpose. Think of the scene where Harry Ellis (yes, I had to look that character’s name up) attempts to negotiate with Hans Gruber in Die Hard – he tries to convince John McClane to surrender and when he refuses, Gruber kills Ellis. McClane has to recommit to his mission to stop the terrorists before anyone else dies.
When the death of the character raises the stakes – or shows the threat is real – we feel the protagonist under more pressure to act and act quickly to resolve the conflict.
So how do you do it? How do you leave enough hints that this dude ain’t gonna make it without giving away the story?
This is a good exchange in a writers’ forum about how to foreshadow the character’s death.
The character could consistently act in a rash, or foolhardy way.
The character could be sickly or frail. (Beth March, but also the kids in The Fault in Our Stars)
The character might have a weakness or allergy.
The character could have a desire that is beyond their limitations (Samuel’s desire to prove himself as brave in Legends of the Fall)
This blog suggests mentioning the death early in the book so the reader is expecting it. This works in Stand By Me when you see the headline about Chris Chambers death, but we also know he died a grown man, so this adventure we’re watching isn’t going to kill Chris. The narrator of The Book Thief is Death. So if he’s following this girl around, she’s going to die, right?
Here’s a how-to on the death scene itself (including the foreshadowing):
- Foreshadow – Captain America says Ironman would never be the one to make a self-sacrificial move and then, of course to prove him wrong, Tony Stark does just that.
- Give the death meaning – It should move the plot along – Beth dies and Jo has to move on with her life by writing her book; Goose dies and Maverick has to take what he’s doing seriously and recognize the risks he’s been ignoring.
- Don’t go on and on – the blog quotes Chekov observing that the more you want the reader to feel, the less you should describe the characters feels. Be cold, Chekov advises, and in that cold delivery of what happened, you’ll allow the readers emotions to fill in the space.
- Focus on peripheral details – rather than describing the death in its gory glory, focus on the flapping American flag overhead, the blog links to this YouTube video by KM Weiland whom we’ve quoted often on our show.
- Avoid cringy dialogue – last words are sometimes better left unspoken. Delivery of final apologies, encouragement to go on, or declarations of love are all cliche; if the character must say something, give them something unexpected to say – maybe something that removes the gravity of the situation?
Consider turning the character against the protagonist in the end – the death takes on a different meaning if in fact the dying character had actually never loved the main character.