While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King or Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.
As much as I love the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who, I have to admit that in recent years, whenever one of the main characters die, I react in a way which I am quite sure the writers did not intend me to… I yawn.
I yawn because I just know they’ll be back. No one ever really dies on Doctor Who anymore, or if they do, some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing happens to bring them back. The same goes for the bad guys as well as the good guys; The Master, Clara, Davros, Rory (Okay, strictly speaking he was erased from history, but still the principle remains; he ceased to exist and should never have come back) – they always find a way to cheat death just when all appears to be lost. Which means that for the viewer, all never really appears to be lost. It doesn’t matter if they get vaporised, blown up along with their spaceship or erased from history; the viewer always knows there’s a good chance that somehow, with a little sprinkling of TARDIS magic, they’ll be back.
Dear reader, what a waste this is. In real life, death is final; that’s what makes it such a big deal and why it is such a valuable tool for stimulating the audience emotionally. While killing a character only to bring them back later might seem like a cheap and easy way to make your story more exciting, it robs death of its sting if the audience knows that in this story, death is not final. If you want to produce any kind of reaction in your audience other than a bored yawn when you kill off a character, you’d better make sure the Reaper’s grip is as tight in your fictional world as it is in reality.
Moving on from implausible resurrections which suck all the drama out of fictional deaths, there are a few other unfortunate ways your audience might react to the death of a character. If you read last week’s post, you will no doubt be aware of how fickle a thing the audience’s support for your character can be. Just because you, as the writer, have decided who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reader will like, support or sympathise with the characters you want them to like, support and sympathise with. The reason John Coffey’s execution in The Green Mile was so sad was because over the course of the book (or movie, whichever you prefer…), we begin to sympathise with him more and more, especially when it becomes clear that he was not guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. If, however, he really had raped and murdered the girls he was accused of, I doubt very much that the typical reader’s response would have been quite so favourable towards him and it would have completely undermined the bitter note on which The Green Mile ended.
There is another point which is also loosely connected to this. Not only is it important that the audience has the right level of sympathy for the character you plan on killing, but the audience also has to have the right level of sympathy for the surviving characters too. After all, what really makes a death scene tragic is often far more to do with these characters than the ones who actually die. In the final scenes of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, one of the protagonists – the simple minded Lennie – accidentally kills a woman (‘Curley’s wife’). Most of the other characters in the story get the wrong end of the stick and decide to lynch Lennie. His friend, George, knows Lennie too well to really believe that he ever killed the Curley’s wife out of malevolence and ends up shooting Lennie in the back of the head to save him from being lynched. There are really two important deaths here: Lennie himself and Curley’s wife. Both of these characters have another character closely related to them with whom the reader has varying levels of sympathy (in Lennie’s case, it is George and in Curley’s wife’s case it is, of course, Curley). George, being one of the protagonists, garners considerable support from the audience on account of his protective behaviour towards the more vulnerable Lennie; Curley, on the other hand, is an altogether unlikable little man who is jealous, quick to anger, full of his own importance and who sees Lennie as somebody he can bully.
We’re not meant to like Curley. He’s a nasty little man from the moment he first appears so when his wife finally does die, all he is concerned about is having his revenge on the naive and lovable Lennie. In fact, the only time Curley ever appears to truly admire another character in the story is when he finds George standing over Lennie’s body and assumes that George heroically wrestled the gun out of Lennie’s hand and exacted revenge on Curley’s behalf – not realising that George killed Lennie as an act of compassion. It is almost impossible to truly sympathise with this man on account of his loss (no matter how tragic his wife’s death may have been) because his own reaction is one of hatred. He always hated Lennie for how he (accidentally) injured and humiliated him earlier in the story and now he finally has an excuse to kill him. That’s all his wife’s death means to him: an excuse to kill a guy he took a disliking to earlier in the story. George, on the other hand, clearly cares about Lennie, despite finding his behaviour challenging at times. Lennie’s death occurs only a few paragraphs before the story finally ends, but in those few paragraphs, George displays more genuine grief and regret over the death of his friend than Curley displays anywhere in the whole story. Thus, a certain bitter poignancy is added to Lennie’s death by George’s reaction, which is not so obvious in the death of Curley’s wife.
The death of a main character can easily be one of the main turning points in your story. A skillful author can use it to provoke any number of responses from all of the other characters, as well as further taking the reader’s sympathies in almost direction you like. Don’t spoil it or cheapen it by killing characters unnecessarily. If you’re going to kill a character then I implore you… don’t remove the fear of death from your story. Make sure dead characters stay dead, no matter how difficult it makes things for your other characters and be sure to do the proper ground work to get the correct response from your audience.