Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Kill Me Now: The Characters Who Only Live to Die

I've talked before about killing main characters, and the dangers inherent in that. Like alienating the 99% of people who were actually hoping for a happy ending. But what about secondary characters? You should be able to swat those like flies, right? 

Well...maybe. 

Okay, so there's always that one character, right? You know the one. The cop who's this close to retirement. The new, slightly goofy kid in the platoon who keeps a picture of Betty-Mary-Emmy-Sue in his wallet. The funny sidekick who you were sure would make it through the final battle... And let's forget the old cliche that started it all: the kind-hearted poor-but-honest girl who dies of consumption after being thrown into the gutter by the heartless rake who seduced her. 

These are characters whose only purpose is to further the narrative and sharpen the hero's resolve by dying. And that's not how death works. That's cheap emotional manipulation, and most savvy readers won't shed a tear at all. They'll be too busy rolling their eyes. 

I'm not saying don't kill your characters. I'm not saying don't advance the narrative or sharpen the hero's resolve. I'm saying don't do it with a neon sign that says OBVIOUS PLOT DEVICE HERE. 

It's a little counter-intuative. Of course your characters are there for the purposes of the plot, but they don't know that and neither should the reader. That blonde girl who freaks out when she realises the call is coming from inside the house? Yeah, we knew from the moment she walked in that she was going to end up stabbed by some knife-weilding maniac wearing a hockey mask. Yawn. And once the character becomes a cardboard cutout who is only there to be a plot device, you lose all shock value, all empathy, and all heartbreak. Every character, however small, should be more than the sum of the parts of their death. 

Chances of survival: slim to none. 

I'll tell you the last character death that really shocked me. Stop here if you haven't read the entire Hunger Games trilogy. 

Prim. Because she broke all the rules of the cliche by getting out there and doing what she wanted to do. She might have always been in the background, but we saw her grow from being a frightened little girl to a young woman with the fierce ambition to do the right thing. She grew up, even when we were looking elsewhere, and became a well-rounded character in her own right. 

And when she died, it wasn't just a holy-crap-but-she-was-the-only-reason-Katniss-was-in-the-Games-to-begin-with moment. It wasn't just a "Poor Katniss!" moment. It was an "Oh, no! Prim!" moment as well. And that's how you kill a character. 

If you're going to kill a character, you need to build one first. 

What secondary characters' deaths have really worked for you? 

6 comments:

  1. I suppose it's still too soon to talk about the end to the Divergent series, but yes, what happened to Prim was a real punch to the gut. I remember how independently she acted in the last book. She was not just there for Katniss to save. She was making her own choices and that got her killed.

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    1. I haven't read the entire Divergent series yet, but I have heard a LOT about the ending. It's actually made me a lot more determined to hurry up and read it... I want to know how the author handled it.

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  2. Killing off major characters for shock value seems to have become something of a modern trope for all genres. Easy way to spring a surprise on the audience, I guess.

    mood

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    1. I have no problem with character deaths, but when you can see them coming a mile away it annoys me. Why should I care when it's obvious from the first page that a character was only inserted to die? :)

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  3. Count me among the eye-rollers at pointless, cheap deaths. You see them coming a mile off and when they do die, you're almost punching the air and all "Yeah, totally called it".

    The best character death I ever read was some years ago now and I cried and cried and stained the pages ^^; Just thinking about it is enough to make me emotional ;_;

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  4. A character death, when it's handled well, is the most heartbreaking thing! But yeah, sometimes the second the character appears you just know they're not going to last.

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