Let's talk about character death.

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by fatalrendezvous, Feb 12, 2015.

  1. So, in the real world, death is an ugly, ugly thing. It comes when it decides to, and when it does, there is pretty much nothing we can do about it. It seems (to me at least), that this is partially why we find death so horrible - because it can come without notice, and most of the time, it comes too soon.

    But what about in a story, when the character dies exactly when the writer intends for them to? While an un-involved third party (the reader) might not know when the character is going to die, we as storytellers do.

    How can we give that death meaning, or make it impactful for the reader?

    In all my years of writing and roleplaying, this is still one of the hardest things for me to do. I have read articles and guides and book excerpts, and I still don't get it. I personally think death is one of the hardest things to write well.

    I remember reading a fantasy book series when I was younger. I LOVED this series, and still do. But in one of the later books, the most central character of the story dies. Just gets killed by some nobody. The whole thing felt contrived and meaningless, and did not impact me at all emotionally (other than just making me confused). The series was written by authors I have tremendous respect for, and I love their work. But whenever I think about how hard it is to write death in a meaningful or impactful way, my mind wanders back to that scene in that book.

    What are your thoughts on this? Are you willing to kill off one of your characters? Have you?

    How do we go about this in a way carries weight for the readers? How do we make them feel something?

    I want tear stains on the paper of those pages! Delicious, salty tears!
  2. Death is one of my specialties as a GM. (I proudly brag that one of my missions in Legend of Renalta killed 3 of the 5 PCs sent to investigate, and a handful of NPCs too.)

    Note, there are spoilers ahead for some TV shows and what not. Death tends to be spoilerific. So, you know, spoiler warnings, and stuff.

    #1: Death must have permanent consequences of some kind. Death doesn't necessarily have to be the end, but if you have any kind of revival mechanisms in your universe, they better have a prohibitive cost, such as: Other human lives, the target comes back undead and bound to a master, someone sacrifices themselves to bring back another, the revival causes the target to lose their powers and/or memories, et cetera. Even D&D usually had reincarnation-type magic cost hard-won levels.

    If you can easily avoid the permanent consequence of death, death has no meaning.

    #2: The character can't just be replaced or forgotten about in five minutes if you want it to mean something. There's a reason nobody cries over Ensign Ricky: Nobody knows much about him.

    #3: If you want your deaths to be truly unpredictable and sensible, establish early on that nobody is safe from the Reaper's scythe. Otherwise, killing someone off randomly in the middle of a story just feels jarring, because it defies the expectations of the reader in such a way as to disconnect them from the established in-universe rules: Johnny always comes home. If you're going to change the tone of a work to include death, be sure to hint that in advance. Otherwise you just look like someone who's trying to get some cheap shock value.

    #4: No one death will universally affect everyone. I watched Gurren Lagann recently and felt very little when Kamina died: I didn't have much of an emotional connection to his character. Yet most of my friends who have seen this show tell me they bawled their eyes out when they saw Kamina bite the bullet. Yet, this hits me like a sack of bricks and rusty nails, but I know there are other people who just don't care at all for the show and thus feel nothing at Spock's death.

    Ergo, if you're looking for the "ultimate death" that will make everyone cry, stop. You're doing it wrong. That's not the point of death. The point of death is...

    #5: Finality and, typically, self sacrifice and/or failure, are the marks of a good death. When the hero's best friend (Spock!) gives his life to save everyone else, that's the ultimate sacrifice: There is no other act of compassion or love more powerful than giving one's own life to save another, especially if you know and care about the well being of that character. Conversely, someone who suffers the ultimate failure, who goes for a final charge into the enemy lines only to be tragically struck by several arrows and failing to rescue the people he meant to save, is someone you can feel empathy and pity for, and is powerful in a different way from self-sacrifice.

    Then, finally, you have one of the most satisfying deaths. Something that's almost a cliché: The villain dies a most deserved, typically karmic death. Now, keep in mind, the most effective villain deaths are the ones where you have a complete inverse of feeling sympathetic to their plight: You hate this person. You hate them so much that you would wish a horrible, horrible death on them (perfect example of karmic death right there too). The key to making someone hate a villain is making them do things to hurt the heroes in some manner. For Inigo Montoya, that villain taunts him endlessly and murdered his father. For Robocop, that guy was one of several who murdered him with a copious number of bullets in a brutal manner.

    Death is a powerful tool in the right hands. You can use it to do some incredible dramatic things. On the other hand, it can also immediately kill any suspense a story might have had going for it if it's too ridiculously over the top. In my opinion, death should be quick, but that's just my opinion.

    Tl;Dr: Don't kill red shirts and expect people to care. Random deaths are at best confusing and at worst suspension-wrecking. Ensure death always is the result of a consequence so it makes sense, even if it's surprising (character makes a mistake/character gets too cocky/character chooses to die/et cetera). If you want people to cry, realize first that not everyone will care no matter how hard you try, and second, that people need to feel an empathetic connection to that character: They need to care that your damsel is in distress, or about the hero's hopes and dreams, before you drop a bridge on him. If you want people to enjoy the villain dying rather than being bored, give them a reason to hate that villain first, and make it personal: One death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. Memorize that.

    Beyond that? I have nothing else to offer other than that death is like alcohol: Some people like it hard and fast, some smooth and slow, and some just don't like it at all. It's just one narrative tool of many. :ferret:
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  3. I've got a spoiler or two in here, so tread carefully.

    I don't have a particular formula for making good character death, but from post-character-death thoughts, I suppose I've developed a meager understanding of it.

    I suppose what makes character death meaningful and truly emotional relies both in how the scene is written, the character themselves, and how they died.

    A poorly written death scene can take a good character with a shocking, meaningful death and put it in a boring light. Personally I felt this happened in Harry Potter a few times, and even though I've yet to read GoT, I feel a lot of the death in there would be very "Meh". I'll have to check back after I read a bit. But the way it's written depends a lot on the character and how they die. Sometimes a very simple, "and she watched as his sword speared through her brother's stomach" or even a more explicit sentence works just fine and does well to initiate the shock that comes before loss. Sometimes being very round about with it works too, not explicitly saying that the character died.

    But as a note with death scenes, I find that sometimes it's not the death scene that gets to me; it's how other characters react to it. The Hunger Games isn't one of the best books for cryworthy death scenes imo, like when Prim died, I didn't really get too upset until her cat found out and started a cryfest with Katniss. Likewise with Sirius' death; when Harry went 'ballistic', I started to get upset.

    Also, characters that lack dynamic often don't attract a lot of tears when they die. A well written death scene about hundreds of people dying in the apocalypse can get to it, but it's mostly the utter destruction and loss of life that gets the emotions flowing. If a random girl is detailed in how she dies in said apocalypse, a little bit more is felt for her. But altogether, that character is kind of forgotten about by the end of the story. A character that's had lots of sweet moments that make the reader really care about him/her is going to have a more noteworthy death. It's easier to do this with a dynamic character than with a static one. If Bella Swan had died, I'd probably have been more sad for her dad than for her (although the scene at the end of the last movie, where everyone went and got slaughtered, made me pretty happy).

    And then finally the way the character died is pretty damn important. It also depends on the mood and theme of the book; a candid death sometimes is the best while other times you have to have the very dramatic sacrifice death. I'm a fan of how Prim died; caught in a trap meant for the Capitol, with one big boom. Or perhaps, Finnick's, being left behind to be torn to bits. Both just sort of happened. Quite frankly, I prefer that over the big build up to a sacrifice, but the story has to have a very certain mood to go with it- the idea of mortality has to be pressed in, even subtly, otherwise it feels like a rip-off.

    Which is why I say it's a combination of all three. You can get away with very subtle deaths and get lots of tears and sobs but other times it can be horribly boring and unemotional if written wrong or presented in the wrong place, etc. etc.
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  4. I think it all comes down to how much connection the reader had with the deceased character.

    Just telling someone that a character did lots of good things and was an awesome friend/family member/hero doesn't work, either; we get the impression that they were a nice person, but because we didn't really get to know him, its hard to feel much when awesome dad #3589 passes on. You have to spend time in the story showing this character, and letting their personality shine through. But avoid 'born to die' tropes.

    Like, you know how often at the beginning of a movie, you see a child getting along really really well with one or both parents? having an idyllic life, every frame looking like it could be on a hallmark poster? They're never not smiling, etc etc? It seems a bit surreal, and any time I see that kind of thing I start placing bets on which person is going to bite it first; it's so obvious they're painting on the "look how wonderful a person/people they are!" so that I'll feel bad when they die, but it's crammed on so fast and heavy that I don't really feel anything. If I'd had some time in the movie to watch them being real people, and see them go through situations where they demonstrated how they support each other and keep each other sane, then I'd feel genuinely bad when one of them died, because I've seen firsthand how necessary and valued they were, and I've connected with them in my own way.

    Don't write a character thats going to die, just write a character. It totally kills any connection you might have built if people can see that you were only building up this character as likeable so you could get some tears when they eat it later.
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