Why do characters die? This isn’t asking why main characters die, but why do those disposable, side-lined, often parental characters die in stories? The element of death in fiction seeps into stories constantly, leaping unbidden into a back-story or climax like it’s some kind of prerequisite to any crucial action. The element of death is the Swiss army knife of writing tools, serving as theme, plot device, symbol, character, setting, protagonist, antagonist, and more. Death should not, however, be used irresponsibly. This post, and the next, will address death as a tool for writing and not a cop-out, short-cut, or token theme.
Writing Using Death
If this post was reached in the hope of asking “how to write death scenes”, then go right to the bottom of the post and go to those links. This isn’t it. However, stick around since the scene itself is the last thing a writer should worry about. There is so much more to using death when writing stories!
Whether the story is true, or fictional, the question stands: Why do we write death? Well honestly, it’s because this is the single most unavoidable thing in human existence and everyone has to face it. One of the major defining elements of cultures, religions, families, social groups, is how they help the members cope with the knowledge that they will die one day. The defining stories of whole belief systems often revolve around the definition of death.
For Christian groups, death is a returning to God, or a temporary state until Christ saves all souls. For Muslims, death begins the afterlife in which people are rewarded for a good life, or punished for doing evil. In the Hindu religion, and others, reincarnation returns the spirit of a dead person back to some physical existence. All of the reactions to death and beliefs surrounding them address the feeling of something ending, or at least that it is the end of what people have known up to that point. Death is, in the words of J.K. Rowling, “the next great adventure”.
Seeing as death is the last collective human experience that remains beyond the scope of confirmed knowledge, how could it not play a massive role in the collective psyche? Still, whacking death haphazardly into everything both lessens its effect and often marks a writer who is taking themselves way too seriously.
Death is a Tool
Making a character dead can do a whole host of different things in a story. Some traditional uses include (but are not limited to):
- Getting a parental figure out of the way so the child can be the hero. Like all the orphaned, YA-adventure heroes.
- Cutting off a hero’s mentor to “take off the training wheels”. Think Yoda, Obi Wan Kanobi, Qui-gon Gin… or even Gandalf the Gray for that matter. No genre snobs here, it happens everywhere.
Fuel a revenge plot. Pardon the French, but nothing says “shit just got real” more than an innocent person getting killed, especially someone close to the hero. How about Phil Coulson? Don’t forget Gwen Stacy. That one rocked the whole fiction world.
- Inspire the hero to feats of bravery. What would the world be like without Uncle Ben’s immortal words, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This statement had zero impact without the old man dying. Often immortal words only become that way through the death of the mortal speaker.
- Inflict a wound to be healed through the story. A hoard of realistic fiction sits squarely on the foundation of internal conflict based on healing psychological wounds. The death of a loved one (or near death experience of the character) is used as a token explanation for violent, irrational, or destructive behavior. This isn’t to say it can’t be done well, but not every kid who turns into a serial killer or chronic criminal does so because their father, mother, sibling, or pet died horrifically in their youth. But, to be fair to this particular use, few things inflict a wound on the soul like a brush with death.
There are other frequent uses of death, but these are the major ones. Some hipster writers may say they’re all overused and cliche. Not true. Just because they appear a lot doesn’t mean they can’t be done well. To avoid using death as a band-aid device, consider how other authors (old and new) have used it in the same way. Ask, what worked? What didn’t work? How can this time be different? Is there a more creative way to use this element? Is death the best fix?
Have the courage to answer these with the reader first in mind. While it might seem easy to just knock someone off to get the desired effect, it might be much harder in the long run to overcome the stigma of “we’ve seen this before”.
Writing a Death Scene links: