Some Thoughts on Character Death

This post is a little bit of a deviation from my usual, speculative fare. Characters die in all kinds of fiction; but I think that this reflection still fits with the mood of this column. Don’t worry. There will be one point later on that usually only pops up in some form of speculative fiction.

I’ve been thinking about killing off characters a lot lately. This week alone, I killed off a pretty important character in the novel I’m working on, and went to the premiere of something that started as a fan film made to give a beloved science fiction character a glorious death sequence. As writers, readers, watchers, and fans, we invest a lot of time, emotion, and energy into how a character dies, and how this death affects other characters. If it’s a good one, we’ll relive it every time we need a good cry. If it’s a bad one, we’ll rant about it with other fans, and try our hardest to head-cannon it away.

But why? Why are we so morbidly interested in it? Doesn’t enough death and grief and sadness go on in the real world? Wouldn’t we just want to skip over that part in our fiction? Here are a few reasons that I think we might be so captivated by character deaths. The third almost solely applies to speculative fiction.

Characters give us closure

The best characters can feel as close to us as friends, but we do experience them in different ways than we do real people. With characters, we have the opportunity to view them in their entirety repeatedly and intimately, whenever we wish. If you want to find out what a character thought about something, you just have to turn back a few pages, or go back a few episodes in the show. People in real life aren’t such open books to us. It takes time to become close with them, and learn what they are like. For some aspects of their lives, they may never open to us at all. And worst of all, when people die, we can’t go back and replay our interactions with them. We are left with memories and a lot of loose ends. Characters don’t leave us with the same loose ends. Even after they are gone, we still have them.

Fiction is a safe environment in which to explore concepts of life, death, and grief

If you’re at someone’s funeral, it’s not usually considered appropriate to go up to their loved ones and start asking invasive, personal questions about their grief. Even when we are grieving, it is sort of taboo to talk too long and hard about what we are experiencing. But it’s okay to make small talk about what characters are doing in a book or a movie series, right? In short, fiction gives us permission to take a stick and poke at those big, scary concepts without fear of being bitten.

In speculative fiction, we sometimes get to see the entire arc of death/resurrection

While it usually induces a few eye-rolls these days whenever a comic book character returns to the big screen after being presumed dead, resurrection is a much older trope than Spock, or The Winter Soldier. Characters have been dying and rising since ancient mythologies. There’s something comforting about seeing someone make a come back from the deepest, darkest force we know. And characters in fiction–particularly speculative fiction–really do know how to deliver.

So, next time you’re 18 hours into a show on Netflix, and a beloved character bites the dust, don’t be afraid to go back, to go forward, and to poke those big questions with a stick.


5 thoughts

  1. because we no longer have mourning rituals in our society, fiction is often the only way we have to confront and explore it other than going through it ourselves. from that perspective a well-written death scene has a societal impact beyond just being a good read. i’m grateful to authors who do a good job of tackling the subject.

      1. well, my main topic of research is ancient greece, so that’s what i’m going from. we used to have annual cyclical festivals where grief was ritually expressed. it was almost a form of practice, so that when a personal grief arrived as it inevitably does, there was a framework in place to guide one through it. the methods would vary, for example wandering and mourning were a facet of the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, followed by ribald jesting. at the Adoneia women threw pottery from the rooftops, the shattering symbolizing the loss of the youth and vitality of the young men (presumably in warfare.) the Bacchic Mysteries involved rending, keening, and dancing to exhaustion.
        today, other than stories, we have little that prepares us for grief until it flattens us.

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