You’re on the edge of your seat, gripping the pages tightly in your hands. Everything is at stake. The bombs explode and guns fire. Bodies drop left and right. One by one, you start to see your favorite characters fall alongside them. Why, you ask yourself, why did they have to die?
Recently, I attended a panel on meaningful character deaths at the Salt Lake City-based LTUE Symposium. The panelist specifically stated, “No comments! Only questions!” before the panel even started. So there I sat, a meaningless nobody, quivering with my own two-cents about to erupt from my mouth. But, since I didn’t want to be chastised by Howard Taylor, I kept my mouth shut and decided to write it all here.
Character death is something I think about all the time when writing, reading, or watching television or movies. I’ll be honest, I hate, hate, hate it when my favorite characters die (Guess the authors did their job right, huh?). My earliest memory of an emotional reaction to a character dying was when I was just a kid obsessed with the Warriors series. Characters die in that series all the time, but none hit me so hard as Cinderpelt. I sat in my room blubbering like a baby. My mom opened the door to see if I was okay. Behind her my brother stood, making dumb faces at me because my pain was an opportunity for his pleasure.
Anyway, you gotta admit, the chance of a character dying is part of what makes a story compelling. You can hate my opinion all you want, but I find I drop stories pretty quickly when the bad guys get all the suffering and there’s no risk for the good guys. Why should I keep going if I already know everyone’s going to make it?
So, without further ado, there are three points I’m going to hit on: just enough deaths, too many/ineffective deaths, and fake deaths. Warning, I’m going throw out a lot of spoilers here. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, Supernatural, Divergent, or One Piece, proceed with caution.
Just Enough Deaths
Since this topic was burning inside me, I had to spill my guts to my husband. We had a deep discussion about character deaths in many of our favorite series-what makes a death good, what cheapens it, what deaths really made us angry, and which ones touched us.
Naturally, Harry Potter came up. This has been my most beloved series since I was ten. As you can imagine, I was pretty disappointed to find out I was a Muggle. I was really looking forward to riding a broom, owning an owl, and learning to say wingardium leviosa correctly. Well, I guess it’s better this way. I won’t have to fight Death Eaters or come face to face with Voldemort.
Anyway, I put Harry Potter under the “just enough deaths” category. I could have called it “effective deaths,” too. The first three books were spent building up the world, making you fall in love with the characters. There was a long time those characters felt real to me, like they were actual people I could talk to and spend time with. Sometimes, they still do.
It’s been a long time since I read the series for the first time, so I don’t remember my initial reaction to the series’ first death: Cedric Diggory. Cedric was a likable enough character, but my heart doesn’t wrench when I think of him dying. However, I still consider this an effective death because of it’s circumstances. Here was a good-hearted, kind person who didn’t deserve to die, but at the words, “Kill the spare” that was it. To Voldemort, it didn’t matter that Cedric was good-hearted or kind. He was simply in the way. Thus, demonstrating Voldemort’s disregard for human life in a way that was cruel, callous–and effective.
I’m going to gloss over Sirius’ death, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a shout out. I love Sirius. He’s one of my favorite characters and I spent a lot of time flipping through the pages, desperate to find some inkling that what I read was wrong. Like Harry, I hoped his face would show up in the two-way mirror.
Okay, now for the big one: Dumbledore. Never before or since has a story evoked such an emotional reaction from me. I was at my grandma’s house, laying on the bed and devouring the story as fast as I could before anyone could spoil it for me. My aunt was the only other person home. When I got to the instance on the tower, I threw the book and burst into tears. Not just tears, but the loud, sobbing, ugly kind of tears.
My aunt came in to make sure everything was okay.
“Yeah” I huffed through the mascara and snot.
“Okay” my aunt said hesitantly. She said she was going to the store and asked if I needed chocolate. I told her no, but she brought me some anyway, just in case.
What’s more, after I finished the book, I forgot the story. I remembered Dumbledore died, but I forgot all the details–the cave, the Inferi, the Deatheaters and the vanishing cabinet. This is something often seen in people who’ve experienced trauma. Their brains put a barrier between them and the memory in order to protect them from it. Dumbledore’s death did that to me, that’s how intense it was for me. In six books, this character became a mentor, a friend, even. He shared his wisdom and guidance, not just with Harry, but with me. Then, he was gone and my mind couldn’t process it. Now that is an effective character death.
As for the rest of the Harry Potter series, it was an edge-of-your-seat thing for me. Characters started dying more frequently–Dobby and Mad-Eye for instance–but it was also clear some were going to live. It wasn’t an “I know this person’s going to die, so why should I care?” kind of thing, but it wasn’t an “I know everyone lives, so why keep reading?” type of thing either. It was more of a “Some will live and some won’t so you better keep reading to find out” kind of thing. In other words, just enough.
Too Many/Ineffective Deaths
Okay, Divergent. The next series I’m going to talk about is Divergent. I loved this series when it first started and I won’t lie, it was a good story, but I stopped reading halfway through the last book. Okay, before you get your torches and pitchforks, at least hear my reason.
Yep, everyone. Alright, not everyone, but like 99.998% of the characters. One character would be introduced and two pages later he died in an explosion. Another character would be introduced and then–boom–shot by a gun. It was no longer worth it to me to invest my interest in these characters. I already knew they were going to die, so I didn’t need to keep reading.
There’s my reason. Please have mercy on my soul.
On the contrary, I want to talk bout Supernatural now. Yes, it’s under the “Too Many/Ineffective Deaths” category, but I also think these deaths were done right. Like Divergent, almost every character you meet dies eventually. Heck, even the brothers die…over and over and over again. The difference is…
I cared about these characters.
The story had built them up, gave them personality, made them lovable. In fact, I confessed my love for Bobby when I met Jim Beaver at ComiCon (*ahem* FanX) a few years ago. Even characters that didn’t last long had some unique trait that made them stand out–Charlie was an adorkable girl who wanted to make out with a fairy; Eileen was a deaf, Irish woman full of fire. Yeah, I knew they were going to die, just like I knew the characters in Divergent were going to die. The difference was that the story made me care.
Okay, if you are a One Piece fan and you haven’t got to “War of the Best”/”Paramount War”/”Summit War”/however else it’s been translated, jump down to the “Last Words” section. Do not let this be spoiled for you like it was for me.
At that panel at LTUE, they started talking about fake deaths. You know, the kind where it looks like the character died, but actually didn’t for whatever reason. That’s when my body nearly exploded with what I wanted to say. I wanted to jump up and puke out words, telling about the perfect example of fake deaths and how to make them work, but Howard Taylor’s glare kept me quiet.
One Piece is notorious for fake deaths. The series has been going on for twenty years and only a handful of characters have actually died. Except for back stories, Oda just doesn’t kill characters. Any fan will tell you it’s because he’s so attached to them, he can’t stand to see them die…and some of them have lived through insurvivable events. I mean, a man’s back was broken. The dude was folded in half like a piece of paper and he still lived! Another character held a bomb when it exploded. The thing toppled buildings, but the character holding it was only wounded. In short, every character that “dies” is actually still alive (Still waiting for Bon Clay to come back. Love you, Bon-Chan).
That’s why, when one character actually died for real, it was mind-blowing.
Portgas D. Ace was a beloved character by the entire fandom. He encompassed that perfect “big brother” role, not just to Luffy, but to many other characters, too. Actually, we’re still discovering new characters that he influenced. As he died–really died–in Luffy’s arms, you saw our hero’s jaw drop, his eyes get wide and his face turn upwards in a voiceless scream.
And you felt that.
You felt exactly what Luffy was feeling–the shock, the disbelief, the grief. It had never happened before. No character had ever died. How was this possible? It had to be a joke right? He would come back for sure, wouldn’t he? Oda doesn’t kill his characters.
And yet, you see his tombstone, adorned with a cross of swords and his signature hat. He was gone. Really gone. And Luffy, and the audience, were still in shock.
Now, I don’t know if this is the reason Oda never killed a character, but, dang, if it didn’t have an impact. When someone asks for an example of an effective character death, this is it.
Okay, so before you berate me, know that these are my opinions. Maybe you, like my husband, didn’t think Dumbledore’s death was that effective at all. That’s okay.
But, I think we can all agree on how much fictional characters mean to us. These people (or animals or plants or…) are simply figments of someone’s imagination and yet, they’re so real to us. I can’t tell you how many times I went to watch One Piece, feeling like I was going to hang out with the Straw Hats. In fact, I’m pretty sure Harry, Ron, and Hermione became my imaginary friends when I was a kid.
And that’s just what makes a character death so effective–how much does the audience love them? How real do they feel? Do they have quirks and personalities, or are they simply words on a page? However a character dies, it’s how they lived that gives their passing impact.