This post is gonna span the book border that I usually stick to, but bear with me. I’m going to be talking about the death of characters so SPOILER WARNINGS FOR:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
Angel: Season One (television series)
Buffy: Season Six (television series)
A Sword From Red Ice by J.V. Jones
So, on with it. I was thinking about Joss Whedon’s oeuvre because I had just rewatched the seventh season of Buffy, the first season of Angel, and Serenity. And something occurred to me, which had occurred to me before, is that Whedon is the biggest emotional manipulator I have ever SEEN. He kills off characters, time and again, to get an emotional reaction from the audience, but doesn’t back it up with any… what’s the word? Larger meaning? Importance to the narrative? Now, I don’t mind a storyteller purposefully making me feel something – that’s his/her job – but I do mind if the only reason for a character’s death is to make me feel something. Because then I feel used.
So I starting thinking about this relationship between emotional response and narrative importance and then I started formulating a graph in my mind and filling in some examples (thank you, brother dearest, for helping me figure out the examples). I’ll show the graph in a moment, but let me define the terms I’m using first. Then I’ll show the graph, explain my examples and, lastly, open up the floor to comments! (Heh, I’ve always wanted to say that.)
Narrative Drive – a.k.a. narrative importance. This means that the character’s death serves a function in the plot or, at the very least, is mentioned again.
Meaning – I’m including this on the Narrative Drive axis because if a character dies at the end of a story, there can’t be a whole lot of plot affecting going on. There can, however, be a thematic meaning to his/her death. I’ll extrapolate more in my examples.
Emotional Response – Self-explanatory, I think?
Catharsis – This is included because sometimes a character you care about dies, but it happens quickly or is glossed over and there is something missing in your emotional response. That something is catharsis.
In no particular order, here are some explanations (forgive the names, it’s late and I don’t have the time to think up awesome categories):
The Emotional Manipulator (high emotion/low meaning) – Wash is the perfect example of Whedon’s EM tendencies. His death is tragic and painful, especially for people who have seen the show, but it serves no narrative purpose or thematic meaning. As my brother said, “He dies so you’ll be sad.” There are quite a few examples of EMs, but none that I can think of at the moment outside of Whedon’s work.
The Important Ones (low emotion/high meaning) – Lupin and Tonks are the opposite of Wash. Of course, you’re heartbroken that they’re dead, but they don’t get a death scene. In fact, they barely get a mention as Harry is dazedly walking through Hogwarts! This is why I included the “catharsis” caveat. The reader has no time to grieve and so doesn’t experience catharsis. You might be wondering why they scored so high on the other axis, though. They don’t affect the narrative much, as they die right at the end of the series. This is where “meaning” comes in. JKR is making a point with their off-screen deaths: war sucks and people die and sometimes you don’t get to see what heroes they were because you were fighting too and suddenly it’s over and quiet and so many, many people you love are gone. Other examples include: Kvothe’s parents in Name of the Wind (important to him, also their killers are relevant later),
The Strongest Ones (high in both) – Charlotte… I don’t really know that I have to explain this one. It’s interesting to note, though, that all of the examples I could think for this category had hugely traumatic deaths at the end. The whole book/movie built up to that death and that is why the death itself was so extremely powerful and scored high on both of my axes. I hate these stories. I mean, I love Charlotte’s Web, but my other examples ripped me up so much that I couldn’t even stand it. Other examples: Bridge to Terabithia, The Man in the Moon (movie)
The Middle Roaders (somewhere in between) – Tara from Buffy dies and we’re heartbroken because we love her and it’s important because Willow goes ker-AZY, but on neither axis is it hugely devastating/important. Doyle from Angel is an interesting example, I think, though I probably wouldn’t have thought of him if I hadn’t just watched the first season of Angel. He’s introduced as a main character, but dies halfway through season one. You’ve spent around ten hours with him at that point, plenty time to become emotional attached, and while his death doesn’t affect the plot, per se, it does affect the characters and we see them in a grieving process that lasts for multiple episodes. Of course, I would have liked to see Whedon going farther, like having Doyle’s seer abilities pass to Cordelia a few episodes later instead of the next episode or not having Wesley show up right away, and seeing how Angel and Cordelia cope in those circumstances, but I’ll take what I can get! There are tons more of these, of course – it’s probably the most common kind of death.
Forgotten Ones (low in both) – This was a hard one. Neither my brother nor I could think of a major character who dies without either the reader caring or importance to the plot. There are, of course, tons of minor characters who die this way, but we felt it should be a more major character. Additionally, we felt that the book the character was drawn from should be of some quality – it’s just not very interesting to say, “This character from this sucky book had a sucky death.” Now, I haven’t read any J.V. Jones, but my brother assures me that Lan Fallstar from A Sword from Red Ice, fits this category pretty well. He’s pretty much a douche (so we don’t care that he dies), is in half of the book travelling with a main character (so he can’t be called a minor character), and after his death, everybody just moves on. Case closed!
And that’s it. Well, no, there’s more to say, of course. For one thing, the qualities I chose to talk about, while I find them interesting and relevant, are not the only ways to talk about or the only important things about character death. For another, where a death is placed, especially on the emotional axis, depends a lot on the person reading/viewing/experiencing the story. I was sad about Doyle, but I’m sure others weren’t. I didn’t cry the first time I saw Wash die because I hadn’t seen Firefly, but you’d better bet that I’ve cried every time since!
Also there are incredibly complicated, circular deaths that don’t fit on the graph. Have you seen The Fall? It’s a movie that is about storytelling. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot is a man telling a little girl a story that he’s making up as he goes along. Near the end (it’s a fantastic movie, so if you haven’t seen it, you maybe should stop reading and go watch it!), the man starts killing off characters and the following exchange happens (this may not be exact):
Little Girl: “Why are you killing everybody??”
Man: “It’s my story!”
Girl: “Mine too!”
Which gets into one of the hearts of storytelling. I’m not tying The Fall very well into this discussion of character death, but trust me, it’s relevant. Maybe someone else who has seen it can take it away in the comments?
One last thing, though I didn’t talk about video games, I think this is actually especially important for them because of their interactive nature. I think these would be even more debatable on the emotional front. Some quickies: the Companion Cube in Portal (I would argue this is high on emotion, low on meaning), Aeris from FFVII, any of your Sims (though that gets into other issues, like whether your Sims are characters, and how different it is when it’s a story you’re creating), etc.
Thanks again to Brian for helping me out with examples and just generally helping me think through this post a little more!
And now it’s time to open up the discussion. What examples do you have and where do they fit on the chart? How important is it to think about this stuff as a reader, as as a writer? Any other thoughts?