Kill your darlings. Yes, I know. Be ruthless and unfeeling with what you treasure most in your writing. Many authors and writers take this literally, killing off beloved characters in a dramatic moment for the sake of the story. But please, don’t kill them just for the sake of killing them. A book/movie/tv show/story is not rated based on the body count. One well-written death can have a thousand times more impact than a hundred cast-offs.
So, what are the rules to dying well? I recently saw/read some examples of what [not] to do when putting your darlings six feet under. These are my own rules and examples, taken from books, movies, and tv shows. Please argue with me, please add your own, please tell me about your favorite character death. WARNING: Spoilers abound. Each example is headed by the name of the original source. Below it will be a paragraph detailing a character’s death within that source…so feel free to skip those you haven’t seen/read.
I don’t mind it when characters die, no matter how much they break my heart. What I despise is when characters die and leave me wondering what the stars the writer meant to do there. So here you go.
RULES FOR DYING WELL
1. Don’t be a cop-out
I enjoy the redeemable villain/heroic character just as much as the next person, but what I don’t enjoy is when the death is the only option. It can be hard to imagine how a villain or hero could continue on with life once he redeems himself, but don’t kill him off just to save yourself the trouble of creating that possibility. His/her departure becomes a shrug and an expectation, with the emotional impact chopped in half. One of the important things about giving up the ghost is the cutting off of the possibilities. I want to know and feel that life beyond this was possible, and yet it did not happen. To think that the character might have had a life after this was all over. The sacrifice loses impact if there were no stakes to lose. The character’s untimely end falls flat because there was no life beyond.
Good: The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Phaedrus has possibilities, and a life beyond. He has a wife and a baby on the way. Despite his identity as an imposter, he has come into his own as leader, and the choice he must make at the end is completely in line with his character journey throughout. The sacrifice he makes is gut-wrenching, but it isn’t a cop-out. He doesn’t die in order to save his identity or get out of future consequences: he dies to give back to his people. He sacrifices as a capstone to his growth over the course of the story, and it is both tragic, unexpected, and entirely fitting.
Bad: Spiderman 2 (2004)
Doctor Octavius may have been a fantastic villain, but of course he was going to snuff the candle. I can’t get too upset at this movie for doing what most villain-is-redeemed movies end with: the dissolution of the redeemed. Is it too hard to give him a chance afterwards? I see it quite often in other stories, where death is better than life because of all the terrible things done and the repercussions that will follow the conversion to good-guy. Man-up, story.
Granted, some stories occasionally feel like they don’t know what to do with a character now. As in: they were only interesting when they had questionable motives. Now that they’ve converted, let’s give them a heroic passing and be done. (Boromir and The Fellowship of the Ring, anyone?)
Exception: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
I think Sydney Carton must be the exception to everything. While he redeems himself through his extinction, and there is a dreading sense of doom throughout the book, there is also a pride in him. You’ve come to care about him as a character, and you want to cheer him on for choosing to do the right thing. There’s loss and redemption, both in the measure that should be.
2. Don’t be pointless
Make the Stygian shore mean something, please. You just killed your character. How does this impact those around him/her? What does it change in the story? Why did you kill him/her? And no, this is not the petulant “whyyyyyy????? that comes when you’ve just finished watching an episode of Supernatural and yet another beloved character has expired. No, this is the querying “why?” that happens when you can’t understand how going the way of all flesh for so-and-so advanced the storyline in any way.
Good: The Princess Bride
Mandy Patinkin’s lines are some of the most quoted, but they provide a great example for this rule: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” There’s your story, folks. Here’s the character. His father was killed. He is avenging it. The debt of nature had purpose, and appropriate consequences. Montoya drank too much and tried too hard, but the rigor mortis, while never shown, actually meant something to the story.
Bad: Red Dawn (2012)
Oh, guys, I hated this one. The movie was okay, assuming you ignore the gaping plot holes, bask in the glory that is Chris Hemsworth, and refrain from screaming at the screen when the ending comes. I’m spoiling it (I warned you), but HIS CHARACTER DIES. IN THE LAST 20 MINUTES. AND IT DOES NOTHING FOR THE PLOT. I hated this movie. There was no point to the deaths near the end. You could try to chalk them up to the horrors of war, but the scenes that followed did nothing to utilize that. It was simply a matter of the North Koreans being the bad guys and making sure the girl and guy never got to kiss. It was drama injected for the sake of drama, and I don’t appreciate it happening to anybody, let alone my freaking Thor.
Exception: Supernatural, Episode 8×22, “Clip Show”
Oh, Sarah. I wanted to be angry at you for being only having two appearances on Supernatural. Season 1 and Season 8. Years later, you came back as a fan favorite, only to fly off with your own swan song. Why? Because you meant something to us, the viewers. You were two episodes of spark and spunk and we liked you. We loved you, just like Sam. When you shuffled off this mortal coil, you grieved everybody. Your quietus felt hopeless, but it was supposed to feel that way. We were supposed to be raging, crying messes of madness over what Crowley had done, and you accomplished that by kicking the bucket. None of the others really meant much to us, but you did. Crowley was striking at the heart, and you were it.
3. Do fit the tone of the book
Joining the majority can come in a lot of different forms. If you’re trying for a hopeful, sunshiny book, please write your Davy Jones Locker appropriately. Heavy grief isn’t exactly a summertime read. If it’s a book about war, sudden or frequent perishings may be completely appropriate. This one is a little harder to explain without examples, but basically: don’t feel like you have to include a crossing of the bar because drama = good. If the situations your character(s) are in involves turning in one’s checks (and it follows the rules above), then go for it. If the expiration is unexpected because you felt like putting one in rather than the story bringing it in, I’ll probably hate you.
Good: The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
This is a book about death. Sheesh, the book is narrated by Death. What did you expect? It was written with every single character living on the knife’s edge that is war. You enjoyed your time with the characters, came to love them, came to live with them. Rudy’s cessation of life was probably the hardest for me. I knew I should expect to possibly part with every character, but I didn’t want to. That’s what made the departures at the end so well written. I was supposed to expect them, but I was hoping not to, and I was heartbroken when they came. They managed to be expected and unguarded at the same time.
Bad: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
Yeah, I know. Death follows Katniss around like a kite on a string, but Prim’s step out was maddening. Why did you kill her? What was this book supposed to be about, again? Family? Sacrificing for others? Great, so why did Prim have to die? Prim felt like a plot device to end the love triangle, and it broke every rule of a good chant du cygne. Your heroine sacrificed her life to save her sister in the first book. She lived with the consequences of that in the second. Suddenly these books are about overthrowing the government and shooting cool arrows and having psychotic breakdowns and oh, right, that sister of hers? Yeah, she bought the farm.
Exception: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
On the other hand, this trilogy does know how to write a completely tone-appropriate crossing of the Stygian ferry. The first book involved 24 contestants fighting to their last breath. Rue and Katniss couldn’t last forever, and her mortality was tragic but not pointless or unexpected. Plus, it made me cry.
4. Do cause grief/repercussions
Unless you are a robot, joining the greater number involves tears. Lots of them. It also involves significant emotional adjustment for everyone, and it’s belittling to the characters if you bypass that in any form. While this rule could be named The Inigo Montoya Rule in his honor, here are a few more examples. (Note: this rule can overlap heavily with the “Don’t be pointless” one)
Good: Supernatural, Episode 2×01, “In My Time Of Dying”
John. I picked this episode because he officially pops off in this one, although you don’t know it until episode 2. Technically, I could pick Supernatural as a whole. The grief, survivor’s guilt, and ensuing events are not wiped away or belittled. While the extent of character dissolution on this show may weigh it down at times, you can’t ever accuse it of not grieving the death rattle of its main characters. Check out Episode 2×04 “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” for Dean’s exposition of his survivor’s guilt and how it played into his actions. The shadow of who John was and how he affected his children hangs over much of the show.
Bad: Red Dawn/Sherlock
Yeah, can I gripe again? The death(s) come too late for any character development. The responsibility that was shown at the end was already happening before the characters’ bitter end, making their deaths feel tacked-on and unnecessary.
Another example is Mary Watson, nee Morstan, in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Her marriage to Watson is mentioned, but her last exhale is given only a passing reference. There was little mention of the grieving process, and Watson resumes his bachelor life with Sherlock and all is well. For all the trouble Doyle took to make Watson a married man, he apparently tired of the wedded life and needed his favorite sidekick to be single again? The lack of sorrow retroactively converts her into a throwaway character.
Exception: Divergent/Insurgent, by Veronica Roth
I was really hoping that Will wasn’t launched into eternity. Truly. But I appreciated the journey that Tris took because of it. His demise could have been pointless, turning him into a one-off character that we met in the first book. Instead, his going off became a key turning point in many of the relationships, and it was a fabulous picture of how different people carry grief and guilt.
5. Do be respectful
If you’re going to kill your characters, please show some respect. It’s one thing to put them six feet under…it’s another to do it by having them slip down a flight of stairs and bash their skull in on a doorhandle. How they kick the bucket is just as important in the whole process of turning in your chips.
Good: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
What would have happened if John Harrison had squeezed Kirk’s brains out on the bridge of the USS Vengeance? Think about it (if you’ve seen the movie). What would Kirk’s obit have meant to him as a character and to the USS Enterprise crew? It would have been tragic, senseless, unthinkable. Instead, his [albeit temporary] last gasp came as he showed his selflessness in the radioactive core. Totally different. With his death by his own choice, on his own terms, in protection of his ship and crew, he received closure on his character arc and went out with respect rather than as a byproduct of some frightening villain.
Bad: Supernatural, Episode 7×09, “How To Win Friends And Influence Monsters”
Sorry, another reference for what is arguably my favorite TV show. Bear with me a moment. Bobby Singer had been around since Season 1’s finale, and had been resident father, mediator, backup, voice of reason, and no-nonsense hunter ever since. A lot of people have argued about the weakness of Season 7’s Big Bad, Dick Roman. He was never quite as menacing as he was supposed to be, but he did manage to do what seven seasons of monsters had been unable to get away with: put a fatal bullet in Bobby’s brain as he was escaping in a van with his two pseudo sons/proteges/resident heroes (Sam & Dean). Really, show? You’ve created this kick-butt character who survived paraplegia and the apocalypse, but he doesn’t go down fighting?
Exception: Supernatural, Episode 7×10, “Death’s Door”
Aaaaannnndddd…here’s how you redeem yourself. You give us a walk through Bobby Singer’s greatest hits, having him fight through a proverbial fog of memories to regain consciousness and give a final word to his beloved boys. You allow him to make his own choice and go out on his own terms. The bullet may have seemed despairingly arbitrary, but Bobby Singer’s last stand is anything but that.
6. Don’t assume I care
I know. You care about your characters. You know of every gravestone that will be chiseled and placed as a result of your manuscript. You will dust off those names and recite them before bedtime. You will care. But you have got to learn to make me care. You may have given your character a watery grave that is a catalyst, fitting to his personality and the tone of your book. But unless you show me why I should care, none of that will matter. I won’t be invested in the ensuing journey if I’m not invested in the character to begin with. (Note: this most often happens when a character has too-little introduction before going to one’s last home)
Good: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
Aslan doesn’t show up for much of the book. He’s name dropped, revered, and feared, before eventually coming on as a fully formed character who manages to awe and comfort the characters that we’ve come to know. We are treated to him by proxy, through the eyes of the Pevensie children, and his death matters to us because it matters to them. We’ve become invested in their lives and his martyrdom is as terrifying and aching as if we were the ones hiding in the shadows and seeing it take place. He doesn’t have to be in the first chapter to matter to us. He’s written in such a way that we care when he comes, no matter how tardy.
Bad: Tron: Legacy (2010)
Admittedly, I never saw the first Tron movie. Maybe I would care more about Tron himself if I had known him previously. But he’s outlined in a flashback and introduced in a breath. Then he’s gone. Rather than being some great sacrifice of a beloved character, he’s merely a questionable pawn who we never quite understand and never quite care about. He helped them escape; awesome. But I can’t mourn his loss if I barely track his existence.
Exception: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Remember Tom Robinson? The man whose case becomes a turning point in the book? Did you realize, in reading it, that we barely met him? He was a whisper from a jail cell overhead, and a witness on the stand with a bum arm. But it didn’t matter how little introduction we had. Harper Lee managed to write him into a representation of the African American community, and while his death was barely described, it was heartbreaking. Here was a man we met for a chapter or two, and yet his shooting hurt us. It hurt the main characters that we loved, and it felt like a loss. Like we had lost. The nature of the story requires Tom Robinson to be unforgettable and deeply moving. In a few short words, we met a polite man, caught between a caste system and a court system, and his desperate end made us feel desperate, too.
I think this post has expounded long enough about death’s door, mm? Let’s recap:
HOW TO DIE (the quickie version)
1. Don’t kill somebody just because you don’t know what to do with them.
2. Don’t kill somebody just because you feel like it.
3. Don’t kill somebody just for–oooohhh, drama!
4. Death has baggage.
5. Respect the dead.
6. Make me care.
Okay, folks, discussion is now open. Agree? Disagree? I love hearing viewpoints other than mine, because I only see it one way and I am inclined to think that I’m right until somebody tells me otherwise. *wink* So tell me otherwise!
What makes a good character death? What are good examples in literature/movies/tv/etc that follow the rules of dying well? What other rules would you add?