21 Comments to “When Characters We Love Die”

  1. I think, too, its the manner of the death that matters. While a meaningless stupid death is certainly plausible, its often unsatisfying for a reader. Countess Snowden, who has followed the heroine all this way, takes a stray arrow and dies of an infection? While that’s realistic, it feels capricious and cruel.

    Now, if the Countess saves the heroine by interposing her troops between her and the Marsh-Ogre, buying time for the heroine to escape, that’s a more satisfying death and one readers can accept better.

  2. Helen Lowe

    Jul 29th, 2013

    Actually, I feel your scenarios dovetail ‘entirely’ with my concluding point, Paul — the kind of story being told is what will, and should, drive which is the more ‘satisfying’ (assuming nay death can be satisfying as such) death for the reader. But also, I would add, best fits the integrity of the story being told.

    For example, in a book which focuses on realism, an element of which is going to be randomness, the first scenario might still satisfy if the other characters reacted to exactly that sense your underline: that death can feel capricious and cruel–especially if that “fits” the story being told, i.e. if the other characters “feel” the death on that basis.

    But if it’s just “oh yeah, and then she died and the rest of the characters moved right along” then maybe not so much.

    Of course, one should never discount the possibility that the author may not wish readers to accept the death or feel satisfied by it–she or he may wish the reader to rail, gnash, curse, grieve and swear, including, potentially at the author for her or his perfidy…

  3. Andrew

    Jul 29th, 2013

    As you say. It depends on the story being told. Right from the start the best epic authors have tried to use death meaningfully. Consider the way Tolkien uses the death of Gandalf, Boromir, Gollum and Theoden. Each death serves a different purpose and evokes a different response from other characters in the story.

    • Helen Lowe

      Jul 30th, 2013

      Looking at your names, Andrew, I can see that I could as easily have used Tolkien as my example of authors who are not afraid to have main characters die–although Gandalf does come back, or is sent back, but nonetheless, the death is genuine at the time. (I also think the deaths at the end of The Hobbit are worth mentioning in this regard, although I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

      The LoTR deaths you mention all have ‘high meaning’, and Gandalf, Boromir and Theoden also fit Paul’s second example of the ‘high heroic’ death (mentioned above.) And there’s nothing wrong with that! The high heroic death, from the 300 at Thermopylae, through Beowulf and the dragon, to King Arthur at Camlann or Roland at Roncesvalles, is integral to the heroic tradition.

      But having said that, if you look at The Iliad for example, and take away the gods and the descriptions of armor and military prowess, the actual depictions of death and combat are actually quite gritty—Patroclus’s death, and Hector’s, both wrench at us, but neither is particularly heroic.

      In fact, Hector’s death comes close to being ignominious, because he is outmatched against Achilles. We still feel his death though, because we have come to know Hector as a character: his foreboding, and the grief and fear of his wife, Andromache, ahead of the combat; as well as the pleading of his father Priam, abasing himself to Achilles for the honorable return of his son’s body.

      So I guess we are agreeing!:) It does indeed all come down to the nature of the story being told, and keeping both the life and death of characters in integrity with that.

  4. Liz Gatens

    Jul 30th, 2013

    I am guilty of wanting characters to live! Death is inevitable, but when a great author gives me the point of view of a great character, I tend to get involved in their story arc. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, but I’m going to say ‘hear hear” for the meaningful death of characters the reader (me!) has invested in.

    Realism in death does bring authenticity and a deeper level of involvement with the remaining characters, but the random slaughter by some scythe-wielding authors makes me wonder if they are placing that desire for authenticity above the story-telling. If the consequences then shape the other characters, I’ll buy into it and not feel cheated. I’ll accept their death to illustrate a point, to show just how evil the evil dudes are, or to emphasise how difficult the struggle for life is. But without some meaning, some consequence, the point of the story changes–to realism, not fantasy, and the integrity, as you put it, is lost.

    Of course, this all says more about me as a reader! I prefer characterisation over plot, and the ending doesn’t have to be happy–but it must be satisfying.

    “…characters we love may also live.” And that’s why I read on 🙂

    • Helen Lowe

      Jul 30th, 2013

      Liz, I don’t think wanting characters we love to live is a matter for guilt–I would only feel I had failed as an author if readers were indifferent to their fate!

      And I am very glad, seeing your additional comment below, that you acquit me of being a ‘scythe-wielder’ (i.e. for its own sake)–which I feel often (always?) achieves the opposite of authenticity.

      I do think you can have unheroic or inglorious death in Fantasy without losing the sense of epic-heroic storytelling, which is why I discussed the example of Hector’s death in reply to Andrew. And in fact his death does have ‘meaning’, chiefly through exploring what it means to those around him… Which is, I think, what you are saying.:)

      As for “…characters we love may also live”; do “read on” Liz! Special pleading and bribes *may* also be considered… 😉

  5. Liz Gatens

    Jul 30th, 2013

    I should point out, I don’t consider you to be a scythe-wielder!

  6. Freya Robertson

    Jul 30th, 2013

    This is a great subject, Helen! And such a tricky one for writers. As a reader or watcher of fantasy series, I dislike investing my time and emotions in my favourite characters only to have them die, as in GoT (which I love, apart from that). I understand the argument about the reality of war, but I don’t personally believe we as fantasy writers are not portraying the reality of war if we keep our main characters alive. I like to think the average reader is intelligent enough to understand that we are not killing off our main characters because we love them and we want our readers to love them and to continue to read on.

    I play the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and we have one player who is always saying our combat isn’t realistic enough because no-one ever dies. But my point is that why do I want to invest my time creating a realistic character only to have to start all over again? I want to take that character through to the higher levels and grow into her, and develop her more and more. And it’s the same with my writing.

    It’s good to have important characters die in our books occasionally, as shock value will also keep readers glued to the page. But I believe disappointing the reader is a worse crime than being unrealistic.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    • Helen Lowe

      Jul 30th, 2013

      I agree, Freya, it can be tricky. In the roleplaying situation, I also think a GM has to be mindful that the players are primarily there to have fun, so death should probably only be served out for particularly egregious stupidity. (A sort of rolepaying Darwin award!)

      But serious gamers I know (I do not count myself in this number:)) also say that at bottom roleplaying is about staying and playing in character. They assert that sometimes a character will choose a course that will result in death for that reason: when playing a paladin for example, or perhaps a character who worships a death god.

      To me, that sounds a little like what I am talking about with regards storytelling, where it is the integrity of the narrative that drives everything, including the life and death of characters.

  7. Betsy Dornbusch

    Jul 30th, 2013

    Great topic and discussion. I just had a conversation regarding this with a reader-friend yesterday. Her insights ran along “it must serve the story” lines, and also, as writers, we have to accept some reader is going to be unhappy about it.

    • Helen Lowe

      Jul 30th, 2013

      I’m having fun with this, Betsy!:)

      I think you’re right though, there are so many readers, with different desires and expectations, not to mention the mood and moment in which he or she encounters the work, so that one can never hope to please all of them all of the time.

      That is why I believe that all the author can ultimately do is focus on staying true to the story and telling it as best as she or he can — and hope that something in it “will” speak to readers. But also accept that it will only ever be some of the huge diversity of readers out there.

  8. Andrew Neill

    Jul 31st, 2013

    Great post. I can’t really add to the discussion, except that I like your Iliad analysis and like Liz I don’t think your treatment of violent death is a splatter fest.

    Am enjoying the range of posts coming through on this site.

  9. Mary

    Aug 4th, 2013

    Good post, Helen. I do think the fact that readers object to a favourite character dying might be a sign that you’ve written the character well. 😉 Of course, it might not be such a good idea to abuse that sensibility with character after character.

    (Spoilers) I personally was heartbroken when Estraven dies in Left Hand of Darkness. But I do see how it adds to the story.

    • Helen Lowe

      Aug 5th, 2013

      Estraven is a great example of major character death that works in the context of the story being told.

      ‘Abusing the sensibility with character after character’ rapidly descends into what Andrew Neill called a “splatter fest.” While I don’t rule out that being authentic in the right circumstances, most examples I’ve come across don’t read that way. :-/

  10. Janice W.

    Aug 5th, 2013

    It’s very sad to see a loved character die in a great story, however As a reader , i become that much more involved in the the whole story! Anything could happen and I want to know more!
    Love the books!

    • Helen Lowe

      Aug 6th, 2013

      I’m so glad you love the books, Janice — thank you for taking the time to comment and tell me so.

      As a reader,I agree that sometimes the death of a loved character can draw you deeper into the story—and sometimes it even makes a read more enjoyable (if that’s the right word!) to have to reach for a box of tissues.

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