The death of a character is an emotional roller coaster for most. Some people will say it adds spice and excitement to a story however it can also do the opposite. Depending on the character, it can be intensely depressing or it can bring about a somber peace. With the exception of stories involving resurrection, death is a permanent end to a character. In some respects, it is one of the most difficult things a writer can do to a story. But what makes a character death compelling? What makes a character death add to the story in exchange for removing a sometimes beloved character? Too often the deaths of characters are done for shock value and can often ruin a story rather than improve upon it but when done right it can add so much depth to the surviving characters.
[Very slight spoilers for The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Legend of Korra, Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood.]
Truth be told I got the idea to write this after reading in an article by Paul Tassi that, after a specific death, the viewership for The Walking Dead dropped and never fully recovered (the article has heavy spoilers but illustrates some very important points). The character was so loved by the audience that removing them killed a lot of people’s interest for the show. I had watched the show for quite a while and, I have to admit, I had that death spoiled for me and since I knew it was coming I also lost interest in watching. This isn’t to say that some characters are immune to death, but that some characters are so pivotal to a story that the story wouldn’t feel right without them. If such a central character was to die, it has to be either close to the end or done in a way where it adds to the story and keeps people invested. In this day and age where character driven stories are the norm, killing one of the characters the audience loves most can completely destroy any connection they may have to the story.
When a character dies, their death should not only affect the story and the characters but also impact the audience in a meaningful way. There’s an argument to be made that deaths can be random to simulate what would happen in real life as it’s “realistic” to have it sometimes unexpected. But the risk to this is how unsatisfying it can be for the audience while also ruining any built-up tension or suspense. Stories are meant to intrigue and captivate an audience but when a lead character dies before they’re able to fulfill their arcs, it leaves a hole in the audience’s view of the overall story. It leaves a plot line that could have been expanded on and fulfilled closed off in an unsatisfying manner. It’s extremely hard to write a death in a story without it being purposeful in some way as we would expect some kind of reason to justify it. Game of Thrones, for it’s gratuitous amount of character deaths, still attributed a reason for why each character died. In some way, their hubris or involvement in the plot led to their downfall. As realistic as a story may seem, the death of a character often has to suspend reality to justify their demise or else the audience may feel cheated out of an engaging character arc.
Death is a powerful and tragic occurrence in life and it needs to be reflected in the stories we share. Outside of comedy, there’s a seriousness to death within stories that leave a lasting impression on the audience. I admit that after a character dies, depending on how much I cared about them I sometimes put down the book for a few minutes to reflect and, in a way, mourn for their loss. Death, in real life, often leaves a permanent change in those who knew the person. As such, a really satisfying character death needs to have a continuous affect on the remaining characters in the story. It doesn’t just happen and people move on, that’s not quite how life works for the majority of people. An amazing example of this is Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood. Without spoiling the series, there’s a particular death that stays with the protagonists and the supporting cast for the remainder of the series. What is amazing about it is how it’s always mentioned and remembered by the cast. It’s a death that shook the entirety of the story to its core. If you haven’t watched Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, I highly recommend watching it as it’s one of the best written stories I have ever seen.
But on the flip side, while a character death can be tragic and sorrowful, in some cases it can be a very satisfying and cathartic end for certain characters. Often these are characters that the audience absolutely despises so usually it’s a quite villainous character. Game of Thrones is an amazing example of these despicable characters dying, but not often in ways the audience would find fulfilling. There’s a sense of justice the audience normally has and it can be very disappointing for a villain to die by some seemingly random event. In a sense, it can make the audience feel cheated when the heroes aren’t involved in the demise of the villains. However, in some cases, it can lead to a more solemn and quite dark end when done well. The end of Legend of Korra season 1 was one such ending that, despite how I feel about the show overall, was something that I would never forget. I didn’t expect it yet when it happened, it felt right with how the story had been written. It was dark, depressing and startling but fit as the character’s story had ended and their departure didn’t take away from the overall story.
I don’t personally have an issue with characters dying, but I do take issue with character deaths that are done purely for shock value. Writers in books, shows and movies sometimes rely too much on getting a reaction rather than writing a death that is both narratively satisfying and acceptable to the audience. Even if we want a character to live to the very end, sometimes it does make sense for their deaths to spur the others on. Again I have to refer to Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood as it is beyond amazing in how well written it is. As much as I loved that character and could imagine the potential they could have had throughout the series, I have to admit that their death made the story far more satisfying by the end. Sometimes a character death really does help to improve a story but it’s something writers have to be careful in using.
One wrong character death can kill a story.