When you stab your readers in the heart.
April 12, 2015
I GET INTO MANY EARNEST monologues about character death that I’m almost relieved to finally have this forum to put my thoughts into some order. As writers we know we have to put our characters through it at some point, and as readers we know we’ll have to face it along with said heroes as our trusty author stitches our heartstrings into the weave of the narrative.
We all know it’s going to hurt, and it does… and somehow, it leaves everybody simultaneously unsettled and deeply satisfied. Why? It’s predictable, has to happen, but the author’s trick is to be able to choose a moment nobody predicts. We have all experienced the jaw-drop during the first read or viewing of a story when a notable character is killed off, usually right in front of the protagonist, who then goes through a series of predictable reactions – shocked stillness, a burst of emotion, sudden action.
If the writer is playing the right cards, this series of predictable reactions should be accompanied by a mirrored reaction in the reader – “Wait, what just happened? He’s dead?! No, that’s not fair! He was just about to clear his name!” But it’s not shock value that gives death in a narrative its power. It’s not morality, it’s not honour, it’s none of the fluffy stuff either. Which is weird, because I’m sure we all love all that stuff.
When a major character is killed, a unique opportunity presents itself. Yes, the writer gets to stab the reader in the heart. Yes, we get to witness the blink of a moment when that character transforms into a martyr, or shares a controversial truth that propels the plot elsewhere, or something else awesome yet predictable. All of this is important in the writing process and all of it is immensely satisfying in its own way.
We feel assured knowing Obi-Wan died for a greater cause. We feel vindicated learning that Snape was indeed innocent, as we all believed all along. We like to think it’s all about the character that’s dying. Character death serves an undeniable, irreplaceable role in moving a story from A to B, and this is where a character’s expiration exerts its most powerful force as a device: the importance is not with how death transforms the victim, but with how death transforms those left behind.
When somebody dies, the transformative effect is a ripple in a pond. Those closest are hit the hardest, and for a reader, whose heart should be invested with these imaginary people and whose heart should be appropriately wounded by that beloved character’s untimely demise, there is always the same question as there is from the supporting cast of characters: “Why?” Why him? Why now? Why did the writer take it upon herself to steal away the character I liked most/I had the highest expectations for/who had just redeemed himself? There needs to be an answer, and that answer is in the reactions of the characters that remain.
Major character death, especially the kind where even the writer bites his lip with regret at having to type the keys, works because it hurts everybody else in the cast that matters to the reader. The fallout has the potential to smash the reader with double, triple, ten times the pain she feels personally. It’s like the author is sneering, “You think you’re hurting? What about the brother, the best friend, the teacher and the unrequited love interest?” And the reader shamefully averts her eyes and checks on how the other characters are feeling. They’re invariably doing pretty poorly. They just lost someone very special, after all. They’ve been torn open, and once we as readers are actually looking, we realise we’re looking directly inside them.
In their grief the remaining characters are raw and erratic, and after following them for two-thirds of a novel and getting a grasp of who they think they are, we finally get to see what they are really made of. It’s in this rare space of storytelling that we see the barest, purest form of human behaviour on display, the unpredictable response to having what we most love, what we rely on as given and eternal, stripped away. We see them dissolve with agony and rebuild themselves from this lower-than-low point with nothing more than willpower and inner strength in order to avenge their loss, or protect whatever interests or persons have been made vulnerable by the loss. We see heroes made not in their own deaths, but in the deaths of those they love. And we love it.
I think we love it for two reasons, and there are therefore two ways for a writer to ensure the readership loves it. One is what I’ve already discussed. We love the opportunity to see this deeply human aspect of a character. The unpredictability of grief and rage is relatable in a way that predictable by-products of character death, such as honourable remorse or coded final words, are not. We have all said and done things in times of extreme emotion that we are later unable to explain. Our eyes widen in shock as our heartless author shoots our favourite character down in his moment of triumph and it seems only right to us that the thus-far peaceful protagonist finally takes up his sword.
The second reason is validation. We love character death, but we hate losing the character. The author’s job is to convince the reader to be okay with it and to begrudgingly agree that it was in service of the greater story arc. Character death without validation serves no purpose except to upset the reader, and while I fully support upsetting readers, I maintain it’s important to ensure you also dust them off and kiss them better, because you want them to buy your next book, right?
So play nice. Unsatisfying character death is best achieved by failing to demonstrate appropriate emotional fallout following the loss, undermining the importance of the character both to the overall story and to those around him. Watching the hero unravel at the death of his brother and throw himself into unadvised battle against the villain to enact his vengeance is deeply fulfilling because we all know the hero wouldn’t normally be this hasty.
The unpredictable, irresponsible reactions of those who survive a character death are a testament to the significance of the lost character, and we see and feel all the deep human stuff that would just be too fluffy to put into dialogue. It requires the beloved character to die, unfortunately, but the payoff in emotional validation should be the literary equivalent to drying your reader’s tears and offering him a lollipop.
A final comment to writers: Spiderman’s uncle is so right. With great power comes great responsibility. What an awesome line. If you’re killing a character for shock value or to up the body count (i.e. saving it until the end when there’s no time for emotional repercussions ala Dexter, or Hunger Games) then it’s entirely probable that you are not as gritty and clever as you thought, and you are actually just the mean author who wounds the reader and withholds the lollipop.
I’ve been the unsatisfied reader and viewer and I know how a poorly executed character death discolours the memory of a whole story. It’s something I’m hyperaware of while I’m writing, because I only ever want to write what I would want to read. Character death can be a very powerful, very delicate, very precise tool, or it can be a nuclear bomb. Killing a major character, tearing open the people who loved him and then failing to capitalise on this opportunity and validate the loss is just a slap in the face of the reader who invested her heart in your story. If you’re going to throw your readers’ hearts around, make sure you dust them off and give them back with a smile when you’re done. It’s only good manners.
Shayla Morgansen is the author of Chosen.