As the title states, I’m going to be writing a lot about book and movie characters that die. This is your spoiler warning.
I’ve been thinking a bit about when characters in books and movies die. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how authors kill off characters. I mostly read sci-fi and fantasy, so I’ll try to limit my comments to those genres. These aren’t new ideas, in fact, I have a lot of links to TVTropes, but these are the ones I see most often.
The two extremes of killing off characters are probably exemplified by George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire on one side of the spectrum, and Children’s fantasy on the other (though not young adult fantasy). Martin seemingly kills off his characters because it hasn’t happened it the last 50 pages, while everyone survives the many kid stories. Neither of these are bad.
Martin kills off his characters to keep the reader guessing. No one in his books is safe because his world isn’t safe. No one is essential to the plot, so no one is guaranteed to survive. The first major death, Ned Stark, could fall into the category of mentor death (which I’ll talk about later), but by the time Joffrey or Robb die, it’s abundantly clear that both heroes and villains are only temporary.
Kid books treat death very differently. Some of them, like the Septimus Heap books, have characters die, but they immediately turn into ghosts and stay viable characters. Others, like L. Frank Baum’s Oz series make death an impossibility. It was actually pretty hard to come up with any sci-fi or fantasy book that doesn’t have any named character die. Between my wife and I, we could only come up with one, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and the whole point of that book is that everyone is trying to keep the protagonist alive.
The Parents Die
This type of death is one of the most common in sci-fi and fantasy. The list of books and movies that kill off the protagonist’s parents, either on or off screen, is immense. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Rand Al’Thor, and Frodo Baggins are all orphans, and those are just a few of the best known characters.
The whole point of this is to eliminate a variable in the storytelling. If the hero is off having an adventure, the author generally doesn’t want him/her to have someone to answer to. It’s a convenient way to ignore the character’s past and focus on the present. Unfortunately, as youth fantasy novels have become more popular, this type of death has started to move from a trope to a cliche.
The Villain Dies
Usually the villain is killed off because it’s a nice and neat conclusion to a story. If the villain is dead, they are no longer a threat. It happens to the Lord Ruler in Mistborn, The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, a good portion of Disney Villains, Voldemort in Harry Potter, etc.
The thing is, even though it’s really common to kill a villain, there are a lot of ways for a villain to die, and I’m not just talking about the actual cause of death. Darth Vader dies a redemptive death (discussed below). In most superhero movies, the villain accidentally kills himself. In a slight variation of the last point, sometimes, like with Nero in Star Trek, the villain chooses death over being helped by the hero.
The way the villain dies gives insight into what the author was trying to say. It’s not unusual for the villains death to teach the viewer something about the protagonist. In Star Trek, Kirk offers Nero and his crew asylum, but Nero rejects it, choosing to die instead. The point isn’t so much about Nero’s pride as it is about Kirk’s moral superiority. When the Green Goblin dies in Spider-Man, he does so in a way that prevents Peter from having blood on his hands. If the protagonist actively kills the villain, that too says a lot about what type of character the hero is.
The Mentor Dies
The mentor role is usually very important since the protagonist rarely has the skills needed to complete the quest at the beginning of the journey. The problem with mentors is that if they are really so powerful, then they should be able to take care of the problems themselves. That’s why so many mentors are very old when the story starts. It’s an easy way to imply a decline in ability while preserving the capability to pass along the knowledge that the hero needs.
Eventually, however, the protagonist has enough skills to move forward, and the mentor starts to inhibit the progress of the story. At that point, the mentor needs to die. It’s a quick and easy way to give the hero an emotional push towards completing the quest, while also eliminating the complication that come with having someone there to hold the hero’s hand. It’s why Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Obi-wan (Star Wars), Abbe Faria (The Count of Monte Cristo), Kelsier (Mistborn), Brom (Eragon), and even Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) died. (Granted Gandalf comes back, but Frodo doesn’t learn about that until after his quest is complete.)
While not there yet, this is another one of those tropes that’s working its way toward cliche.
End of Book Heroic Death
There are really two ways this one can happen. The first is the redemptive death. This is when a villain, or hero that makes some mistakes, has to sacrifice him/herself for another protagonist. This is what happened to Boromir in Lord of the Rings, Snape in Harry Potter, Ellidyr in The Black Cauldron, and Darth Vader from Star Wars.
The other way this happens is the heroic sacrifice. That’s when the protagonist sacrifices him/herself for a greater good. Often this is how the mentor (mentioned above) dies, but not exclusively. This is Spock in Wrath of Kahn, Elend and Vin in The Hero of Ages, and Tris in Allegiant.
The heroic death, either for redemption or the greater good, is mostly used for emotional impact. Usually, the death is inevitable, the suspense comes from not knowing which character will be the one to die. One problem with this type of death, specifically when it’s the heroic sacrifice, is that writers often look for ways to undo it later. It happens a lot, especially in TV and movies, like Spock in Star Trek 3, Goku in Dragonball Z, Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Winchesters in Supernatural. While it may be gratifying to have a favorite character come back to life somehow, doing so also lessens the emotional impact the death was meant to create.
The items listed above are some of the more common tropes. You probably recognize a bunch of them and have seen many more examples than the ones I’ve listed. They aren’t bad. There’s a reason they’re tropes and not cliches. There are some character deaths that are very different from these. Some of them are great, and others are horrible.
One of the better deaths that doesn’t really fall into any of the above categories is Wash’s death in Serenity. It’s completely unexpected, it comes at a climactic moment, and it’s after Wash’s triumphal (if rough) landing, but it’s not really a heroic death since it wasn’t necessary for him to die to achieve that success. It was random.
Another great death was Gwen Stacey’s. In the comics, it was the first time that a main character, and an innocent, died and stayed dead. It was brilliant, and changed the way comics were written. The emotional impact that Gwen’s death had on Peter Parker completely changed the character, and it had a devastating impact on many of the comic’s readers as well.
Being different isn’t always good. In Orson Scott Card’s book, Empire, the main character is randomly shot in the face in the middle of the book. It was completely jarring and unexpected. It also pulled the reader out of the narrative. Most people I’ve spoken to had to go back and reread the page a few times to make sure they understood what happened. That completely destroys the flow of a story. Not only that, but then there’s no main character. Card just shifts the perspective over to someone else without any preparation. It was such a clumsy way to handle the death.
X-Men: The Last Stand also had some terrible deaths. One of the worst was Cyclops’s death at the beginning of the movie. It’s pretty obvious that he’s not dying for any reason other than to write him out of the movie. There was little emotional impact, and it didn’t really contribute to the story either.
This wound up being a lot longer than I anticipated, but it’s been nice for me to get out all my thoughts on the subject. If there are any other tropes or examples you think fit particularly well, let me know in the comments. I’m always interested in getting other views.