Death. It’s one of the constants of life. We’re all born with a best-before date; a point in time in which we’ve done with our breathing, breeding and breaking. It isn’t something most of us have to deal with on a daily basis, but the reaper is coming.
There may be ‘moderate’ spoilers below, but the generalisation should hopefully avert any ruinous spoilerification*. It’s on the level of knowing Sean Bean has been cast in a movie, TV series, or… anything really.
Two piece of fiction immediately come to mind when I think about the use of death in a story, and it’s the typical ones: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and anything by Joss Whedon. If you love a character, they’re probably going to die. If you’re inquisitive about the development or arc of a character, they’re almost definitely going to die. If yo- THEY’RE DYING AS WE SPEAK. Ahem. Whether or not you agree with how liberally Misters Martin and Whedon, there’s no pretending that they’re squeamish about offing a character. It can be difficult for a reader or viewer though, finding a character that’d we ‘d grown to love, or wanted to see where they were going is suddenly out.
So, why death? I find it difficult to remember a story or script I’ve written that didn’t involve somebody dying at some point. The main reason for death in a narrative is to raise the stakes. It’s one of the best ways to hone in on the consequences of what’s happening in a story, to turn what might seem superfluous or unimportant, into something with a clear effect on the character in question, as well as though around them. Sometimes there are characters thrown in for the sake of killing them (red shirts), so that the main characters get through while still pushing the perception that anyone can die. Killing of major characters is another form of this, and occasionally even a protagonist will bite the dust.
Beyond the reminder of mortality, death can also serve as a shuffle. In Tarot, death represents change. So too here. Squad of army brats out on a rescue mission, and their squad leader bites it? Not only do they say ‘shit just got real’, but they’re thrown into turmoil. There’s a power slot unfilled, and who jumps into the role may not be clear. It’s a constant in any Hero’s Journey story – the mentor bites it, and bam, turmoil. It could change the focus of the story if something that wasn’t previously seen as an issue is now a potential threat to the characters.
The other side of raising the stakes, is often death is used not only to show that some characters are in actual danger, but also that characters are more serious or dangerous or brutal than they appear. Good characters might be forced into a situation where they kill another character. It could be their tipping point into a grey area of morality, or it might be a way that the supposed ally of a piece gets revealed as a villain.
My thoughts are that you need to be even-handed with death in your work. Sidekicks and other supporting characters can die. Lots of characters can die. I think if you get to the point where a reader can sarcastically say “Oh look, another death. What a surprise.”, then you’ve overused it. A reader shouldn’t be able to shrug off the death of a character, and neither should the majority of the other characters you’ve written. All this changes if death doesn’t mean the end of a character, or if the death is actually a feint. Like with most things, a death should add to the narrative, either through raising the stakes, changing the angle you’re reaching for, focusing the goals, or adding to the characters responsible.
* Patent Pending