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My wife and I were watching a movie where one of the main characters died shortly after being reunited with his long lost love. His death was not meaningless -- he died defending his only son, but it was completely unsatisfying. I wasn't happy that he died. I felt torn.

On the other hand, there have been movies and stories where a key character dies and, although it is sad, I am good with it. It works. The sorrow and death are satisfying and add to the depth of the story rather than make me question why such a bad thing happened.

What makes the death of a main character satisfying or unsatisfying?

10

According to dream logic, which often underlies work that is psychologically satisfying, death symbolizes rebirth.

For example, in the movie American Beauty, the death of the main character comes at a moment of spiritual and moral renewal. We mourn the character, but we paradoxically and simultaneously experience the character's death as a liberation.

When the death is not accompanied by this hidden sense of rebirth, we merely experience it as senseless and depressing.

  • 1
    This is a great observation. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 10 '15 at 9:58
  • Agreed, great observation. Many of the world's religions have this idea of a God or significant religious figure dying and being born again. Easiest example is Jesus, but it abounds in many religious texts and mythologies. – Craig Sefton Sep 18 '15 at 9:21
  • Some characters are have been relentlessly evil, and eventually flip to the good side. But the audience finds it hard to forgive their past actions. Many of these characters are usually killed off instead, because that's the only way to fully redeem them. – Muz Jun 24 at 10:27
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Most of the answers so far treat the death of a character as either a technical exercise in plot or thematic principle, or a blemish on the reader's entertainment experience. Even @ChrisSunami's intriguing and intelligent response concludes with the overly narrow

"When the death is not accompanied by this hidden sense of rebirth, we merely experience it as senseless and depressing."

These responses do not suitably address @user2859458's question. It's framed very specifically:

What makes the death of a main character satisfying or unsatisfying? (Emphasis mine.)

There are many ways in which a character's death can be "satisfying". The character's death can complete the plot. The character may be so unsympathetic that it's pleasant to see him/her die. And yes, there's merit in @ChrisSunami's "hidden sense of rebirth".

But these are minor compared to the great concept of pathos. Pathos is when the writer or composer stirs the audience's emotions. It's a peculiarly modern notion that the meaningful emotions are the simple ones such as happiness or relief. Some of the greatest emotions are the painful ones.

Satisfaction, for the reader, can involve the exercise of sorrow and grief. A sense of the tragic. A sense of loss. A glimpse of the character's courage in the face of death. Pride; departure; perhaps even transcendence.

Shakespeare understood this very well. E. R. Eddison, whose thundering novel The Worm Ouroboros chronicles - in Jacobean prose and Shakespearean dialogue - a long and bitter struggle between two kingdoms, certainly did.

Here is an edited excerpt from the end, when the Lords of Demonland stand among their dead enemies in the great banquet hall. Their triumph in this war is made bitter by the manner of its end in poison and treachery; and especially this end of the great love story of their magnificent enemies Prezmyra and Corund.

And while they gazed, there walked into the shifting light of the flamboys over that threshold the Lady Prezmyra, crowned and arrayed in her rich robes and ornaments of state. Her countenance was bleak as the winter moon flying high amid light clouds on a windy midnight settling towards rain, and those lords, under the spell of her sad cold beauty, stood without speech.

In a while Juss, speaking as one who needeth to command his voice, and making grave obeisance to her, said, "O Queen, we give you peace. Command our service in all things whatsoever. And first in this, which shall be our earliest task ere we sail homeward, to stablish you in your rightful realm of Pixyland. But this hour is overcharged with fate and desperate deeds to suffer counsel. Counsel is for the morning. The night calleth to rest. I pray you give us leave."

Prezmyra looked upon Juss, and there was eye-bite in her eyes, that glinted with green metallic lustre like those of a she-lion brought to battle.

"Thou dost offer me Pixyland, my Lord Juss," said she, "that am Queen of Impland. And this night, thou thinkest, can bring me rest. These that were dear to me have rest indeed: my lord and lover Corund; the Prince my brother; Gro, that was my friend. Deadly enow they found you, whether as friends or foes."

...

Juss, whose sword was bare in his hand, smote it home in the scabbard and stepped towards her. But the table was betwixt them, and she drew back to the dais where Corund lay in state. There, like some triumphant goddess, she stood above them, the cup of venom in her hand. "Come not beyond the table, my lords," she said, "or I drain this cup to your damnation."

Brandoch Daha said, "The dice are thrown, O Juss. And the Queen hath won the hazard."

"Madam," said Juss, "I swear to you there shall no force nor restraint be put upon you, but honour only and worship shown you, and friendship if you will. That surely mightest thou take of us for thy brother's sake." Thereat she looked terribly upon him, and he said, "Only on this wild night lay not hands upon yourself. For their sake, that even now haply behold us out of the undiscovered barren lands, beyond the dismal lake, do not this."

Still facing them, the cup still aloft in her right hand, Prezmyra laid her left hand lightly on the brazen plates of Corund's byrny that cased the mighty muscles of his breast. Her hand touched his beard, and drew back suddenly; but in an instant she laid it gently again on his breast. Somewhat her orient loveliness seemed to soften for a passing minute in the altering light, and she said, "I was given to Corund young. This night I will sleep with him, or reign with him, among the mighty nations of the dead."

Juss moved as one about to speak, but she stayed him with a look, and the lines of her body hardened again and the lioness looked forth anew in her peerless eyes. "...Shall the blackening frost, when it hath blasted and starved all the sweet garden flowers, say to the rose, Abide with us; and shall she harken to such a wolfish suit?"

So speaking she drank the cup; and turning from those lords of Demonland as a queen turneth her from the unregarded multitude, kneeled gently down by Corund's bier, her white arms clasped about his head, her face pillowed on his breast.

Perhaps overly long for an answer rooted in contemporary American sensibilities. May you all forgive me the length of it.

But, if you want to be a writer, you should really study the nature, and meaning, and feeling of tragedy.

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Coincidentally, I recently wrote a blog entry on character death and the best one I remember. A good death scene for a character, one that satisfies us, is one where the character has fulfilled his purpose to the story (and to the fictional life). Likewise, an unsatisfying death is one where the purpose of the character remains unfulfilled.

The example I use is that of Sturm Brightblade from the DragonLance Saga. He dies at the end of the second novel, but his death hits all the right notes. He is one of the last faithful knights, but his death not only buys the defenders' needed time but rallies them to victory. The unification doesn't stop with that victory. The knights' factions put aside their differences for the rest of the war and beyond.

Sturm's death satisfied because the authors portrayed him as a tragic character from the beginning. He lived by a code that most found obsolete and too rigid. You knew from reading that Sturm was not going to have what we called a happy ending. For him, it was. He died as he lived. His death accomplished what he wanted to and more.

I've read deaths that didn't satisfy either. Most of those were inconsequential to the plot (though they were presented as major points). For example, if the entire story has followed said character's POV, his death 80% of the way through forces us to switch to another POV character for the remainder of the tale.

Also unsatisfying would be if the death were too easy. If the villain has been setup as the ultimate badness to ever walk the earth and the heroes have spent the whole book questing for him, the final battle needs to be more than a half-hearted speech and one stray ice spell.

The death has to stir the reader's emotions. It must impact the reader. If the main character's girlfriend dies, make that death as important to us as it is to him.

Even if you know the death is coming, it can still be meaningful. Look at the death of Uncle Ben in Spiderman. I certainly knew it was coming, but the sudden death and then Peter catching the gunman only to realize that HE (Peter) could have stopped him earlier and saved Uncle Ben's life... It was presented as a pivotal moment, and the audience felt it.

In summary, character death is meaningful if the audience has come to care for the character and it fulfills a purpose to the story and character's life. If the audience doesn't care for the character's life, their death won't matter no matter how much of a plot point it is.

1

In addition to Chris Sunamis' answer, I think it's worthwhile to point out that death can not only serve as a metaphor for rebirth, but also as avery neat ending. I remember two particular death scenes from love stories that I liked a lot (namely, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Karin Slaughter's first five or six books, and by the way: Spoiler coming up): The male partner of the relationship dies, I cried my eyes out, but it was still, in a sense, a satisfying death scene. Why? Because there was no other way the story could have continued. The male characters were fully developed and had finished their transition from imperfect little boys to men that I could fall in love with. How else should the story have continued? Of course, there was a "Happily ever after" looming heavily over these books. But I'm pretty sure the overall effect of the books would have been much less intense.

(Note also that this interpretation of a satisfying death is in accord with Chris Sunamis' answer: The deaths in these two books marked the ultimate transition of the characters. Sad, but inevitable.)

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I remember throwing Charles Frazer’s Cold Mountain across the room when, after Inman killed the Home Guard except Birch, Teague's vicious protégé. If you’ve read the story, you know the ending. It took me a few days to pick it up and finish. I realized later that Frazer showed how lives of soldiers and civilians develop and transform as a consequence of the tragedies of war. It is a book I will not forget.

So with that lengthy run up, consider what the death of the character means to what you are trying to say. I am struggling with issue myself and in my draft, the scene is vague. I am editing now and may still leave the scene vague if I want to continue the series-another consideration.

1

I think that the answer may have a subjective side to it. However, in the general schema of the plot if a death is an impetus it may be relevant and that in itself can be satisfying. See, there is a death that could be pertinent to the character arc or to make the character have some weight in the overall narrative. Like in Hamlet Ophelia's death is a crucial scene because it shows to many levels that Hamlet's actions have led to much harm. We also know that there was no reason for Hamlet to be cruel to Ophelia so we now can feel ambiguous about Hamlet (not that Hamlet's prior actions have been A grade). Ophelia's death is not satisfying in the usual sense but it does satisfy a certain part of the play. So, satisfaction can have various wavelengths and junctures.

Now, an individual death being subjective would be probably the death of Gregor Samsa from the novella "Metamorphosis" because there is no other way for poor Gregor to do anything but die as his transformation has made him weak and this has been, as I read somewhere, the reverse of enlightenment. So, there is that side to this question too. I do think that death as a satisfying medium in literature works in many complex levels. Sometimes, death is a way the story's point is giving some meaning other times it's a tyrant being killed in battle so we know it's the trial of the hero completed so in both cases we are satisfied in two various different ways.

Sometimes, as Ophelia's death, we are not happy individually at her death but it helped shed light on the disturbing plot and personality elements in Hamlet so we would be satisfied via that. I guess there is also the other meaningful thing as death for natural causes and I think Jose Saramago even wrote a novel "Death at Intervals" to highlight the importance of death on cultural, religious, biological, philosphical and many other levels. Sometimes, death of a character is natural and that can be in itself satisfying as we know that as we live we will also die.

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Most of the time, you are just going to bum the audience out with the death of a character, unless s/he is a complete villain.

A perfect example of this is the recent Spider-Man 2 movie.

I went into that movie knowing the outcome since I read the comic books a long time ago. However, after paying $12 a piece for myself and a couple of other family members the character's death was completely unsatisfying and made you wish you hadn't seen the movie and wasted the money on it.

And, the director knew it too, because after the scene of death (trying not to spoil here) the movie switches to a beginning of Spider-man 3 vignette and it is as if another movie is starting.

It is lame to the Nth degree. I want my $12 back.

Maybe just have the character who is going to die walk off into the sunset or something instead. Keeep it open. We want stories to help us get through something, but death in a movie or book is mostly just depressing and makes you want to stop watching or reading as soon as it happens.

Update / Edit

I came back to add this part. Usually if you are reading fiction or watching a movie or show you are doing so for entertainment.

Seeing a character die is generally not great entertainment. The other reason humans tend to watch stories is to learn about -- live vicariously as another character -- other lifes, adventures, etc. So, when a character dies we rebel against it since we tend to think, "Yeah, crap like that happens in real life too and there's nothing you can do about it. Why would I want that in my fiction?"

I don't know.

  • Reading about things "like" real life help you come to terms with the events in your own life and maybe even to gain new perspectives - to learn from someone else's experiences instead of having to do it all the hard way by going through it yourself. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean that it isn't "real". It's not just about escape. Really great fiction is real. – Joe Sep 16 '15 at 1:37
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In addition to all the great answers, I might say that the answer to this question is deeply personal. What is satisfying to me is not satisfying to somebody else. However, the character's death must be demanded by the story.

The best example I can think of is Anna Karenina's suicide. There just was no other way for her personal story to end. Everything led her to that demise from the beginning. The eternal optimist in me might have been happier if she stayed alive, but it would have felt fake.

Since, the inner understanding of the story mechanics is rooted in all of us, regardless of our occupation, we feel when the character's death is justified by the story and when it isn't. That's where, in my opinion, the satisfaction or dissatisfaction comes from.

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Foreshadowing

Death of a character, just like any other event needs to be fit into the overall plot of the story. That determines the satisfaction of reader.

If correctly done, writer can make readers unconscious mind feel that something is going to happen without explicitly giving any details.

When the character finally dies, all that invisible tension will be released and helps in the transition to next scene.

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