8

I've heard quite a few complaints about character deaths being used to further the plot. They say it's boring and overdone and mention that there are plenty of other ways to get to the same point without killing off a character.

I am writing a novel that involves the death of an important character, which is integral to the plot. I am not killing her off for "shock value," to make the main character sad/angry/depressed, or to make my novel "dark." This character has a very high-ranking position and has been the prime target for the enemy group since the beginning of the novel (and everyone is aware of this). Despite the efforts taken to protect her, she dies anyway, and her death triggers many other events that could not happen if she was anything but dead. The main character, for example, undergoes great change, and everyone else falls into a state of chaos after losing their leader.

I have tried thinking of alternatives in which she doesn't die, but these alternatives don't quite deliver the same effect, and it would be very difficult (if not impossible, in some cases) to get the same places in my plot if she did not die. After all my consideration, death still seems like the best route to take for this character... but then, I have read things from other people saying that death for the sake of furthering the plot is bad writing. My issue here is that if there was no death, there would be no plot. So is the whole "death used to further the plot = bad/boring/overdone" thing really true?

  • Perhaps what you are thinking of is "fridging the girlfriend"? Where the only point of a character is to die so that their death has a profound effect on the true hero. This is seen as bad/boring/overdone and even offensive. I'll let this site say it better: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge Long story short, make sure this character has more of a point in 'life' than as a plot trigger for someone else, and you should be okay. – IchabodE Nov 21 '17 at 0:41
13

There is one rule in writing from which everything else stems: you write for the reader. However, from that rule, you can deduce that if you turn out a novel that you know could have been better, you are cheating the reader from reading it.

You've examined other possible routes which do not include the character's death, but you've found that none of them have the same effect. That's all you need. If those other routes weaken your novel, do not use them. Turn out the best novel you can, deaths or no deaths.


As far as the whole 'death to further the plot is bad' thing..

You have to realize that a lot of authors have no idea what they are doing. Even some of the successful ones are lacking in certain areas. The reason they are succeeding is because there are very few people out there who do know what they are doing (in all areas), meaning there is essentially no competition. Readers and authors then look at those novels, and deduce that they are 'what works.'

Killing off a character to advance the plot is common in fiction. However, because most authors don't know how to do it, why to do it, when to do it, or who to do it to, wrong conclusions are formed when the readers are displeased.

Usually, a character death has no meaning because the character had no meaning. Critics then assume that character deaths in general have no meaning. A death scene that is mishandled can leave readers feeling confused or lost. Some critics then assume that death scenes generally have this effect. And if a character dies that the reader really liked, they will start to look for a reason, and if they don't find one, they will be greatly displeased. Critics then assume that character deaths are largely a bad thing, and should be avoided. You get the picture.

What I'm trying to say here, is that you have to look at feedback while trying to determine the true cause. I know that I've left feedback where I was struggling how to articulate what I meant, and I doubt I'm the only one. Such comments usually cause those that read them to come to the wrong conclusions, and that leads to wrong opinions on how to write.

I would revise the original statement to this:

Killing off a character just to advance the plot is bad. Killing off a character to advance the story is perfectly fine, as long as you are sure it is the best route to go.

The plot is only one part of the story. The story is made up out of setting, characters, stakes, tension, and above all, theme (plus many more). If killing off a character is furthering the story, and you know it's the best route to take, do it.

4

This is the key:

these alternatives don't quite deliver the same effect

If the alternatives don't create the effect you want in the reader, they're not good alternatives.

If killing the character creates the effect you want in the reader, kill the character.

Trust your instincts. You're a storyteller. You know what you are doing.

3

I'd guess this isn't a romance novel :) As you've said, the character's death sets events in motion that wouldn't have happened otherwise. You're giving your other characters the opportunity to react to that; you're giving yourself plenty of opportunity for other sudden changes (shifting of allegiances, strong characters giving up, weak characters finding strength, revelation of treachery...without knowing the details I can't really guess the scope, but it's there).

"The main character...undergoes great change."

As long as it doesn't seem too premeditated - it should come as an unwelcome surprise to everyone, including the reader - in my opinion, that the main character undergoes great change is enough of a reason to justify it. The only question I'd have is how far into the work it happens, but that's a bit off the topic.

  • Haha, it's not a romance novel, but how were you able to tell? I'm struggling to find a place in the novel to actually put the death, but that was another question. You did bring it up though, so could I ask? Right now it looks like her death will happen about 25% of the way in the novel. This is when things start to fall apart and the main character realizes that they need to start taking action. – Summer Jun 19 '16 at 21:03
  • I'd say that's the right place. Her death then forms the classical trigger for the main character -- he chooses to take action. And from that action comes the rest of the story. It's the end of your first act, and the reason for the second. From the clues you've given, it's where the main character realizes they need to stop hiding and start fighting back? That's a story I'd read. I'd keep revenge as a subplot, not the main motivation. It's too easy - but it sounds like you know that already. Good luck! – cmza Jun 21 '16 at 9:33
1

This wasn't a "death," but a resignation, that had a similar effect.

I once had a boss who people expected to go to the top. He left for a better job, and just about everyone in his "sector" was sorry to him go. We all felt that he had very big shoes to fill.

That was in fact the case. But his departure created opportunities for no less than five people under him, one of which actually did rise to the top (he had stopped at roughly the executive vice president level).

Sometimes you need a character to "die," not because the character is "bad," but because s/he has fulfilled a mission in the novel, and is now standing in the way of a bunch of other characters that need a chance to grow.

0

I know this answer is late, but for anybody coming across this question, the premise is wrong. Characters die in fiction all the time. Consider (in multiple stories) a secret service agent that fails in his duty to keep the President from being assassinated. Or a family dealing with the accidental death of a mother or father or sibling. Or older friends dealing with the impending (or recent) death of one of their own circle. Or a parent dealing with the death of their child.

Dealing with the death of somebody you love or value is a part of human life. In order to make the death 'real' to the reader, you generally have to present the character alive, show their value to the main character (or society or others), and then kill them. That IS the plot, as in the OP's question.

Anything else, such as kidnapping or disappearance or stroke, becomes ambiguous and is no longer about dealing with irrevocable death, especially a murder. A stroke is not the same as a murder.

Only a small number of people are so averse to dealing with death they cannot handle it in fiction, and trying to write around it makes the story fatally unrealistic or impossible to please this tiny percentage of the audience.

-3

Of course! If people don't die, it's rather unrealistic in my opinion.

  • 2
    All people die in real life eventually. Sometimes, as we've all just been rather brutally reminded, they die unexpectedly or even tragically. But none of this has anything to do with the needs of narrative. – Tom Zych Jun 17 '16 at 10:16

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