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The backstory of my five main characters involves a lot of death...

The protagonist, who has two adopted daughters and raises them alone, lost both his parents and doesn't even remember them (part of a curse), lost his sister, who died giving birth to one of his adopted daughters (I say daughter here and not niece because neither the protagonist nor the sister knew they were siblings), the real father doesn't want to know anything about her, and the other adopted daughter came from an orphanage (it's assumed her parents died as well).

That's the first three main characters and already I have a death toll of five. The other two characters, two brothers, lost a young brother very early on and during the course of the game, both their parents are brutally murdered. So that brings the death toll to eight.

Now, I don't really have a problem using death in my story (as you can plainly see), but at this point, I'm beginning to think I use death too much. My game is actually a horror game with lots of characters dying already (explosive decompression is involved at some point), but even then, should I cut down on the deaths in the backstories of my MAIN characters? Would it feel forced to use death a lot for the main characters?

  • Lost his sister, who died giving birth - just a thought, but the whole 'died during childbirth' thing is a very overused trope just to get a character out of the way. A quick googling shows that the percent of woman (in America) who die in Childbirth each year is less than 1%. That being said, this statement is null if I'm missing that your characters either don't live in the modern day, aren't American (or from a country with similar or better birth rates, such as Canada), or she gave birth in some third-world country with bad health care/sanitation. – Celesol Feb 6 '17 at 18:41
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    @Celesol Apologies, I should've been more clear: she didn't die from childbirth itself, she got into a car accident earlier and had to give birth early, where she dies from her injuries... not saying that that is much better, the dead mother IS a cliché... I'll probably have to rewrite that. Still leaves me with seven deaths. XD Thanks for pointing it out though. – noClue Feb 6 '17 at 20:55
  • Consider checking out The Last of Us (Playstation 3 and 4). It is a survival game set in a dystopian setting (no spoil), and they do incredible work with character development. – storbror Feb 7 '17 at 14:29
  • That's what its inspired by actually :) Along with some Telltale Walking Dead and Corpse Party. – noClue Feb 8 '17 at 7:34
  • Cool! If you get anywhere near the emotional content in TLoU (havn't experienced the two other titles) then we will all fear the deaths of your characters. Good luck! – storbror Feb 8 '17 at 7:42
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I would write this as a comment to @What's answer, but I don't have enough points for that.

I will focus on two things when trying to answer your question.

The first: Agreeing with @What; contrast is crucial if death in itself should still be horrifying. Since there is a lot of death already, the focus of the reader's/protagonist's fear should not be on death itself, but something related to it which makes it different from "the previous deaths"...

The second: This is something that could help with the first.. What are we actually afraid of?". The "holy shit... this could happen to my daughters" is an important point. Especially since death is "normal" in this dimension. @What makes a brilliant point comparing death in Syria and the U.S., and I will take this example even further. Yes, we usually think "Oh my, that's terrible!" when we hear tragic news, BUT generally people don't actually CARE unless they have a direct link (social, cultural, geological) to the people involved. If we should fear the death of his daughters, we must care about them intimately. In order for us to believe or share the fear that the protagonist feels or develops, it must be natural to feel sincere empathy for them, even within the murder dimension. I believe character development is absolutely crucial for this. When we care for the characters there WILL be a contrast between their possible deaths and the deaths of "strangers".

I don't know the structure of your plot (and it may be irrelevant) but we must know and care for the people involved, in order to fear their deaths. After all, I don't walk around fearing that a stranger will be hit by lightning or hit by a car. I fear that my friends and family will.

  • Sorry but can you elaborate on the first point? What should make it different from the "previous deaths"? Do you mean the deaths in the dimension or the ones that happen outside the dimension in the backstories? As for your second point, I agree completely, which is why the game won't focus around the deaths of strangers too much, but more around the characters themselves and them trying to survive: there's a lot of character interactions you see during the course of the game and you learn a lot about the characters. Even the supposed helpless girl finds ways to trick her potential murderers. – noClue Feb 6 '17 at 21:53
  • I don't see a helpless girl described in the question. Are you referring to the adopted daughter(s)? My "first" point was simply agreeing with @What, which may have been unclear. The "second" was my actual elaboration and suggestion to dealing with your question. I actually meant all other death: The background deaths and the surrounding death. There are many ways to make "the important deaths" different, (tone or style and detail, character reaction etc.) the most natural being that we actually care for his daughters as mentioned above. Hope this helps clarify. – storbror Feb 7 '17 at 6:36
  • Right, it's one of the daughters - didn't think it was that important to mention, it's just an example. I guess I'm on the right track then, because I actually do try to make players care about the main characters when I throw them into these situations. It was never just about the brutal or countless deaths. – noClue Feb 7 '17 at 10:36
  • It's fine whether specific or an example and I didn't get the impression that you were off track. Sorry if I'm focusing on irrelevant, I was merely trying to strengthen the point of developing the characters. May I ask how many characters to want the reader to actually care about? I'm simply curious. – storbror Feb 7 '17 at 10:45
  • Difficult to say. I try to make the player care or at least feel somewhat sorry for all the side characters as well for various reasons: how they affect the main characters, what they did in the grand scheme of things, their past and why they're doing what they're doing, etc. Generally speaking though, there are five main characters, which I want the player to become attached to, enough for the player to hope that all of them make it out alive - only three of them actually survive though. The two deaths that happen among the main characters are a big deal in the story, too. – noClue Feb 7 '17 at 12:05
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If death is "normal" in the backstories of the characters, then death loses its power for the reader in your main story. If people die left and right every few paragraphs, then you expect death to happen to everyone. It is no longer the ultimate fear, but more like a running gag (think of Kenny getting killed in every episode of South Park).

Horror is most intense if it intrudes into normal life. Living in war-torn Syria is certainly horrible, but hearing about yet another death there on the news no longer has much of an effect on most viewers in the US. Living in the US, on the other hand, can be quite idyllic, and hearing of a violent death in their US neighborhood will freak many people out. Horror is achieved more easily through contrast than through permanent blood and gore.

On the other hand, there is a fashion for "dark" fiction where everyone is broken and lives in continuous horror. If that is what you aim for, then you basically need everyone's family to have died a violent death.

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