10

Is there a time where a character's death in a story would be unnecessary? Not the main character, but someone really important to the protagonist like a caretaker/parent to advance the plot?

Deaths in fiction are mostly used for motivators like revenge/justice/character arc etc.

People around me told me that it's "lazy and cliche" and that there's ways for me to move a story differently without it.

I do plan to use a character death for my coming of age story to showcase one of the trials and tribulations he has to overcome.

Is it bad/lazy writing? Should I scrap the idea and come up with a different plot advancement?

4
  • 4
    It is a cliche, but that's because it has been proven effective over and over again. But, of course, effectiveness comes from the cliche being applied the "right" way; if you just implement a cliche for the sake of implementing it, or because you didn't want to complicate yourself thinking on alternate ways to achieve the result, then it indeed becomes lazy.
    – Josh Part
    Apr 5 at 22:28
  • 1
    Death is pretty common in real life, so very relatable... whether that's "cliché" in a story is a matter of your execution and personal interpretation.
    – 54981
    Apr 6 at 13:26
  • 1
    Personally, I hate it when the "bad guy" kills an innocent, (usually) young woman because the author/movie director decides it's "the best way" to "prove" someone is actually a badguy. That's definitely lazy and unnecessary. Apr 6 at 21:37

4 Answers 4

11

Yes, sometimes it is entirely unnecessary to kill a character.

If you just need to get the character "out of the way", for example so that the main character can no longer rely on their help and has to step up himself/herself, then you can have them move abroad, get captured, fall into a coma, get into a fight with the main character (and be unwilling to help), etc. In this case, choosing to kill them just because that's the first thing that comes to mind, could be considered lazy. And it is definitely cliche if the character is a mentor figure or another likely-to-die-along-the-way trope.

However, it is also possible that the death itself is necessary to the plot. That could be for the unique emotional impact of death, or maybe so they can come back as a ghost or zombie, or so the main character can meet them in the afterlife, or whatever. In those cases you can't avoid it, because you won't be able to write your story otherwise.

So the question to ask yourself is: does the death of this character serve my story better than the alternatives? Aspects like how cliche/expected it is has some influence on that, because readers may just shrug it off.

2
  • Or maybe the death (just) motivates the real (other) targets to move away. Apr 5 at 22:07
  • 2
    As a litmus test, it might be helpful to run a character through the sorting algorithm of mortality, just to see how "predictable" their death is. But it is important to realize that that table can only take into account a relatively modest set of attributes, so it should only be used as a first approximation, not as some sort of absolute truth. There may be other factors that make a given character's death more, or less, surprising.
    – Kevin
    Apr 6 at 4:07
5

Death can be an irreplaceable motivator. It can also be an enabler. It can also be the reason for a person's personality and outlook on life.

In "Sleepless in Seattle", the entire story hinges on the fact that the male lead's wife has died, and his son needs a new mother. She has to be dead, not just disabled, not just divorced, to enable the plot.

In one of my stories, the female hero has a first love and first lover that dies, when they are teens, in part because of an impulsive decision by her. She holds him as he dies, knowing her impulsive decision is the reason he is injured, and dies.

No, they can't just break up. Her motivation in the story depends heavily on her guilt; the entire course of her life is changed by her guilt, in a way that is implausible for any break up. We can get over break ups. We don't get over causing somebody's death, a sensitive person can carry that guilt to the grave.

It is possible you can think of a way around killing a character, but it may come across as unrealistic. Sleepless in Seattle is an example, the story would have to be completely different if the wife of Tom Hanks was alive and well. We just don't have the same sympathy for a divorced Dad as a young Widower, and why is he "sleepless" if not grieving? Why would an engaged Meg Ryan obsess over him?

Sleepless in Seattle is unrealistic if the wife of Tom Hanks is alive; it is a different story requiring much more explanation to be plausible.

And the same is true in many stories, death is the ultimate motivation, and for villains, the ultimate punishment, cheered if they are particularly vile and harm innocents, like women and children.

The psychology of an audience is not necessarily the same as their real-life philosophy. In fiction, it is okay to harm the bad guys, especially when the author goes out of their way to provide the proof that the bad guys are bad guys that harm innocents. So harm in return is justified.

In real life, we are seldom offered the same conclusive proof, and so our opinions are changed or modified. Just in case we are punishing an innocent person, perhaps we should not be so harsh, and should focus on prevention of further harm instead of focusing on vengeance.

In fiction, you can justify vengeance. And you aren't really hurting anybody if you kill a character. If you write well they may feel real, but they are just a figment of imagination. No actual persons or animals were harmed in the writing of this novel.

Feel free to devise characters to be killed that will arouse the emotions of the audience. Mentors, lovers, innocents, even children. Few things can be more life-changing than the death of a loved one, and what we write about is often the highs and lows of life. Often exaggerated.

4

Yes, it can be unnecessary.

As you say, "Deaths in fiction are mostly used for motivators like revenge/justice/character arc etc." Death and loss can be ways to move characters forward, but they are not the only things that can motivate people. Unfortunately, the simplicity of character death does mean that it tends to be overused as a means of moving a story forward. The death of a parent or other guardian is a particularly well-used trope in this regard. Of course, there is a reason for this: people do tend to be strongly affected by the loss of people who filled a parental role in their lives, and this can influence their future actions. Fiction tends to take this to extremes, though: a parent in any given heroic adventure or coming-of-age story where characters can die at all has at least a 50% chance of dying, and instead of the protagonist moving on eventually as most people do, it will become the driving force behind their actions. That is likely what people mean when they tell you that is lazy and cliche.

Similar problems can arise with other character deaths. One example would be that some groups frequently end up slotted into the "minor character" slot, to be killed off at leisure regardless of plausibility while the main characters survive implausible odds: for instance, at least in the United States, LBGTQ and Black characters tend to die disproportionately in many works of fiction for this and other reasons.

There are at least two possible, opposite, but not completely exclusive ways of mitigating these issues. You can go for some degree of verisimilitude: people will sometimes die, but it won't be a question of how convenient it is for other characters' stories. Alternately, or additionally, you can try to make sure that characters only die when it is an unavoidable part of the plot.

Fiction is not life, of course, but verisimilitude can be a valuable aspect of many stories, and can help mitigate the problematic aspects of killing characters off because of the role they fill in a story (e.g., parent, love interest, disposable redshirt). A commitment to verisimilitude means that your traditionally disposable characters will most likely (but not always!) survive and your traditionally immortal characters will be at risk. One example of a story (in my opinion) does this well is the TV series Midnight Mass: midway through the story,

the character who has been the central protagonist dies, and his ex-girlfriend takes over as the primary protagonist.

They don't die as a heroic sacrifice, nor is their death just a piece in someone else's story. It is just one of those things that happens, just like death really is one of those things that happen. It is given meaning, but by the character accepting their death and how they and others process it, not as the culmination of their entire plot arc.

Of course, nor is verisimilitude the be-all and end-all: if your heroic Starfleet captain protagonist is killed by a stray Klingon torpedo in the middle of a pitched battle midway through a season, it may certainly be realistic for the situation, but it is also likely to be deeply unsatisfying for the audience. Unless you are completely dedicated to a particular artistic vision for the story where anyone truly can die at any time if it would make sense in real life under comparable circumstances, this is where it can also be helpful to consider whether a character's death is essential to the plotline.

In this case, for instance, if you are aiming for a certain plotline caused by the character having faced difficult circumstances in their life, and the death of their caretaker is just a tool for that, consider, for instance:

  • Could it also work to have their caretaker be (or become) abusive or emotionally distant?

  • Could it also work to have them separated from their caretaker by some means, such as deportation, imprisonment, a business trip, or just growing up and moving away?

  • Does the death that affects them have to be their caregiver? Sometimes the deaths of other relatives, friends, or complete strangers can have an equally powerful effect on someone's life.

2

Death and birth are the two most profound and, literally, existential human experiences. They are at the center of many works of art. If you need the existential experience of death, somebody will have to die. In that case it is absolutely necessary. Separation, injury, insanity: Nothing equals the transition from being into not being.

That said, if you play a loud instrument it'd be nice if you played it well.

One thought: I very much liked Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which I recommend watching if you are interested in adolescence. The main character experiences a couple of life-threatening events (a drunk drive with his step dad, throwing sharp implements at each other) without him or somebody else actually dying. I thought that was great writing. Lesser authors would perhaps have let one of these events go wrong (I was half expecting it each time), and that might have come across as cheap emotion-squeezing. Instead, the looming possibility emphasized how precarious our existence is: The possibility of destruction is always there. Alas, thank goodness, it doesn't often materialize. A great move by Linklater.

So the answer to your question is, a bit tongue-in-cheek: If it is necessary, it is necessary. If not, then not.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.