Books, Characters, Rant, Writing

The Thematic Gravity of Death

Back when I was still in school, where I had to read Serious Texts and Think Seriously about them from a Serious Creative Viewpoint, I read a lot of books in which people died. Character death wasn’t just popular–it was required. Once, in a short story class, I received the packet of required reading and my friend leaned across his desk to me and said, “$10 says every one of these stories contains a fatality,” and he was right. Great Literature always carries a death toll.

Unfortunately, dead characters do not make a text great. They don’t even make it good. They sure as hell don’t make it interesting. The ubiquity of unexpected and tragic deaths (particularly of women, for the purpose of male character development and angsty back story) has become downright annoying, and it’s completely drained the concept of death of all its literary power. So this is my plea: please, for the love of god, stop killing characters to lend your story gravitas.

This is on my mind because I have just finished reading Gormenghast, the second book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (saga? Is it still a saga if the later books were never written due to death of author?). Spoiler alert: lots of characters die. Most of them die in cool or interesting ways that speak to their characters and drive the story forward, but not all of them. Two of the most interesting female characters die in unexpectedly sudden and incredibly contrived ways that betray their character designs in order to spur the incredibly uninteresting protagonist into Finding Himself and Seeking His Own Adventure. The text actually goes out of its way to highlight how the tragedy of these deaths affected the protagonist symbolically, and completely ignores everything about who the girls were as people. My goal is not to pick on Peake, though; women dying for dudebro character development is all too common, and it’s annoying as fuck.

Here’s the thing: it’s not that you can’t kill characters, or that you shouldn’t. You absolutely should. Killing characters is an author’s right. But the way in which you kill your characters, and the way the in-book world reacts to their deaths, matters a whole hell of a lot. Simply killing a character does not mean the reader will care about the character’s death and be sad, so that you can then continuously remind them of that death in pages to come to try to make them care about your protagonist. Frankly, I don’t care how many people died in your protagonist’s origin story–if they are not interesting, I don’t want to read about them.

Similarly, you cannot introduce a character for the sole purpose of killing them. Death of a briefly existent stranger matters not even a little bit to readers. That’s why when you watch serial TV shows like Doctor Who, you stop caring about the one-off episode characters who die: death, in and of itself, will not make readers care about your plot.

Finally, you cannot expect readers to care about the death of a character who has made no effort to live. This is the big one that I see over and over again in “Literature”: a character who spends hundreds of pages bitching and moaning about how much they hate everything, or even just wanders through their story in an apathetic daze, and then at the end they die (looking at you, The Awakening). Nobody cares. In fact, your reader is probably happy the character died, because the story is finally freaking over, goddamn.

Death ought to pack a punch, but that means you have to use it wisely. Readers shouldn’t be able to pick your book up and identify which characters are going to die within the first few pages. Characters shouldn’t die before they’ve lived–that is, before the reader has a reason to care about them. And you can’t tell the reader that the death is sad, or that everyone is upset about it; you have to write your story in such a way that the reader feels it, which is hard, yes, but then pretty much all writing is.

Death is not a magic wand that makes readers give a shit about your writing. It does not automatically lend your story Poignancy and Depth and Gravitas deserving of a million book awards. Kill sparingly, and make it count.

Morbidly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“At a time when he should have been broken by the scene he had just witnessed – by the death of his imagination – he found himself to be emptied of distress. … The Thing was dead…dead…lightning had killed her, but had Fuchsia not been there he would have shouted with happiness for he had grown up.” –Gormenghast, pg. 339 – FUCK YOU MERVYN PEAKE. THIS IS THE DEFINITION OF KILLING FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND YOU OUGHT TO BE BETTER THAN THIS. Or at least a little bit more subtle about it, geeze.

4 thoughts on “The Thematic Gravity of Death”

  1. I agree with all of this.

    Also, it reminds me of Star Trek Next Generation, the episode in season three where they end up in an alternative reality where Tasha Yar didn’t die, but once she finds out she dies in the other timeline they’re trying to get back to, sacrifices herself to accomplish the reality switch, because her original death in season one was without purpose and super lame. I kind of hated the writers for just writing her off like that (and I still think they shouldn’t have), but I appreciated their attempt to make her death matter. Let’s be honest; there are a whole hell of a lot of characters on Star Trek that die and don’t matter.

    1. Yeah, Star Trek has the same thing going on that Doctor Who does, with the newly-introduced characters that die in every episode. Like, I know that I’m suppose to care when characters die, but it’s hard to care about a fake person you only saw for ten minutes and know literally nothing about. Supernatural is super terrible about this, too; plus, they loooooove to kill off female characters for no reason except to add additional Angst Points to the male characters’ back stories. Sighhhhh.

      1. Dean, I have superpowers because Mom was killed.
        Dean, I’m going to join you on your journey because my girlfriend was killed.
        Sam, I don’t think I can love again because this girl I kind of liked was killed.
        Boys, I’m sorry but the only two cool female hunters were just killed.
        Boys, Satan is back because that girl Lilith was killed.

        And then I stopped watching.

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