Last night I was talking with one of my girls about death in fiction. She’s currently reading the latest installment of a well known series (I won’t name it because of spoilers etc) and she’s been filling me in on the main plot points which include Character A having heart to hearts with his girlfriends brother (who hates him) his parents (who kinda hate him) and his sort of brother (who hates him.) My reaction ‘A is so fucked.’
See, there are three types of death in fiction – the expected, the set up and the unexpected.
Sadly, only two of the three ever really work.
The expected death is the death that you, that you are told from the outset is going to happen, like ‘A Walk to Remember’ where you KNOW what is going to happen, and you start crying at about page 9 and stop about three hours after finishing the book. These sort of deaths work because you know from the outset that no matter what happens, it’s going to happen. It’s all doomed. And that sort of knowledge is painful. You spend so much time and energy willing it not to happen. And then when it does, it’s just so much more painful.
The hinted at death is the sort of death I mentioned at the start of this article. The character has outlived their usefulness. They have made amends. They are basically redundant to plot. Time for them to go. Some of these deaths are written to ‘shock’ but really, for the most part they have been so set up for the last 100 pages that no one is really surprised.
The unexpected death is one which shocks because of it’s suddenness. And that’s what death, for the most part is. It’s sudden. It’s shocking. In life we don’t get time to make amends. Some writers are better at this than others, but it varies across the genre. Take Michael Crichton, for example, we EXPECT characters to die suddenly in his books. It’s not really a shock, but the methods often have shock factor.
One of the most shocking deaths I have ever read was the death of Hedwig in The Deathly Hallows. It was unnecessary, unexpected, upsetting, shocking, sudden. All things that death is. And it was at that moment you knew that NO ONE was safe.
There are few things I hate than a character who gets a chance to make amends. As my friend pointed out last night, when talking about deaths in Harry Potter, it’s not like Fred ever got a chance to say all the things he might have wanted to. To make amends, to have one last laugh, one heart to heart. He was there, and then suddenly he wasn’t.
Likewise, once scene in particular from the Walking Dead came to mind – the scene where Amy was bit. She was in a ‘safe’ place, with people looking out for her, right in the middle of her group and all she wanted was some toilet roll. She wasn’t expecting what happened to her. No one was. That’s what made it shocking and upsetting. Even being in a ‘safe’ place doesn’t mean anything. Not really. Take Dumbledore – Hogwarts was supposed to be the safest place there was on earth. But that didn’t change things for him, didn’t save him.
I think fiction needs to be a bit more like life in that respect. It would be nice if we all had a chance to tie our lives up neatly, to give our loved ones closure and to prepare for the worst. But for most of us that doesn’t happen. We don’t always know when the end is coming.
One of my neighbours lost his wife some years ago when she tripped and fell down the stairs. She was ‘safe’, she was in her own home. She was doing something that she had done tens of thousands of times before. Something that we all do every day without thinking about it. And one day she slipped. Just….gone.
We can all recount stories like that. I’ve known people, healthy, fit people who died suddenly of a heart attack in their sleep, or fell of their horse and landed the wrong way, or who just took a corner to sharply in the rain.
Now, I’m not saying to start killing off your characters just for shock value, but I think we really need to start looking at HOW we kill characters off, how realistic it is, and what sort of a mess they leave behind.
In real life we don’t always get a chance to put things right.
Think about it.