Saturday, February 14, 2009

When does character death not work?

The butler author did it

This happens more often in romance than in fantasy, but it annoys a lot of readers there too. It’s where the inconvenient other man or other woman is killed by the author, leaving the way clear for the hero and heroine to rush happily into each other’s arms, unencumbered by prior commitments.

A great example of this is Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind. It’s actually a two-for-one, getting rid of both Rhett’s wife and their newborn child. With Mrs Butler and Baby Butler out of the picture, he and Scarlett declared their love, while I wondered what happened to the Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind. You know, the man who became an alcoholic after his first child died.

Death? Whose death?

I once picked up a fantasy novel because I’d read that the author, like George R. R. Martin, wasn’t afraid to kill off characters. That much was true.

The problem was that there were several characters, only one of whom was really fleshed out, and most of them went down like ninepins. Similar targets moved in to take their places, eventually dying as well (because that’s the mark of a serious fantasy novel), but by that time I’d lost interest.

The thing with Martin is, he didn’t just kill characters, he killed characters the readers cared about. That’s what makes his strategy powerful and memorable. If the characters are just warm bodies with names, it makes no difference. It’s like hearing that twenty people died in highway accidents this morning – few of us can grieve or rage over statistics.

Darth Vader’s Redemption

While the atoning death of an ex-hero can certainly work (though my favorite is Colonel Nicholson’s death in Bridge on the River Kwai), it’s also a bit of a cliché. Not to mention an easy out for the ex-hero – this way he doesn’t need to stand trial, doesn’t need to face the families of his victims, doesn’t need to spend the rest of his life making up for what he did.

I’m more likely to be interested in such a character if they realized how wrong they were and lived. Much more conflict that way, not to mention an original direction for that character.

The following death has been carefully foreshadowed

The evil villain drove his magic sword through the heart of the Young Hero’s father.
“Nooo,” cried the Young Hero.
“Mocking observation,” uttered the villain.

Twenty years later

The Hero drove the same magic sword through the heart of the villain.
“Nooo,” cried the villain.
“Same observation you made to my father twenty years ago,” uttered the Hero.
The villain expired in a burst of irony, poetic justice and Skittles. And everyone else lived happily ever after.

What deaths wouldn’t work for you?


Rafael said...

I really liked the last one. Hurray for Skittles!


Although I do have to admit that I did fall/use the death of a former lover to clear the way for the love of their lives bit recently. Of course it took awhile for the MC to get over his guilt and the new/old love knew that he would always have a soft spot for the dead love.

Doesn't fix the problem, but I think it ameliorates it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

Spot on post.

I just want to add another one that was on my mind when you wrote the post on sacrifice. "The convenient death when there's a love affair". I couldn't even begin to list all the films that depict someone torn between their spouse and someone they are having an affair with. So often the person torn dies at the end. I'd like to see the person have to make the difficult choice. Decide to work on the marriage or decide it's over and go with the lover. I don't care who they choose. But I'd like the person to have to really soul search and make that painful choice.

Death is such an easy way out for the character and the writer.

Randall said...

Okay, I'm not sure if this falls into one of the catagories you've already posted, but the one that annoys me the most is the "Disney Villain" death. It's the one where the villain cannot come to any other fate but to die, and because the hero can't kill him/her without becoming as bad as him/her, the villain must die by their own hand (or the consequences of their own actions)! Scar in The Lion King is a prime example.

I'd love to see a few villains get redeemed.

Marian said...

Hey Randall,

Oh yes, that's the kind of death where the villain falls into the pit of spikes he prepared for the hero.

For an additional cherry on the cake, the hero leans down and says, "Give me your hand" but it's too late (though I have to admire that kind of magnanimity).

And I agree - we need more stories about villains who redeem themselves through some method other than dying.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

There was another kind of death I just remembered - the Beth March syndrome. This is where the character is just so full of sweetness, faith, joie de vivre and Skittles that death is really the only career option she has. She's way too good for this cruel world.

I think Nicholas Sparks had a character like this too.

Marian said...

Hey Rafael,

Glad you liked it. :)

Sounds like your main character acted realistically and sympathetically, rather than forgetting all about his first love. Best of luck with the story!

Rafael said...

Well, a few things first:

I am not big on love triangles. Hate them. Completely unrealistic and a sign of either a weak, cruel or simply uncaring and selfish personality.

Second, the "first" was his first love/crush. An idealized vision of what he thought he wanted since his first days at a certain famous boarding school.

Third the death served to do more than just clear the way for the "true" love. It forced the Hero to face some dark secrets within, especially important because the Hero comes off at first (deliberately) as nearly super heroic (Superman style), that is good looks, mad skillz at everything and confident. Of course his weaknesses are buried deep inside and they start to come out in force when the "first" dies.

Only after he starts to deal with those can he in fact meet the "true" love. In fact their coming together is part of the process of him becoming a stronger and better person.

So love, backstory and character growth all in one.

Randall said...

Yes, the hero offers his hand and the villain takes it -- and then slashes at the hero with the knife he had hidden in the other hand and so the hero pulls back and the villain falls to the spikes . . . you can see it coming as soon as he has the pit dug, generally.

Marian said...

See, that's dumb. On the villain's part.

He should let the hero pull him out, offer an apology for his evil ways and then push the hero in.

Anonymous said...


The "Beth March syndrome" cracked me up. I think Helen from Jane Eyre is the epitomy.

Rafael- I have to disagree with you. Not all people stuck in love triangles are awful, selfish people. Life and love is not always so black and white. I think Casablanca is a great example of this. Ilse clearly loved both Rick and her husband (yet in different ways). And they're all good people. In the end, she makes the difficult choice of deciding which one to go with.

Marian said...

Many love triangles are done poorly, IMO.

Rather than showing why one character might be attracted to/in love with two others (as in Tasha's example) or in love with the wrong man (e.g. GWTW), it's often obvious where the author's bias lies. I think that's often where the unrealism angle comes in, with the two sides of the triangle being so evidently Good Choice and Bad Choice.

I'm curious, though, Rafael - did you mean that the apex of the triangle, the person with two others in love with him/her, is usually selfish?

Anonymous said...


You hit exactly the point I was trying to get at. And I agree- most love triangles are written horribly.

If an author decides to tackle a love triangle, I ask two things:

1. that it depicts all the persons as real human beings. Perhaps flawed (who isn't?) But basically good human beings. It's definitely author bias (and lazy writing) if the guy having an affair has a shrew of a wife. Or, if it's a woman- that her husband is a jerk.

Now, if you have a character who let's say, got married too young, has met someone else now, but yet doesn't want to hurt their spouse who they do care for as a person- truthful emotions/situations like that tug at me.

2. and like I keep saying- that at the end, a choice is made. No suicide to get out of it. No sudden cancer. No husband finding out and crashing a plane into the desert. (I think you know the film I mean)

Rafael said...

I believe that the whole thing is selfish. Yes the person who has more than one person attracted to him/her might well be selfish in the sense that they may be toying with those peoples emotions.

But generally what I see is a confusion between love and physical attraction. You can be attracted to many individuals, that is not the same as being in love with them. I think it is also a sign of immaturity or lack of emotional experience.

Now if the situation were presented in a more realistic sense, say a spouse cheating because of a midlife crisis, breakdown of the marriage or simply because he or she stopped loving the other, that I can buy. I can also buy giving into desire or sexual addiction, but remember the old adage (and I'm paraphrasing):

"One can not serve two masters equally"