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?