"You are writing children's books. You need to be a ruthless killer." —J.K. Rowling (via this fabulous interview on BBC)
|Photo credit: bionicteaching on Flickr|
Depending on the genre, it's not uncommon for writers to begin a novel knowing that not all characters will survive to see the final pages. Writing an effective character death, however, is more than just describing how they meet their unfortunate end—you have to make the readers care. But how?
Let's take a look at some examples:
SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't read any of the below books (or seen their movies, for that matter), please skip over their examples, unless you'd like to see some major plot spoilers.
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): Yes, I know I use this example a lot, but it was particularly fitting for this post. Needless to say, a lot of characters die over the course of The Hunger Games trilogy, and some character deaths left more impact than others. The first few unnamed tributes who die around the cornucopia at the very beginning of the hunger games have forgettable deaths—Katniss doesn't even know their names, and as horrible as it sounds, when they die the readers don't particularly care. This is the case for many of the less important tributes that Katniss isn't emotionally connected with.
But then Rue passes away, and everything changes. Rue's death matters to Katniss, and so it matters to us. She's more than just another tribute—Katniss had taken a protective role over her, so when Rue dies, Katniss is devastated, and it certainly does not go forgotten amongst the readers.
- The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien): Like The Hunger Games, to say that a lot of characters die throughout the course of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a bit of an understatement. In books like these with a lot of character deaths, it is especially important to make certain deaths matter. Near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf is pulled into the abyss of the cavern (and thus, supposedly dies), he leaves the fellowship deeply impacted by his absence. Gandalf was the wisest and in many ways strongest of the fellowship, so when he is lost, the fellowship loses a great deal of hope with him. His death matters.
- Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling): There were quite a few powerful character deaths throughout the course of the Harry Potter series, but the one that affected me the most was that of Sirius Black. Sirius was by no means a perfect godfather to Harry, but he represented hope for change and a better life for Harry. For the first time, Harry had the opportunity to live away from the Dursleys, to live with a wizard who understood him, cared for him and actually valued him. Even more so—Sirius was a link to the parents that Harry never knew.
So when he died, readers were stunned. Harry was entirely ripped apart by Sirius' death, and even J.K. Rowling admitted that she cried after writing it. Why? Because his death left great emotional impact—it mattered.
The key to making your readers care about a character death is a) to choose characters who have connected with the readers and b) make those deaths mean something—not just to the plot, but to the surviving characters.
If it matters to the protagonist, chances are it's going to matter to the readers. Allow your character deaths to leave a large impact and your readers will remember it.
What do you think goes into an effective character death? Any tips for writing the end of a character?