(I feel compelled to warn you of the content within–there are significant spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K.Rowling, Forest of Lies by Rachel Garner, and Love and Forgiven by me. I have a feeling most people know what happens in the latter two, anyway.)
Death is great!
Oh, yes. Death in all its marvelous, emotional, wonderful glory is definitely great. Now, before the police intervene, let me explain—I don’t mass murder people. Instead, I examine the emotional impact of deaths in stories, especially in fantasy, and turn them into general applications. The goal of every story, after all, is to create emotion.
The death of Severus Snape creates significant emotion. Throughout each of the Harry Potter novels, Severus continues to harass and demean Harry. He snarls, snaps, and sneers at anything and everyone—and I hated him for it. Yet, when he, of all people, became a victim of Voldemort’s insane quest for power, I felt a sense of helplessness and despair. If Snape, a much stronger character than Harry, couldn’t defeat the villain, how could Harry possibly do it?
The ending of Severus Snape demonstrates an important principle that I apply to my own stories. The death of any major character should build tension. When a major character dies, the hero realizes just how much he stands to lose. The reader sits on the edge of his chair, eyes glued to the page. Will the hero make it? Will he win against the dastardly villain? These questions spur the reader on through the story.
Forest of Lies (by Rachel Garner) sent my emotions on a roller coaster ride. I spent the several chapters leading up to this black moment worrying over the mentor, Robin, who nearly kills himself in an accident. The moment Much gasped his last words and slumped over, I stared at the page in shock. Surely not Much—not lovable, hilarious, defenestrating Much-of-Nottingham! I recovered quickly enough to shoot the author an email. “How could you?” I cried, tears streaming down my cheeks. “He was my favorite character!”
From this story I learned the principle of misdirection. If a writer can mislead the reader to agonize over a specific character, the death of another will shock him. Very simple, yet effective. Shock from the death of a favorite character gets to a reader in a way that angst and despair can’t.
I think a character by the name of Kahil Ranz hurt me the most to kill. I loved him. I knew his life plans for after the story. I desperately wanted him to live. I even wrote a scene placed after Kahil “died,” where I intended to show a missing body to imply that Kahil somehow got away. (My best friend promptly disabused me of that notion by deleting the scene and inserting Kahil’s funeral instead.) So too, other readers beat at the virtual doors of my email, wondering whether I really exterminated the character they loved the most.
I saw that if I love the character, the audience may very well love him, too. Kahil ended up as the most developed of all because I made him my favorite character. I spent hours and hours setting up Kahil’s back-story. I honed his wit and dialogue, his clothing and weapons. I knew every single thing about this character, and it hurt me to kill him. The readers saw this; my emotion passed on to them.
I also applied this principle in the novel I wrote in 2009. My favorite character of that story came to a place where he either gave himself up or let his son die. Of course, the theme of my story dictated that he should sacrifice himself for the hero, but I loved him too much!
“I don’t want to kill him!” I wailed to my mother.
My mother, the ever-sensible one, said, “Does it make the story better?”
“Well, it would, but I really don’t want to kill him!”
She hummed and spared a glance at my favorite school curriculum on the shelf. “Well,” she said, in tones even my writing teacher Mr. S couldn’t emulate, “If you don’t want to do it, doesn’t that mean you should?”
Amidst tears of sorrow, Caradoc died.
The principles of story-telling stay basically the same for each element in the story—good dialogue, interesting prose, intriguing plot, and meaningful details. But, I believe that a good character death will make the story stand out. Plots are a dime-a-dozen. Anyone can write about a Chosen Hero off to save the world in light of a prophecy. Few writers, however, can turn a character death into something emotional using tension-building, misdirection, and author adoration, or even all three.
(I desperately wanted to put this somewhere, seeing as I labored for weeks over it. I’ll probably post a drawing this afternoon–maybe even something relevant to this!)