When Good Characters Die

This post is inspired by one of those ecards going around the internet—you know, the ones with the cute, sometimes Edwardian-looking drawings and the clever sayings?

Here’s the one that caught my eye yesterday. Just ignore that extra “o” on the last word (and remember I didn’t create it!).

What Do We Mourn For?

Having been known to cry over the deaths of fictional characters—and having been known to kill off a few myself—this got me thinking. What are we really mourning when we mourn a character’s death?

When we mourn for a real person, we’re usually grieving for ourselves, because we will miss having that person in our lives. If the person’s life, or our relationship with him, wasn’t what it ought to have been, our mourning may be embittered by regret. If the person dies at the natural end of a good life, our grief (if we believe in the resurrection) is tempered by the confidence that she is at peace.

But when we mourn a fictional character, it isn’t quite the same thing. If we miss the character, we can always go back and read the book again. She will live forever in the pages that precede her demise.

Also, our relationships with the characters are not really an issue—unless you get into books a lot more deeply than I do. For Meggie in Inkheart that might have been a concern, but then Meggie  herself is a fictional character. Let us keep these things in perspective.

We do sometimes mourn characters who have died as a result of their own poor choices. Hamlet, for instance. But think about it: When you look back at the whole play of Hamlet—not immediately after watching or reading it, but at some distance—is it his death you focus on? It isn’t for me. You might say Hamlet died because he had nothing left to live for. It’s everything that happens before his death that causes us to mourn for a wasted life.

A Death Most Moving

When I think about the deaths in literature that have affected me most deeply, I realize they touch me for one (or both) of two reasons:

  1. The character has sacrificed himself to save others.
  2. The character will be deeply mourned by other characters with whom I identify.

Dumbledore. Fred Weasley. Jean Valjean. Gandalf (apparent death). Beth March. Matthew Cuthbert. Bambi’s mother. Jeremiah Land.

It also makes a difference how well we know the character himself and how lovable we find him. I didn’t cry as much over Sirius Black, even though his sacrificial death devastated Harry, because I hadn’t had as much time to get to know and love Sirius—and neither had Harry.

For Those Left Behind

The point I’m trying to make here is that when we mourn for fictional characters, just as when we mourn for real people, our mourning is not so much for the one departed as for the ones left behind. We project ourselves into the characters of Harry, or George, or Frodo, or Jo, or Anne, or Bambi, and feel the same devastation they feel.

Of all the deaths I’ve mentioned, the one that tears at my heart most painfully is that of Fred Weasley—because I can’t imagine how George will go on without him. He won’t even be able to finish a sentence, let alone run Weasley’s Wheezes, without his twin to bounce his thoughts off of, to be the ever-present echo of himself. I can see why some Weasley or other had to die, but I really wonder what J. K. Rowling was thinking when she chose one of the twins. (Note that she didn’t dwell on George’s reaction—it must have been too painful even for her.)

Ultimately, though, we have to forgive her, because Fred died, as one of many, to save his world from Voldemort. His death had meaning, as did his life.

As a reader, then, if you mourn for fictional characters, don’t feel badly about it. You’re exercising your compassion muscles for when you need them in real life.

And as a writer, if you feel compelled to kill someone off and want that death to have the maximum impact, choose someone the main characters will be devastated to lose—but make sure his death means something. Let your readers’ grief be permeated with the light of resurrection.

What characters have you mourned for most? Do you agree with my conclusions?

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8 comments on “When Good Characters Die

  1. Margaret Buchanan says:

    Yes! I love your perspective. I do mourn. I really do get into my books and movies. My best friend in the middle of a movie is known to blow the movie by saying, “Remember it is only a cartoon.” I hate that. Let me have my emotions! I have always thought that emotion flow is what the author or director is wanting me to do. I play along and go with the flow of the book or movie even if it is a cartoon! My best friend also says he has never seen any one that has the ability of “suspended disbelief” as I do. When I want to escape I excape into books and movies.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Absolutely, Margaret, manipulating emotions is what storytelling (book, movie, whatever) is all about. That sounds kind of crass, but as a writer I try to play on ennobling emotions rather than degrading ones. 🙂

  2. So funny, because when I started reading your post, the first person that came to mind was indeed Fred Weasley, and for exactly the reason you share. I just couldn’t take thinking of George. (Conversely, my favorite moment in all the books is when Molly saves her other child–go mom power!). And the second was Valjean, whom you also mention. I also mourn when a book I love is over, and those people are no longer sharing my life.

  3. You named great examples. Your points are excellent. I think there is a level of appreciating the beauty and depth the writer creates too. I know when I feel so moved by a character, part of my emotional reaction is awe at what the writer pulled off. And by extension, love of the craft.

    I read a short story by Dickens not too long ago. I was so caught up that when it ended I felt I needed to rush and look up what happened- as though I had been reading a historical account. I was moved even MORE that he was able to so thoroughly create characters like that- in a short story no less.

  4. Bev. Cooke says:

    So, so true. I just killed off a character in Tuya, and it tore both me and the character’s best friend apart. I really, really, really, didn’t want to do that to this character, but I couldn’t see any other way to make the book feel right if it didn’t happen. But darn it, the death had meaning. Which is maybe another reason we mourn characters’ deaths – so many lives are snuffed out in real life with no meaning – they died for no good reason, there was no purpose to their death, except that they were ill, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least in books, the deaths all should have meaning, or it’s gratuitous.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      Ohh, I’m afraid to ask . . . (and don’t tell me–I want to find out by reading the book!) But I’m sure you did the right thing.

  5. Ermahgurd says:

    Exactly. A really sad death would be when Johnny Cade died in the book, “The Outsiders”. Maybe the saddest death in literature. An abused (verbally and physically) child sacrifices himself to save little children while a young teenager, believing he isn’t worth of life, yet hasn’t done much, surprised how the parents’ of the children thank him when his parents didn’t care or notice him not in the house for a week and before he dies, his mother comes, and he asks the nurse not to let her in due to the abuse she caused, and devastating his self esteem, not caring when he was beaten up, scarred, cut, and almost killed, twice. Not noticing his existence. Johnny leaves a not to his friend telling him that there is good in life and that you can change who you are, and there are things to be done- things Johnny will never be able to do. He died young, but because of his death, the children live, the gang fights are over, his gang of friends find a way of life, and he inspires the main character to continue living and do good, saving him from himself.

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