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:
- The character has sacrificed himself to save others.
- 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?