For writers — What things make a character’s death emotional?

This question came up on the Figment writing site. Given the constantly changing responses to death in society, I think these things need to be reconsidered every few years. It was Oscar Wilde who said “you would need to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell”, referencing the scene in [amazon_link id=”1853262447″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Old Curiosity Shop [/amazon_link]which had had many readers in tears a generation earlier. 1Dombey and Son[/amazon_link]].

The reactions, just this week, to the death of former British PM Margaret Thatcher sharpen this discussion. Some want to venerate her as a near-saint, others want to demonise or ridicule her, and there have been many articles, including in the Guardian and on the BBC website, about whether it is still poor etiquette to speak ill of the dead.

My sensibilities — from literature and TV — are below. I would be interested to see what other writers and readers make of them.

1) How many deaths so far? If this is the first and only character to die, then it’s much more emotional. Back in the day (this is going back a long time) there was a convention in TV Sci-fi that main characters never got killed. There is an ongoing trope about ‘red-shirts’ in Star Trek — essentially, any new incidental character wearing a red shirt who transported down to the planet’s surface would die shortly afterwards, but nothing would ever happen to Spock, Kirk, McCoy, and so on. Then, in a BBC series called Blakes 7 (no apostrophe), one of the main characters was killed. Although actually not an especially developed character, it caused uproar because it seemed to change the rules of sci-fi. Later on, one of the Doctor Who companions was killed, and now it’s fairly standard.

2) Flagging ahead? Dumbledore’s hand tells us that he is going to die. The presentiments and dreams of death in the Order of the Phoenix prepare us for someone dying (in addition to the hints dropped in the press before the book was published). By flagging it beforehand — even if we don’t know who it’s going to be — the author sets us up emotionally to take the death very seriously. If a character just happens to die in a scene without preparation, it’s harder get the emotion working.

3) Reputation? If we, the reader, knows that the character died while doing something good, but the other characters think they were doing something bad, then this sets up a dramatic irony which makes it more emotional. The heart of the tragedy at the end of Macbeth is that, to the other characters, he is nothing but a one-dimensional villain, but as the audience we want to shout out ‘don’t you see that he was driven to this by the witches?’ Shakespeare sharpens this point by having Macbeth initially refuse to fight Macduff saying:

“Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back; my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.”

4) Just desserts? Linked with (3), generally, a character who doesn’t deserve to die gets more of an emotional reaction than one who does. The whole of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a set up to allow the author to have Tess executed even though she doesn’t deserve it. This doesn’t quite work in Tess, because she does actually murder Alec, though most readers suspend disbelief while this is happening as it doesn’t fit the character as we perceive her.

5) How much do we love them? Some characters are more loveable than others. In the episode 15 of the final series of Buffy, Chloe, one of the ‘potential slayers’ commits suicide. However, she’s been moping and disagreeable up to that point, and we’re not especially sad to see her go. When main character Xander loses an eye, in a later episode, we perceive this as a terrible tragedy because Xander is our favourite non-Buffy character (remembering we went off Willow when she almost destroyed the world).

6) Reactions of other characters. The most emotional death in the Lord of the Rings is Balin, even though it isn’t presented to us in the narrative. This is for three reasons — there’s been a build-up to it, with other characters saying ‘maybe we’ll find Balin’ (see 2), he’s our bright link with The Hobbit (see 5), and because there’s a little tableau of other characters standing round, and we get to see each of their reactions separately. None of the reactions are melodramatic — a sharp break from the ‘death, my lords, ladies and gentlemen’ in Dombey and Son, but the differences between the reactions, which are reserved, heightens the emotion.

7) Position in the plot. There are plot moments when a character’s death means more. A character who dies on the first page is part of the premise. A character who dies on the last page is part of the closure — in an epic or saga narrative, we need the death of the main character to finish the story. The example which springs to mind, of course, is Beowulf, where his career can finally be summarised as ‘leodum liþost ond lofgeornost’2. If they die at a plot turning point, especially if their death destroys all the hopes the characters (and reader) have at that point, then this is much more emotional. Tolkien, again, is an outstanding example of this, and probably a reflection of his deep knowledge of saga. The death of Gandalf, coming so shortly after that of Balin, leaves first-time readers of The Fellowship of the Ring emotionally bruised.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Actually, that quote is the main reason why The Old Curiosity Shop is the only one of Dickens’s most famous work which I haven’t read — quite an admission. I have the same reaction, though, to the death of Paul in [amazon_link id=”1853262579″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=””
  2. ‘most beloved by his people and most eager for glory’

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