There are two types of character death in fiction. (No, actually there are probably thousands. But there is a division of two that I would like to discuss. And while we are being parenthetical, today’s writing lesson can apply to more than death – feel free to substitute any dramatic plot event.) Let us call them the story-driven death and the reality emulating death.
The story-driven death suits the story. No surprise there. The deadly event occurs at just the right point in the plot, it fits the themes of the work, it advances the progression of the surviving characters.
There are many classic examples – the person who has done wrong, seeking redemption, dies saving the lives of others. Or, for a twist, the pure and good hero dies saving the person who has done wrong, adding value to their redemption quest. And let us not forget the mentor figure who dies in the middle of the classic Hero’s Journey. Or the passing of the sword from one generation to the next. In horror movies, the character that invents or unleashes the evil force is typically on the to-be-killed list.
You’ve seen these stories before – you know the drill. And that’s part of the problem. Story-driven deaths can be effective and moving, but they can also be predictable.
I personally favor action genres, with cops and detectives and space pilots and characters who, for no reason, wear bright spandex costumes while fighting crime. These characters operate in dangerous worlds. In such worlds, death should strike unexpectedly. It should not be predictable.
Which brings us to the reality emulating death. The argument here is simple: people die. In real life, no one dies to suit the plot. Death occurs on its own time.
There are benefits to having this kind of death in your story. In most fiction, a certain degree of willing suspension of disbelief is required. Having people dodge bullets all day without consequence doesn’t exactly make that suspension any easier.
The reality emulating death also makes a statement about hazardous environments. In war people die. People die unfairly and unexpectedly in space, in unsanitary conditions, and in the bad part of town.
And once a well loved character dies unexpectedly, outside what we believe to be the rhythm and structure of the plot, all bets are off. No one is safe. Anything can happen. And that’s a fun place for the author to have the reader.
On the other hand, we don’t always want our fictions to be as haphazard and meaningless as our real lives. Character deaths that do not sync with the story may seem arbitrary and forced. Or, depending on the story, too harsh.
Of course, every reader will have a different opinion. In the end, as always, you need to weigh carefully what suits your story.
Because your readers certainly will.