Death is as much a part of life as it is a plot twist in fiction. Authors can use it to grab the heartstrings of their readers and tear apart expectations. If that character can die, who is safe?
Matthew Reilly writes in his author notes for one of the Scarecrow novels, that the death of a main character is deliberate. While it is part of the plot, it is his way of keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. If a main character dies and the hero can’t rescue them in time, then no one is safe. The mask of superhero immunity is torn away, and every action sequence can result in death or disablement. Even a child – one of the teens gets an amputation, which is probably a step too far for many authors and readers. However, the character shows their courage in continuing, giving themself first aid, and then living without too many hangups about it. One other character, Mother, with a titanium foot, lost it saving the hero, then uses her lack of foot to imaginatively fake death later on.
Sci-fi gets an interesting opportunity to explore future technology and emotions. Star Trek often has a character sacrifice themselves for the ship and the crew. In most cases this is a chance for an emotional farewell as their body is spaced. In Strange New Worlds we have the Pike conundrum (spoilers sweetie!) where the audience and he knows his eventual fate. Can he escape it? How can he live ten years knowing he ends up with a terrible and painful fate? What sort of person can deal with that fore knowledge? In the best traditions of Trek, we know Pike can, but also it is a double sacrifice. Amping up the agony, he not only knows who he cannot save, but that he must let his future unfold because otherwise the galaxy is plunged into war. He faces that he is less important in changing the world and must take a back seat to others. Not an easy task, and it provides a great deal of thought and plot twists to manage this successfully, particularly as the audience want him to escape his fate, all the while knowing he will not.
Historical fiction must deal with the lottery of life in the past. A shorter life span, a high infant and mother mortality rate, and various disgusting diseases can put a character down faster than you can say syphilis. But it is a chance to contrast modern society’s sanitisation of death. Death was a close part of life in the past. From bodies being left in the house for a wake and realistic photos of the dead, to actual ancestors in the walls of the house, the dead were with the living. The line between death and life was blurred rather than sharp. Yet the pain of grief was the same sharp, deep wound that we feel today.
As the Queen passed recently, she was quoted as saying that “grief is the price we pay for love.” It is another of the shared emotions that make us human, and one that an author can use to bond with the reader. In this, perhaps more than other ways, the author may be closer to the reader than at any other stage, such is the personal nature of grief. Readers cry over books when a character dies, and how others react may help a reader cope with grief in their own lives. The processing the character goes though is important. Do they wail and let it out? Lock it down to be dealt with later? Change their own path in homage to the deceased? Reilly and Shaver both have their characters going through therapy to deal with PTSD. Conan often loses companions, and has a short period of revering their strengths, or avenging their deaths, both cathartic reactions in a time without therapists.
Stephen Donaldson in his lengthy Covenant series uses death as a vital part of the plot. Not only does the death affect people and events in the far future, the emotions of guilt, grief and how people react as a result are also woven tightly into the plot. The death of past characters also plays a big part in shaping the person, and consequently their actions. That this shaping is not immediately apparent to others is yet another layer of impact. The characters working through their understanding of this trauma and pain is a powerful and integral part of the plot. As is the reason for death – self sacrifice places a powerful burden of survivor guilt and Linden Avery gets a barrow load of it from the Bloodguard.
So, people dying is one thing. If you are a reader of Game of Thrones or Terry Goodkind, or the EMP series Nightfall by Kevin Partner, then continued death in many varied and horrible ways eventually becomes a bit numbing. But one type of death never does – the death of an animal. Who watched or read Aliens and ignored the cast dying while watching frantically for the cat? It is a plot action authors should think carefully about, as many readers stop reading at that point, and may never trust you again on the issue. But it can be a feel good moment as well, such as Data finding his cat Spot after he thought him lost. We saw an android cry, people. Powerful stuff.
Another novel type is where the animals are anthropomorphized so they are almost people with some animal characteristics. In this way, an author can get away with the wrenching heartbreak of an animal death, although it’s still not easy. Several books come to mind – Watership Down by Richard Adams and A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. Both highly recommended, but still emotional reads. Animal Farm by George Orwell is similar, although it is so much a metaphor that they are scarcely animals. Charlottes Web by EB White is another that allows children to come to terms with the death of a beloved character, even if they previously disliked spiders. Although it skirts the whole liking bacon problem. Perhaps the answer is the animal must become a hero like Rheepicheep in CS Lewis’s The Dawn Treader, in order to sooth their passing.
So it is worth thinking through the impact of a character death, as it can reverberate through a series and affect events far in the future. It also affects your readers, and the way it is handled may determine if they continue reading your books.
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