On character deaths

Have you ever felt down all evening without wanting to admit it was because your favourite character in a novel had just died? When I was a child, I used to cope by making up alternative versions of the story in my head, in which the character had never died and was just pretending and anyway there was a superhero who looked strangely like me that arrived to save them in time. After a few year o literature studies, I took to rationalising character deaths. It’s much easier to cope when you know that this character had to die because it was a symbolic part of the hero’s coming of age.

Now I’ve said it: I shamelessly use over-analysing to get over the trauma of seeing my favourite characters die. Still, literary analysis doesn’t always miss the mark, and once you stop mourning them like people of flesh and blood, you may start to understand that this particular character didn’t die for nothing. And finding reasons necessarily means that some reasons aren’t as good as others. Have you ever felt cheated because it was just so convenient for that character to die just there and then? It happens to me quite a lot…

***SPOILER ALERT: just in case you haven’t read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Emile Zola’s Nana, watched Lost or have somehow managed to get through life without hearing about the endings of Harry Potter and Oliver Twist.***

…and I find that there are recurring patterns. Let’s elaborate a bit.

Some things become obvious very soon. Prostitutes, repenting villains or sinners in general don’t last very long, even though this has started to change in the past decades. If you were a painted Jezebel in a 19th-century novel, the safest thing you could do was to leave the country as quickly as you could. Novelists were more pitiless than Jack the Ripper. Prostitutes were simply too embarrassing to keep alive: someone who professed liberal tendancies, like Dickens, had to acknowledge that they were more victims of society than degenerate sinners, but they were simply too stained to associate with the upper classes. Dickens could neither leave poor Nancy in the predicament she was in, but he wouldn’t have gone as far as to give her a nice home with aristocrats, that wouldn’t do. So he killed her. It simplified everything, and the added layer of pathos and "Awww, pooor Nancy!" wouldn’t hurt.

Same goes with illegitimate children, the children of prostitutes or unmarried couples, who tended to have a strikingly high mortality rate (can’t decently associate symbols of innocence with such filth now, can we?), and sinners in general, even when repented. And while writers tend to cut some slack to their sinner characters nowadays, you can’t say the tendency has disappeared. What happened to Snape already? Oh wait… He makes a poignant confession and the readers tearfully discover that in spite of his faults he was the real good guy all along, right? And then Harry grudgingly shakes hands with him and decides that while they will never be friends, there can be a place for the sinner as well in this world, right? Wrong… Although death ended Snape’s character arc nicely, there is still a nagging doubt in there somewhere about the exact motivations behind his death. Did he die so that his life would culminate in tragedy? Or because having him around in the end would have been too embarrassing?

Most writers agree that it’s much simpler to write about pathos than to write a subtle happy ending. And I wonder if this is not a motivation behind many character deaths. It does save a lot of embarrassment. When I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, I spent a lot of time scratching my head over the fate of one particular character. The novel is about a land dominated by two tyrants, and a band of rebels trying to overthrow them. One of these rebels happens to have a sister he’s lost sight of years before, and we discover that the sister in question has become the favourite concubine of one of the tyrants, and that she’s madly in love with him. Oh, and that her first lover also happened to be her brother. The very seeds of tragedy are sown. Yet during the course of the whole story, the sister accomplishes nothing. She’s torn between her loyalty to her country and her love, and when the tyrant is defeated, she just commits suicide. The author thus gets to have his cake and eat it: he’s spared the trouble of having to create an active and inspiring female character, and kills her off before he has to justify her lack of contribution to the story, hiding the absence of character arc behind a sad, tearful scene, that’s so well-written he almost gets away with it. And you could also add that her death conveniently erases the need for an embarrassing scene where the two siblings reunite and wonder whether they should just book a room and shake the bed like they’ve just invented incest, or move on to serious things. (It should also be noted that when someone should be punished for carnal sin, it’s most often the woman)

In fact, character death is a very useful tool, as it uses the audience’s emotional responses to hide what’s occasionally an act of cowardice from the writer. When I watched the bonuses of the second season of Lost, I was quite shocked to see that the writers of the show considered themselves very bold and subversive, because they had dared to pair off an all-American girl with an Iraqi soldier. Wait… Doesn’t she die just after they spend the night together? And didn’t they kill her stepbrother/lover just before so they could throw her into the arms of her new boyfriend without having to bother about confusing moral implications, like cheating on your brother with someone else and stuff? The list goes on and on, and one constant you notice is that many writers seem to mistake conveniently getting rid of moral issues for tragedy. It’s a shame, because in the end, the effect is cheapened. It’s so much easier to make your audience cry than to take a firm position on a moral problem.


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