Warning! Before you read further in this post, please be aware it is spoiler city, and not just for books. Cause we’re talking about death in fiction today. Tread with caution if you want to avoid spoilers about: A Song of Ice and Fire, Breaking Bad, I Shall Be Near to You, SLC Punk!, and other, smaller spoilers. And who knows what else might come up in the comments.
Got it? Good.
My best friend and I have had an argument going on for like seven or eight years about the movie SLC Punk! Late in the movie, the protagonist’s best friend, Heroin Bob (a guy who got his name from his strict anti-drug policy) dies of an accidental overdose. It’s ironic. It’s sad. And it’s the only thing that makes the movie any good.
Our argument usually goes something like this:
Me: Heroin Bob had to die.
Her: He did not, it was a total waste.
Me: That’s the point.
Her: You have no heart.
Me: I don’t care, he still had to die.
Character deaths in fiction can fulfill a lot of different functions. But, done right, they add thematic weight, whether or not we as audience may rail or gnash our teeth or rage about it. Killing a beloved character can ruin a book for an indiviual reader. But it can also make it a better book.
I recently reviewed I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe. I loved that book. But it completely tore me up, to the point of tears. I did not expect to get so emotionally invested, but I also did not entirely expect what happened. What hit me so hard? [seriously, this is your last chance to look away cause SPOILERS]. Rosetta’s husband dies. She abandons her home life, runs away with the army to join him, and he fucking dies.
I was half prepared for it. As the book went on, I decided there were two characters ripe for the reaper, and one or the other was going to go. But I was not prepared with how hard that death would hit me. I’m not a big crier, especially when it comes to books. But this one really got to me, and that was all due to the strength and spare beauty of McCabe’s prose. It was also, in the end, the better choice to go with. Because Jeremiah’s death had weight to it, and even though it was shocking and tragic and it meant I’d never get the happy ending I really, really wanted for the characters, it ultimately made the story more meaningful to me than it otherwise would have been. If Jeremiah had lived, I would have thought “oh, what a nice book,” and moved on, probably forgetting it. When he died, it became a much better book.
Death in fiction must happen, because death is the one certainty of life. Not every story requires it, sure, but sometimes without it a piece can seem like it’s happening in a happy little delusional fairy land where nothing really matters. Maybe, just maybe, I read too many genres that rely on death. I grew up on traditional high fantasy with lots of sacrifices and angst, and currently I’m obsessed with crime fiction, which pretty much always starts with someone on the table and takes out more people along the way. But even when I miss a loved character, I never wish for a good death to be undone, and I rarely question the author’s judgement.
Rarely. But not never. Because it’s not just the fact of characters dying that matters, it’s the way that they do.
I submit to you: George R. R. Martin.
With the unexpected death of a viewpoint character, Ned Stark, in A Game of Thrones, Martin established Westeros as a place where no one is safe. And that’s cool. That’s great. Lots of characters in subsequent books bit the big one, and most of those deaths made sense. But then, a couple of things started happening. One, Martin decided to keep one-upping himself with grislier and grislier death scenes. Two, he started bringing characters back.
Now, I read a lot of fantasy books. So much so that, when reading another genre, I still sometimes expect the miracle spell or the last minute save. But with Martin, it’s getting kind of crazy out there. Characters that were supposed to be dead before the books even started are suddenly showing up in disguise. Characters who you swear you saw die miraculously make it through. The only two characters at this point I’m sure we’ll never see again are Ned and Robb Stark, and that is only because they are without heads, and I’m probably wrong about it anyway.
It sucks. It’s absolutely terrible. And the reason it sucks is because all of those emotional scenes are invalidated when a character reappears, all of those grisly deaths start to feel like empty torture porn. Part of the point of ASoIaF, as I’ve always read it anyway, is that life is chaos, that death is random and inevitable. But it’s no longer inevitable (Jon and Brienne are still in limbo as of book 5, but I’m pretty postive they’ll pull through), and no longer even permanent. And that makes it meaningless.
So what makes a satisfying character death, and what makes a frustrating one? The rubric is different for everyone, I’m sure. But I think you have to trust the writer to get it right, as much as you can, until they prove otherwise.
Take Breaking Bad. When it came to that final episode, I really, really wanted Jesse to kill Walt. I wanted it so hard. But I didn’t get what I wanted. Walt was taken out by a machine of his own invention, finally killed by consequence of his own actions, and of course it was perfect. My version would have been satisfying for a moment. The writer’s verson was completely, 100% right.
Writers and creators don’t always get it right. But to accuse them of getting it wrong, I think you have to have more evidence then “I didn’t want x character to die.” Just because you like a character doesn’t give them a pass on mortality. Just because you’re sad that they died doesn’t invalidate the time you spent with them. In fact, it probably means the writer was doing something right after all.
So sure. I want Jeremiah to be alive. And Prim Everdeen, and Ned Stark, and Nysander, and Leslie Burke, and Heroin Bob, and Walter White (…ok, maybe not Walter White.). And dozens, maybe hundreds, of other characters I’ve said goodbye to over the years. But I also know that getting what you want doesn’t always satisfy or mean quite as much. And I will almost always fall on the side of “yeah, he had to go,” even if it makes me sound heartless and terrible.
What are your feelings on death in fiction? Who’s death broke your heart, and who left you cold?