Let’s talk about death. No matter what you write (except perhaps picture books), killing characters is something that every author has to face at some point in their career, and it can be a difficult thing to tackle. Death is a part of life, and therefore a part of every story. Grief and loss are powerful motivators – death is the ultimate motivator, really – and finding a way for our characters to face their mortality (or lack thereof, in the case of someone like Tev) can elevate our emotional narratives to heavenly heights…or drag our stories into the ground to be buried and forgotten along with the fecklessly slaughtered masses.
In fantasy, there are three types of death for characters that have some sort of effective role in the narrative (we’re not talking about genocide or massive troop deaths in battle right now). There’s the heroic death, the punishment, and the out-of-left-field whacking. Each has their place in the story arc, but overusing death as a plot device can leave your readers feeling weary, disenchanted, and disconnected.
The heroic death is usually a plot-starter or a climax event. A character’s slain parents or murdered best friend can propel your protagonist to seek revenge or thrust him into an adventure, and kick off his search for redemption, a new place in society, or the six-fingered man. It can also cap off the action as a final push towards the resolution: the sacrifice of the second fiddle for his comrade, or the tragic end of a star player that leads to the popular revolt that overthrows the evil monarch.
The heroic death is the handiwork of evil or injustice and is always somehow righted or mitigated by the forces of good. It’s the darling of standard issue sword-and-sorcery, and has very specific applications within the arsenal of plot devices. As a fantasy traditionalist, I love a well-placed lieutenant taking a bullet for his captain, or a gruesome murder that gets under my character’s skin and drives him to seek revenge. It’s nearly always effective, as long as it isn’t overplayed, and it gets me right in the gut every single time.
The punishment is similar to the heroic death in that it is a pawn in the game of good an evil. The fact that the bad guy gets the axe is the necessary conclusion to most standard fantasy tales. The wicked are stymied by the good guys, and the status quo is reestablished with the removal of the dastardly stressor. The punishment wraps up loose ends and brings us to our happily ever after, pure and simple.
Both of these devices are about creating order, and I think that’s what fantasy in general tries to get at. In a fantasy story, we’re either fighting off a chaotic Other (evil orcs, sorcerers, rival countries) or fighting off the chaos within ourselves. Both, usually. In order to rationalize this struggle, we see death as a part of the chaos, but something that is deserved. Humans are confused and rattled by senseless death. As with the heroic death, the out-of-left-field whacking can be a great motivator, an earthquake that jolts a character out of his complacency and make him question his choices, his goals, and his very existence.
That can be great for a story. It adds depth and an emotional connection with the deepest of our silent fears: the random, unforeseeable, unjustified end to our lives. It’s terrifying and paralyzing, and it can change the course of everything in the blink of an eye. Heroism is the ability to overcome that paralysis, and many people read fantasy because they are struggling with helplessness in their own lives. Fantasy helps them make sense of it, or at least helps them cope by removing them from it and thrusting them into another world. However, the random whacking can be easily overplayed (I’m looking at you, GRRM), and when that happens, you start to lose me.
When you deal out death like candy, you run the risk of cheapening everything that your characters do while they’re alive. You start to wonder why they even bother trying if they’re just going to be slaughtered at some random point in their journey, purely for the shock value. Once that happens, the story loses its power. Sometimes characters have to fail, because that’s how you pull on the heartstrings, but sometimes they have to succeed, because that’s what keeps those heartstrings taut enough to pluck.
Whether random or foreseen, death should be personal and emotional and brutal, shocking and satisfying, mournful and gleeful and cruel. It should make us bounce up and down in our seats and shut our paperbacks in a wave of wrenching emotions before opening the book again to greedily devour the rest of the chapter. It shouldn’t be something so commonplace that you end up idly speculating about it around the water cooler on a Monday morning. Buckets of blood are all very well, but unless those deaths operate within a framework that speaks to the human experience, you can pour on all the gore you like and you’ll only be digging your own grave.