Discussion Time: Character Deaths…or Lack Thereof

Discussion

Recently, I read this one book and LOVED it. Loved it so much I read 600 pages in under 24 hours. It was intense, it was original, it was gripping, it made me feel things. One particular moment that made me feel things was the revelation, about two-thirds of the way through the book, that one of the main characters was dead. I’m not going to lie; I cried a little. More than that, I was impressed that the authors were willing to go there.

Turns out, they weren’t willing to go there. The end of the book revealed that the dead character had actually been alive all along. Surprise! :/

I still loved the book. I’m not retracting anything I said in the first sentence. It was amazing. But mixed in with the OH MY GOD WHAT WAS THAT and I THINK MY TEARS ARE CRYING and SDGSJFKDSJLSFDKJF!!!!!!! there was this little seed of disappointment.

Maybe I’m just weird, but I don’t like when books do this. And so many books I’ve read in the past couple of years have done that, made me cry about losing a character only to have them (a) come back from the dead, or (b) not have been dead in the first place. I feel lied to. I feel like I’ve been given this Big Emotional Moment and it wasn’t real. I don’t like being tricked. (I like being surprised, but that’s not the same thing as what I’m thinking of here, though the line can be very thin). I don’t like realizing that all my emotions were for nothing.

Sometimes an author will talk about how brutal an upcoming book will be and how people! will! die! only to pull something like this, and then I feel double disappointment. If it happens often enough in a series, I’ll start to expect this kind of thing, and then, no matter how much I like other parts of the story, I’ll be less into it.

Just to be clear, I don’t always hate this trope. I think it can work well, especially when:

  • Bringing a character back has consequences. (Magical consequences are good. Emotional consequences are good. Emotional and magical consequences at once are absolutely amazing.)
  • There have already been major character deaths in the story. (If the author has shown that they are willing to kill characters, I don’t mind if one or two characters escape once in a while. Please note that this doesn’t work quite as well if it’s minor characters who die and major characters who constantly escape death.)

Even without these two things, character death fake-outs can work. I can think of plenty that have worked, because they fit with the story the author was telling. (The weirdest example I can think of is The Dying of the Light by Derek Landy, where the author’s misdirection regarding a major character’s death was so blatant that my annoyance reached an extreme point and doubled back to me being okay with it.)

And of course, going too far the other direction is also not good. If everyone dies all the time and there’s no hope ever, I’m going to put the book down and go watch The Princess Bride several times in a row. Optimism is important.

But most of the time, I’m okay with characters dying. I like the proof of higher stakes, and I like the emotional fallout. A well-placed, well-plotted character death that works with the character’s arc can make a book so much stronger for me. Especially if the character stays dead.

Polina 

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