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Character Development: Character Death and the Ultimate Sacrifice

Her Cold Embrace by TheMichaelMacRaeKilling a character in your novel is a tried and true method for advancing your plot. Allegiances are torn, revenge is sought, kingdoms fall apart. Character death feels as essential to the fantasy genre as magic—perhaps more-so. But in a narrative sense, is death really the “ultimate” sacrifice?

The most effective character deaths are those with the largest payoff. Perhaps the audience cares deeply for this secondary character, and their own sense of loss helps them understand the suffering of the surviving protagonist. Perhaps this character’s death unleashes a chain of events that changes the face of the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with this plot device, and it can be used to devastating effect.

A problem arises, however, when the author believes this is the only way to advance the narrative. Readers expect a character’s death to serve a purpose. When it doesn’t, and appears to only serve as shock value or to get the writer out of a corner, readers may feel cheated (especially if the character was one they identified with).

[Spoiler Warning] Minor spoilers for A Game of Thrones, book one of A Song of Ice and Fire. Minor in that I think most everyone knows what happens already.

Take, for comparison, two characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, a series notorious for killing off its characters. First we have Ned Stark, whose beheading is arguably the most influential moment in the series. His death sparks a war spanning the entire Seven Kingdoms, and lays the foundation upon which the entire series is built. It also reflects one of the main messages in ASOIAF—that when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. Without his death, we would not have the vast majority of the conflict in the series.

[Spoiler Warning] Spoilers for A Storm of Swords, book three of A Song of Ice and Fire.

In contrast, we have the death of Oberyn Martell: a dynamic, popular character who was introduced and killed in the same book. Unlike Ned Stark, his death had little to no impact on the world at large (at least, none that could not have been achieved in some other fashion), and he did not have enough time in the series for his death to make a lasting impact on the reader. His death created some development for minor characters, but ultimately, it ended fan-favourite Oberyn’s potential.

[End Spoilers]

Learning To Leave by sheppardarts

The problem with character death is its finality. It might pave the way for the surviving characters to grow, but we lose another character’s growth in the process. We don’t get to watch them develop or respond to the pain of loss, because for them, the journey has ended. If a story is supposed to be about people, is the story always at its most meaningful when one of those people is taken away? When plotting the death of a character, how do you decide if it’s really necessary? And if death is not the answer, then what can you do to cause a real emotional impact?

One way is to find the true “ultimate” sacrifice.

Love Never Dies by Michael-C-HayesAll well written characters have something they love and believe they cannot live without. We can call this the ultimate sacrifice—something the character cares about more than anything in the world, and if lost, will change them forever. Importantly, the ultimate sacrifice cannot be the character’s life, nor the life of another character. It can, however, be an ability, an object, a belief, anything that defines the character and gives them their reason to persevere. Let’s look at an example.

An artist depends on her eyes for everything she does. She sketches strangers on the street, she blends colours, she studies design, she creates masterpieces. None of which she would be able to do without her sight—so the author takes it away. Suddenly, this character is thrown into turmoil. She falls into darkness. Her world is turned on its head, and she believes there is no hope. The author has shattered the character by taking away the one thing she thinks she can’t survive losing. This character, and those that interact with her, are irreparably damaged—and no one has died.

The ultimate sacrifice gives us opportunity for growth that death cannot. Maybe the artist never regains her sight, but instead learns to find her way back to art. She learns sculpt, or discovers an ear for music. She learns how to feel the thrum of drums on her chest, how to hear the subtle high tones in a violin’s strings, how to hear the music notes in a rush of wind and leaves. She is not the same artist she once was, but one who has made it through the darkness and come out new.

Blind Man by Linn Kristine PettersenMaybe, after losing a hand (and therefore his ability), a decorated soldier ends his fighting days and spends that new time with his family, rekindling the relationships he missed while abroad. Maybe a king loses the memory of a son who died decades ago, and learns to rely on stories from his citizens to fill the hole left behind. Maybe, after he discovers his gods were never real, a once blindly faithful priest sees through his church’s veneer and begins a religious revolt.

With the ultimate sacrifice, we see our characters reforming their lives after a devastating loss, one they thought they could never recover from. It’s a sort of pain we, as readers, can relate to. We all have something we are afraid to lose, and can’t imagine how we could recover if it really was just gone. But now we have the characters we love showing us how to overcome our darkest fears and deepest pains. They show us that even at our lowest, at our most hopeless, there might be hope after all, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be okay too—something we would not have had if the character had simply died.

Title image by Michael MacRae.

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