Warning: This post includes spoilers for Harry Potter, Divergent, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Read at your own story-spoiling risks.
You’re reading a book. It’s three in the morning, you should be sleeping, but you just can’t stop turning the page. The characters have come to live for you. You’re invested in your story.
Then it happens…
That horrible author kills one of your favorite characters. Oh the humanity of it! You want to toss the book across the room. In fact, if the author was right there, you’d give them a piece of your mine. Tell them what that should have written. Ask them why.
Well, because we’re mean, heartless people who like to torture our readers.
Um, that’s absolutely a lie.
Authors kill characters because they have to. Believe me; it pains us more than it pains you. We created that character. We know them in a way that’s never shown on the page. But sometimes a death has to occur. There comes a point when a stubborn main character needs to lose someone important to them in order to cause change, or we the readers need to grasp how dangerous the world the main character exists in truly is.
J.K. Rowling is masterful at this. Many of the most beloved side characters in the Harry Potter trilogy perish. Why? Because we needed proof that Voldemort really was dangerous. We (the readers) had to believe that if the Death Eaters won, that the world would be left in a terrible situation and there would be a lot of suffering. Characters we loved had to die so we could see that the danger was very real and know the stakes that Harry and the D.A. were up against. Fred Weasley, Cedric Diggory, Dumbeldore, Lupin, Snape, Hedwig, Dobby, Mad-Eye, and Tonks had to die. More than that, Rowling handled all their deaths with respect. We felt each one and mourned them. In the end, we understood.
Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, also handles killing her characters well. At the end of Divergent Tris loses both her parents and has to kill her friend, Will. This had to happen for us to believe that Tris was in grave danger carrying out her mission. Even more, these deaths had to happen to prepare her to be willing to sacrifice herself to save Four. We wouldn’t have believed the power of the mind control if all these deaths hadn’t happened.
Twilight is an excellent example of a story that failed because it needed death. Meyer’s did her story a disservice when she decided she was too attached to her characters to put them in any real danger. The fourth book of the Twilight series is nothing short of jumping the shark for this very reason. The Vulturi become a laughable group of enemies. Sure they kill humans, but…um…isn’t that pretty normal for a vampire? I mean, that doesn’t make them scary. You can repeat one hundred and five times in a story how powerful an enemy is, but when the enemy appears and they can’t do anything to hurt the good guys, well, you’ve just lost the story. Not to mention wasted 400 pages worth of my time. The only way the story could have been redeemed at that point would have been for a Cullen to die. But Meyer’s couldn’t do it. She loved her characters more than her story, and it showed.
On the other hand, sometimes authors can overdo their point when it comes to using death to show how dangerous the story world is. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this. Sure, in book one, Rue had to die. There was no other way. We mourned her. It caused a change for the reader and for Katniss. But by the time we get to book three, Collins’s use of death was gratuitous at best. Kill Finnick? Why? We already knew the terror of The Capitol. It served no point to kill him and it wasn’t done in a manner that respected the impact of that character. Collins allowed her theme to railroad her characters, which is unforgiveable. My friend Amanda Stevens had an awesome post about The Hunger Games that I highly recommend.
Sidenote…yes…I cried when Dobby died.