Do Character Deaths Need To Be Meaningful?

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“This character’s death was pointless.” This seems to be a very common complaint among readers. Very often when a new book comes out – especially if it’s the next installment in a series – people start complaining that a character dies and their death doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. It seems meaningless and people get upset. But do character deaths need to have a meaning? Or can characters just die? My gut response is that no, character deaths don’t need to be meaningful. But I can see both sides of the argument.

Despite personally feeling like characters’ deaths don’t really need to serve a purpose, I can understand readers’ complaints. A lot of the time, it simply seems like bad writing. It seems like the author’s only way of creating a strong emotional response in readers is to kill off their favorite character. If the author has to kill characters in order for readers to have an emotional reaction to the book, that’s bad (or at the very least, mediocre) writing.

I also feel like using a character’s death to give the main character something to wallow over is… amateur. This is very common in a lot of male-led stories: the male main character’s mom or girlfriend (or sister or wife… I could keep going) dies so that the guy has something to be angry over and be angsty and decide to turn into a hero or something. It seems maybe lazy and definitely overdone.

Character deaths also really shouldn’t be used just to give the main character some sort of renewed motivation to take action if the character dying is a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIAP community. I will refrain myself from going off on a rant about it, but I’ll leave it at this: POC and the LGBTQIAP community deserve representation that doesn’t end in death or misery.

But like I said: I don’t personally feel like a character’s death needs to have some sort of meaning. I mean, it can. If the author wants to have someone close to the MC die in order for the person to go through some sort of character development or to help propel the plot forward, I think that’s fine. But I don’t think that purpose behind a death is necessary.

Sometimes, someone dying is just the most logical and realistic outcome. If the world the story is set in is an extremely violent one or if there’s some sort of other life-threatening situation that the characters are in (like a plague, for example), it would be really unrealistic for nobody to die. Take dystopian novels for example. Can you imagine if these huge revolutions were happening and none of the people on the “good” side died? Talk about unrealistic.

But going even further than that… in real life, deaths don’t happen for a reason. (I suppose some people who are religious may feel differently, now that I think about it…) It isn’t as though people choose to die because “hey! This will give my boyfriend something to get angry about and inspire him to change things!” Let’s be real. People die for many reasons. Or for none at all. So to suggest that a character has to die to serve some sort of purpose seems kind of silly to me, I guess. People in real life die because they’re sick or because they’re murdered or because they got old or because of any number of other reasons. Because books are often written to be a reflection of reality (albeit not an exact reflection), I think characters should be allowed to die just because.

So while I do think that character deaths can be meaningful and can serve some sort of literary purpose, I don’t think they need to. Sometimes people just die.

What do you think? Do you think character deaths should have a purpose or meaning?


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23 thoughts on “Do Character Deaths Need To Be Meaningful?

  1. I see your point about people not dying for a reason in real life. Other than that everybody dies. And if there is a higher reason, we don’t see it, because that’s just the nature of life. However, with writing, I feel it’s different. Because as an author, you have to make the decisions of who to kill. You put the characters in the situation that they’re in, so it’s in your control whether, when and how they die. And if you do decide to kill a character off, you have to think how it will affect the remaining characters.

    The truth is, death does affect us in real life and it does have meaning in real life. We just never look at it from the perspective of “That person died to produce this effect” because that’s absurd in the majority of cases. But people do change because of their loved ones dying. Maybe they stop smoking or drive more carefully or decide to be criminal lawyers. Or something. And it’s the same with books. But I think because we’re aware that there was an author behind this who made a decision to kill this character, we immediately think why? What prompted them to make this decision?

    Having said that, I do agree that sometimes character deaths are used just to wring out some emotion from your readers or it feels unnatural within the narrative because it was only used as a plot device.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with a lot of what you said here. Deaths definitely do affect people in real life even without a death happening for the sole purpose of evoking that response in their loved ones and authors do need to make their characters respond to deaths in some way. Whether or not the author is necessarily choosing to kill a character though depends on the author’s writing process. I know it seems silly/weird to say that authors aren’t choosing to kill characters, because they are writing the book and thus have control over what happens, but when you hear authors talk about why they killed a character or why they made a character do X, a lot of them talk about how they felt it had to be done because that’s how the character would respond to the situation or it just feels “right,” not that they consciously sat there and said “ok, I’m going to kill this person.” Then again, if an author really doesn’t want to make a character die, they could find a way around it, I’m sure. But I think for a lot of authors, character deaths come up naturally as they’re writing and aren’t necessarily something they plan from the beginning of the book. It’s kind of hard to explain, so I hope I’m making at least a little bit of sense haha When it comes down to it, I understand completely why a lot of people get frustrated with characters dying for no reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I totally get it. My own writing takes me to really unexpected places. I sit down and think I’m going to write one thing, and two hours later I look back and realize I’ve ended up writing something completely different.

        But even so, when your story brings you to a certain result – a character’s death – you still have to think about how that will influence your story and your characters. Sometimes I’ve had to go and rewrite parts of my story, because I realized that I was heading in a direction that I did not want my story to go and that maybe the mood I was in at the time was influencing my writing.

        Anyway, my main point was that when we think about death IRL and death in books, we look at it from two completely different perspectives. With books, we look for a meaning. We look for what made the author take the story and characters in a certain direction. Because we have a bird’s eye view. Whereas in real life, we just live and we only see things as they come.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a great discussion topic! How on earth do you keep coming up with neat topic ideas? I must learn your magic. =)

    I’ll admit, I agree with abooknerd13.

    Personally, when I hear “death in fiction needs to serve a purpose,” I interpret it to mean “the death can’t have zero affect on the people and world around it.” A death that doesn’t change anything about the characters and the story is pointless. Why bother even making a character die if nobody notices and nothing changes? It just wastes pages that could’ve been spent developing things that DO matter, like character arcs or plotlines.

    But I agree with you that the author doesn’t need to know beforehand that the death is going to take place. The author can totally have an epiphany in the middle of editing draft six, and kill off a character who’d survived the previous five drafts.

    However, I hope the author’s epiphany wasn’t “Oh, this section is boring, so I’ll liven it up for a few pages with a death that doesn’t affect any of the remaining characters or the story.” Because that’d be a really awful epiphany.

    Instead, the epiphany should be, “Oh, if this character dies, that’d create amazing new stakes/tension/character development/plot progression.” Even if the author hasn’t fully fleshed out or realized what those amazing new stakes/tension/etc are, their writerly instincts should be whispering at them “this death can serve a great purpose, so give it a try and see what happens.”

    Writerly instincts can be mysterious and powerful things. =)

    For me, the most satisfying books are the ones in which the author is careful with every element of the story, creating the strongest and most coherent story possible. And that means nothing can be pointless. In my opinion, the “best” authors are the ones who write like they’re holding a stiletto instead of a pen: every character, every event, every word is finely honed and wielded for ultimate impact. But that doesn’t mean that the author needs to know, before ever sitting down to write the first draft (or even before writing out the death and its aftermath!) that a specific character is going to die for a specific purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I definitely agree that a character’s death should have at least some impact on other characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where it doesn’t though haha Most of the time, when people are complaining about a “pointless” death, it doesn’t seem to me that the death doesn’t affect anything but rather that the reader(s) wanted the author to get from point A to point B in a different way. I could be wrong though. I absolutely agree that I like when an author carefully chooses everything that happens though! It’s sign of a great writer and usually ends up being a great book. 🙂

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  3. This is a very interesting question, Kourtni! I’m not one to really complain about a character’s death in a story, though I do agree that it can be annoying when used just for a catalyst for the MC to have a change of heart or purpose. I feel that may be one of the most overused YA clichés, especially in fantasy novels. But I’m all for killing someone off for shock value, sometimes you just need a book to make you go WTF (I’m looking at you ASOIAF and Red Rising!), just to change things up a bit. But this may just mean I’m a heartless person lol. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. I think a lot of people like to try and find a reason, or something good they can bring from it just to soften the blow and make it seem less pointless. But like you said, not every death has a reason. Perhaps it’s just an accident or an illness, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Agree with you how it’s annoying when a character dies just so they can have something to brood over (though in my experience it’s usually done to female characters ie Tris in Divergent and a gazillion copycat dystopians) Like you said- it’s lazy and overdone! Although I also agree that it can be necessary in dystopias for people to die- I do think that in higher stake environments (fantasy especially) it makes sense that more people that are close to the main character will inevitably kick the bucket- but it has to be in a logical way and not in a “I need to get these characters out the way so the protagonist doesn’t have to do what they say” (again Divergent, I’m looking at you) And that people should be allowed to die just because! Basically I agree wholeheartedly with what you said here!

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. I agree with a lot of what you said. To me, killing a character should serve a purpose – but one of that purposes is for realism. Like you said, in a highly violent world some of the good guys need to die just to keep that atmosphere up.

    Liked by 1 person

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