Even though this is an article about how to write dramatic character deaths, I’m going to have to start by talking about “Game Of Thrones” and G.R.R. Martin for a while. As such, this article will obviously contain MAJOR SPOILERS for both the books and the films.
A couple of months ago, I read a really interesting (if somewhat shocking) rant attributed to G.R.R Martin, where he defends the fact that so many major characters in his “Song Of Ice And Fire Books” often end up dying unexpectedly in a plethora of horrific ways.
There are some doubts over the authenticity of the article in question (and it could very well be a parody) but, nonetheless, it raises a lot of interesting questions.
Even though I’ve only read the first four of these books and the first hundred pages of the fifth book last year (and I’ve seen the first three seasons of the TV show), this article was almost certainly prompted by the surprisingly well-publicised death of a major character (Jon Snow) at the end of the fifth season of the TV show. Although I was shocked when I read about this for the first time, I wasn’t really that shocked – since mercilessly killing off the characters who we all love is just something that G.R.R Martin does.
In the article, either G.R.R Martin himself, or someone imitating him, points out that the main characters in Shakespeare plays die more often than the main characters in his books do. Since I’m not really a Shakespeare fan (compulsory study of Shakespeare plays when I was at school will do that to you), I can’t really comment too much about this other than to say that the high body count in G. R.R Martin’s books feels like it matters a lot more than the body count in Shakespeare’s plays, since you can cram a lot more characterisation into several gigantic books than you can into a few two-hour plays.
Likewise, the article also points out that there’s usually a good dramatic reason for the main character deaths in G.R.R Martin’s most famous books and I’d have to agree about this. Well, most of the time anyway – the death of Brienne Of Tarth in the books seemed wholly unjustified in my opinion (since it didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the rest of the story).
This, of course, brings us on to the subject of when you should and shouldn’t kill off your main characters.
I’d argue that the rule for killing off main characters in fiction isn’t too different to the old rule about using profanity in fiction, namely that “the more you do it, the less dramatic it becomes“. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mercilessly killing off your main characters with alarming frequency, it’s just that your audience will gradually find it less shocking than they did when they started reading your story.
For example, in my short-lived “Ambitus” sci-fi/comedy fiction series from 2013, one of the running jokes was that anyone who was second-in-command to Captain Jola usually had a very short life expectancy. These comedy stories probably had a higher body count than many “serious” stories do, but all of the character deaths were amusing rather than horrific for the simple reason that they happened too often to really have much dramatic value.
Likewise, it’s quite telling that the fuss about deaths in “Game Of Thrones” only really happens when sympathetic characters die. For all of the “shocking” deaths in “Game Of Thrones”, there are at least as many which made the audience cheer instead of cry.
Whether it’s the evil King Joffrey being poisoned at his own wedding, Tywin Lannister being shot with a crossbow whilst visiting the privy, Viserys Targaryen getting a literal golden shower or The Mountain slowly dying in agony over the course of an entire book, I’d argue that G.R.R Martin balances out every “shocking” main character death with a far more horrific villain death that the audience won’t feel bad about.
This raises a lot of questions about balance when it comes to choosing which characters will and won’t die. If you write a story or a comic where only the villains can die, then it can quickly lose a lot of it’s dramatic power. Likewise, if you write a story or comic where only the sympathetic characters can die, then you automatically turn the villains into far more fearsome and oddly sympathetic characters than you might have intended. Getting the balance right between villain deaths and main character deaths is probably a fairly tricky thing to do.
Likewise, as in G.R.R. Martin’s books, your major character deaths have to mean something. What this means is that they should have a significant effect on the rest of the story. This can either be through the emotional impact that the death has on the other main characters or, far more effectively, the practical impact that the death has on the events of your story.
For example, in “Game Of Thrones”, both Ned Stark and Robb Stark die violent deaths at the hands of the Lannister family. In both cases, these deaths happened because the various members of the Stark family were trying to unseat the villainous Lannisters from power. As such, their deaths both illustrate the sheer level of power that the Lannisters have and the fact that they have no scruples whatsoever when it comes to dealing with criticism.
Likewise, when Ned Stark is executed by the Lannisters – this spurs the rest of his family to rebel against the Lannisters, thus starting a major part of the story. Ned Stark’s son Robb starts a military campaign against the Lannisters, whereas his daughter Arya goes off on a lone quest to avenge her father’s death. If Ned Stark hadn’t died, then neither of these major storylines would have happened.
So, if you’re going to kill off a main character, then it should have a significant effect on the rest of the story. Likewise, you shouldn’t kill off your main characters too often.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂