It’s been ‘Kill Fan Favorite’ season in TV land, and discussions about character deaths are swirling everywhere as fans kick up a storm – frequently with good reason. If I didn’t know better, I’d say most TV showrunners have forgotten when to kill a character, and when not to. Believe it or not, there is a difference! Let me provide you a handy-dandy chart.
YOU SHOULD MAYBE KILL A CHARACTER WHEN…
- it moves the plot along. Does it thicken the plot? Is it a necessary ingredient? Character deaths are like salt – you need a little to keep things flavorful, but if you add too much, well…the story’s gonna taste bad. People get angry at unnecessary character deaths and food that’s too salty, so this is obviously an excellent metaphor.
- the character really deserves it. Alfred in The Battle of the Five Armies, for example. Has the character been horrible with no sign of guilt? It’s okay to give them the axe. Prove there’s some justice in the world.
- it’s symbolic to the story. Robin Hood dies at the end of most Robin Hood retellings, because he’s a catalyst. He proves that his ideology can live beyond him, that what he lived for made a difference and people will take up his banner and fight. It’s inspiring and poetic. (Another good example is Charles Vane from Black Sails.)
- you need it for realism. Take The Great Escape, for example. Not everyone makes it out alive, but it would be unrealistic if they did. It makes us all the more relieved for those who do escape, it ups the ante. It demonstrates how harsh and dangerous conditions were, and how daring their escape plan was.
YOU SHOULD PROBABLY NOT KILL A CHARACTER WHEN…
- they’re ‘extra.’ If they’re ‘extra,’ you should probably review why they’re here in the first place. This is a mistake many rookie writers make, and I was guilty of it myself when I started out. ‘Oh, blast, I don’t actually NEED this character. That’s fine, I can just kill them and make room for someone more awesome!’ That’s lazy writing. Cut the character out, or find a way to make them necessary.
- shock value and/or tear-tugging. George R. R. Martin, the famed author behind Game of Thrones, is infamous for this. He slaughters characters left and right for no reason other than to shock the reader/viewer. While not bad when done sparingly, using it as a fallback every time you’re stuck is sloppy and irresponsible. (Yes, life is unfair sometimes, kids, but we don’t always need to kill good characters to prove it.)
FRIDGING – YES OR NO?
‘Fridging’ is what we call killing a character solely to motivate another character. While this works in some cases (i.e. Uncle Ben in Spiderman) there are many cases where it does nothing to further the story. For example, Gina (The 100), Bellamy’s forever girlfriend of three days, is killed after we’ve seen her for five minutes. This supposedly pushes Bellamy toward some serious character undevelopment, but instead of being poignant or subtle, it feels like a heavy-handed blow from the writers. “NOW YOU CAN TOTALLY UNDERSTAND HOW HE FEELS.” Except…a perfectly good character was killed off to further the rapid decline of some beautiful character development, which…isn’t good. [Many people go up in arms any time a female character is killed in favor of a male character, but I find this depends completely on the fictional situation. Sometimes women die. Sometimes it motivates a man. Sometimes men die. Sometimes it motivates women. Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes…it isn’t.]
In other words, fridge sparingly.
EXAMPLES OF ANTICLIMACTIC/BAD CHARACTER DEATHS
- Anya, Gina, Lexa, Monroe, Aiden, Lincoln, The 100. Yeah…this show now has a bad reputation for unnecessarily killing characters in poor ways).
- Tripp, Grant Ward, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Trip sacrificed himself, but we didn’t know him well enough to be terribly emotional over it. Grant Ward…maybe I’m just bitter because he was my favorite, but I’m still bitter about this because he was treated unfairly, and much of his character ‘villainy’ felt very forced/constructed by the writers to make us dislike him even when he consistently attempted to redeem himself and was turned away every time.
- Pietro Maximoff, Age of Ultron. Did he die well? Yes, he did. But he didn’t have enough buildup or reasoning behind his death, and ultimately, the death felt unnecessary.
- Alan a’Dale, BBC’s Robin Hood. This was a good death in terms of the emotional wreckage it left behind (mostly in me), but it was a bad death in terms of storytelling, proving both unfair and useless.
- Fili, Kili, The Battle of the Five Armies. They died in the book, yes; but the way it played out in Battle of the Five armies was rushed. Fili (not nearly as loved by the movie-makers as Kili) is killed very quickly, which spurs Kili into action, which kills Kili, so that Tauriel can be sad, so that Thranduil can rethink his life choices, so that….etc. etc.
- Padme, The Revenge of the Sith. Let me get this straight. You’re a strong, diplomatic leader and former queen. You’ve just given birth to two children, and you…lose your will to live? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.
EXAMPLES OF GOOD CHARACTER DEATHS
- Duncan, The Last of the Mohicans (1994) The man everyone thought was a self-centered jerk? It turned out he really did love Cora, and not only that – he sacrificed his life to protect the man Cora loved. This is a beautiful example of a death well-done.
- Darth Vader, The Return of the Jedi. This one doesn’t really need explaining. If you want to read my two-part essay on Vader, I suggest you go here. Moving on.
- Trisha Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist. Her death is what sets the entire plot in motion – this is a good example of a character death advancing the plot (in this case, giving us the plot).
- President Coin, Mockingjay. This is an excellent example of symbolic justice. (Whereas Finnick…well, I could put him in the aforementioned list. Unnecessary. UNNECESSARY, MADAME COLLINS.)
- Boromir, The Lord of the Rings. Some people have cited his death as being unnecessary, but I couldn’t disagree more. His death proves the strength of men – to hobbits, elves, dwarves, and other men. In fact, his death leads to Aragorn accepting his place as Gondor’s king. Not only that, but Boromir’s death is an act of valor that redeems him of his earlier behavior.
In short…use the right amount of salt. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write several strongly-worded letters to several severely-overpaid showrunners.)