When you read a good book there are many different experiences that occur that drive the plot onwards, and one of the most emotionally compromising is character death. Whether the death occurs before the story begins, in the opening of the book, the middle, or at the end, character death can further a story to an amazing degree. There are many purposes for character death, but the inspirational death, the motivational death, and the victorious death are the four that I think of when I think of character death.
An inspirational death is the type that creates a story. The character, usually a woman, a child, or even both, has a fatal illness, usually something lingering and painful. As they are dying, they inspire someone, or a group, to do things or to be better. A movie with an inspirational death would be The Bucket List, and a book would have to be A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. These stories leave you aware that the main character, or a secondary character, is dying, but their actions and emotions create a bond so that when that final moment comes, you are left to mourn with the other survivors.
A motivational death is a death that will occur in the early part of the story, and is always a secondary character that is cast in a sympathetic light. In the movie The Expendables 2, the death of Liam Hemsworth’s character is the inspiration for the team to go after the antagonist. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, part of Harry’s motivation is that Voldemort killed his parents. These deaths drive the main character into action, or if they occur further into the story, reconfirm the characters’ commitment to their goal. Mostly, this character is either a parental or mentor figure, but a lover, child, or sibling can also take the role as needed.
The third type of death is the victorious death. This is the second type of death that might befall a main character. It comes at the end of the story, and can either be the catalyst for victory, or the price of victory. In the first part, the main character sacrifices themselves to ensure that those they fight for will live happy lives. In Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar universe, two prime examples would be the death of Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron and his Companion Yfandes, and the Herald Lavin Firestorm. Vanyel used the last of his available magic along with Yfandes’s power to destroy the dark Mage Leareth. Lavin’s Companion was killed during a battle and in response, Lavin summoned his fire starting abilities and let the fire rage free to destroy the enemy and anyone else so long as he died as well. The second type of victorious death is the death of a secondary character as the “price” of victory. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we are shown the death of Fred Weasley, and later see Remus and Nymphadora Lupin lying dead in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, a not so subtle reminder that freedom comes at a price.
These examples of character death are often a gut punch that drives tears to our eyes, and are key to the continuation of the plot. There are other types of character deaths, and other names for these types of deaths mentioned here and they are the catalyst of their story, for good or ill. If used poorly, a character’s death will break a story, as it causes the suspension of belief required to fade away. Used properly, a character’s death will leave your reader, or viewer for that matter, a sobbing mess of feelings who cannot put the book down.