Your protagonist has reached the last scene of Act 1. He’s on the brink of a big decision, and you imagine readers holding their breath, desperately hoping he’ll choose wisely. Alas, he has a Character Arc™ he must follow, so he makes a terrible mistake. But the consequences can’t land on his own head or the aftermath won’t be gut-wrenching enough. So his foolishness jeopardizes someone he cares about, and Act 2 opens with a burial.
Killing a side character isn’t bad storytelling. But some writers (particularly those in the fantasy genre) tend to rely on death to catalyze character growth, which makes it predictable. Even worse, it trivializes the loss of a human being. As Christian authors, our stories ought to preserve and emphasize the value of life, and we can’t do that if we’re crucifying characters purely to keep the plot moving.
1. Character Growth Is a Goal, Not an Altar
Death should never be just a plot point for the protagonist. If you need to torment him, knocking off a character who’s close to him may be the obvious tactic, but it isn’t your only one. The story must call for death, or it will be gratuitous.
Death is so effective at facilitating growth because it’s one of the deepest sorrows a person can experience. And that reveals an important distinction: pain is the trigger for growth, not death. The latter seems like a reliable option because it’s reliably sad. But you can break your protagonist through a myriad of situations besides harm to a loved one.
For example, the central plot of Finding Nemo doesn’t involve death, but it tackles loss, separation, and danger. All these sources of pain work in tandem as Nemo leaves fear behind and develops confidence. Without revolving around character death, the movie tells a compelling, entertaining story.
2. Character Growth Requires Foils, Not Ghosts
Many stories that feature unnecessary deaths end up “resurrecting” the deceased character at a later point. That’s usually because she’s a foil for the protagonist and hasn’t completely fulfilled her role. Readers may not notice (or mind) that the author has manipulated the barrier between life and death, because they’re fond of the character and enjoy seeing her reappear. But even if their response is positive, it doesn’t prevent the death from being cheapened.
Your typical Disney movie injects a dead character back into the narrative through dreams, spirit encounters, or flashbacks. The Good Dinosaur, Brother Bear, and The Lion King all contain instances of this. Once again, death isn’t problematic as long as it’s warranted. But if it isn’t, you’re forced to artificially raise characters from the grave. Visions and ghosts don’t belong in every story.
3. Character Growth Results from Pain, Not Death
In real life, death is the ultimate sacrifice. It’s irreversible—and such a foreign and unnerving event that we feel small and powerless in the face of it. When we translate it into storytelling, we naturally conclude that it’s the bedrock of tragedy. Nothing else can compare. While that’s true in many respects, death has two drawbacks that can weaken its impact in fiction.
A Character’s Death Fills a Limited Number of Pages
The thrust of a story—the unraveling thread that readers pull on—doesn’t end when a supporting character’s heart stops beating. No matter how artfully you incorporate the death, the story is meant to continue, which turns even the most shocking causality into temporary anguish.
But if you’ve ever wrestled with grief, or spoken to anyone who has, you realize that it’s continual. We weren’t designed for death, and it scars us permanently. Although you can counteract the brevity of a death scene by showing the protagonist’s healing process, that also has constraints, as I’ll discuss next.
Grief Slows the Story Down
Don’t misunderstand. When a character dies, you must give the rest of the cast a chance to react. A pause is appropriate. I’m reminded of the moment in the Lord of the Rings film when Gandalf falls into the mines of Moria: the next few shots are in slow motion, lending extra weight to the horror of the incident.
Depending on the needs and pacing of your story, the characters may or may not grieve immediately. But they definitely won’t have the space to grieve fully. Every time you rehash their misery, it becomes less and less evocative and more and more cumbersome. In your efforts to honor the characters and accurately portray their grief, you risk harping on it until you’ve worn readers out. Looking at you, Mockingjay.
Now that I’ve explained how death potentially compromises the quality and direction of a story, you’re probably wondering: What’s the alternative? How can you propel a character arc forward if you need pain for fuel? The answer isn’t as complicated as you might expect.
Non-Lethal Tragedies That Transform Characters
Maybe an accident incapacitates one of the protagonist’s limbs. Maybe he goes blind. Maybe psychological trauma plagues him. Any hardship that he deals with every day (especially if it’s his fault) will have a strong influence on his arc. You can integrate it organically and haunt him with the past, minus the actual ghosts. As you describe his thoughts and actions, his disastrous history will automatically linger in readers’ minds, because the evidence that surrounds him serves as a silent reminder.
Over and over again, the anime Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood demonstrates the poignancy of non-lethal tragedies. Sometimes funerals do occur, and that’s okay. But far more often, other types of physical and emotional trials shape the characters and drive them forward. Because the past is connected to the present, the writers never need to resort to artifice.
Death Is Not Your Greatest Weapon
If we believe that death is the best torture device at our disposal, we’ll overuse it. We assume it will heighten the stakes and drag our protagonists into the darkest of valleys, where the soil is fertile for growth. But if that’s the extent of our focus, we’re missing out on a much more potent strategy to achieve the same goal.
Don’t get me wrong. This article isn’t a rant against character deaths—many of which happen to be my favorite story scenes. Though death is an arrow we ought to keep in our quiver, it isn’t our only weapon, nor is it always our sharpest one. The less frequently we wield it, the more meaningful it will be.
Remember, if you want to put your characters through the crucible, destroy something they can never recover. And then make them live in that reality. That’s when diamonds begin to form.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.