I’ve mentioned several times that there’s a current popular trope in modern novels that most people absolutely love, but I really don’t. I’ve also mentioned several times that I need to write an entire post detailing why it is I don’t like that trope.
So here is that post.
The trope I don’t like is, of course, authors killing characters.
Now you know what I mean. Everyone loves this trope, specifically in the fantasy/science fiction genre. It is rampant in most modern stories. Whenever I pick up a new fantasy series, I expect at least one of the main characters to die. The audience has a sick fascination with characters dying and I’ve seen several popular reviewers and commentators asking to see it more.
I don’t like it. I don’t want to see it. I’d be fine if all of the characters live. In this post, I’ll try to explain why I don’t like that trope by answering some counter-arguments I normally get from people who like this trop.
It’s Not Even a Trope
There’s not much I can say to that argument. As far as I know, there isn’t a commonly shared definition of a trope; there isn’t a list of every trope. It’s kind of up to personal interpretation. If you don’t think killing characters is a trope, I probably can’t convince you that it is and I have no interest in trying.
But here is why I do believe it is a trope.
Tropes, in my understanding, are literary devices that are common within many different stories, usually occur as part of a trend, and can be found in a wide variety of stories across genres and mediums. I understand that definition is pretty broad, but its intended to be. And I think killing characters definitely fits within that.
Really, it doesn’t matter. The point of this post isn’t whether or not this is a trope, the point is arguing why I don’t like it. Whether or not you think it is a trope doesn’t matter for that argument, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time defending this point.
People die in real life, so killing characters is realistic
That is true, but why on Earth do we expect our stories to be realistic? Isn’t the whole point that we are telling stories of the unbelievable, the magical, and the unknown? Why do we want those stories to look like real life?
For this post, I’m speaking particularly about the Fantasy and Sci Fi genre, since that is what I have read the most in recent years and that is where I see this trope have the deepest roots.
In fantasy, who cares about realistic? You want me to accept that fairies, elves, goblins, trolls, orcs, magic, and any number of fantastical elements exist freely in this world – and that’s no problem – but you have to draw the realism line at characters surviving the story? How does that make sense? Whenever I read a fantasy story, I suspend a lot of disbelief. I’m willing to accept things about a different world that I wouldn’t accept about our own. So, sure, it might be uncommon for every major player to survive a war in this world, but we aren’t in this world. So why can’t I suspend disbelief about that as well?
And, at the end of the day, aren’t we all reading to escape this place? Starting a new fantasy book/series is kind of like launching a ship into space. You get to see something new, focus on something different, and experience brand new places. It’s an escape; it’s a way to get out of the monotony of the real world for a while and step into a world where magic and fun creatures exist. At least, that’s part of the reason I’m so drawn to the genre. Sometimes I want an escape. So why bring the worst parts of this world – death, loss, and darkness – into my escape from this world?
At the end of the day, I don’t know how much we should sacrifice at the alter of realism when we’re writing fantasy. That’s not the point of the genre.
Killing characters brings out the emotion and the drama
I wouldn’t argue that. Of course, the death of someone super close to a character is going to be a dramatic, emotional experience. It would be raw and intense.
But (and I’m about to say something potentially rude and controversial) if you need to kill someone for your characters to show emotion, maybe you’re just a bad writer. I, as a person, experience a wealth of emotions every single day, some of them quite intense, and I’ve never watched every person in my life die a brutal death. Emotions are a regular part of life, you shouldn’t need the death of a character to pull them out of the other characters. Find other ways to delve into those emotions, to wrench out stress or depression.
I know. I know how this comes across. I know this sounds like I’m saying I’m such a better writer than all of these other authors who have killed characters for emotional reasons. I am not saying that in any way. In fact, most of them are better writers than me. I don’t have it all figured out and I struggle with drawing emotion out of my characters. But, since these writers are better than me, I hate seeing them rely on cheap tricks to show emotion. I think they can do better and, with a little effort, that main character can feel sad without his wife dying. Is that too much to ask?
I also do think the death of a character can bring out emotions that nothing else will. It can force an arc that couldn’t be created any other way. For example (MAJOR SPOILERS for the Sword of Kaigen for the rest of this paragraph) in the Sword of Kaigen, the main protagonist dies which forces his mother into a major character development. I didn’t have a problem with that and I thought it was a good use of the trope. However, at the same time, the uncle, the teacher, the sister in law, and most of the village also died. None of those deaths forced any more character development than the first would have and they weren’t necessary.
There is also the idea that forcing characters to die creates emotion in your reader. But, again, I think it’s a cheap trick to kill off a reader’s best friend in this strange world to invoke some sort of emotion. There are other ways and we should be good enough at telling the story to find those ways.
This character’s death moves the story along
This is when I am ok with the trope. Sometimes a character’s death is unavoidable. It needs to happen to spur the protagonist on to something. Like Obi Wan’s death kicking off the epic of Luke Skywalker. At times, it’s necessary.
Which is why I could be called a massive hypocrite. I’ve written stories where character’s with a decent amount of screen time have died. So I’ve used this trope. But, most of the time, I’ve used the trope because that is how to advance the story. My issue is when this trope is used to make the reader feel something. There are other ways to make your reader emotional.
Sometimes I want to read a story where good conquers evil with little cost to the good. I want something truly fantastical, something truly other-worldly, and I want the heroes to survive the battle with evil. Often, it feels like that doesn’t happen in real life. This world is full of darkness and death. But isn’t that the beauty of stories? To tell each other wonderful tales of how we want the world to be?
I want a world where good just wins, full stop. Where I don’t have to wonder which of the party won’t be there celebrating at the end. Where I can fully, truly, and without hinderance relish the victory and cheer the defeating of evil. As long as the victory comes at the cost of three or four characters I’ve grown attached to, the win is going to be bittersweet. Sometimes I just want the sweet.
So that is my overview opinion on why I don’t like the killing of characters trope. I’m sure there are reasons people love this trope that I haven’t detailed in this post, so feel free to comment and tell me why you like seeing it. Maybe, if I get enough comments, I can make a part two talking about additional points in favor of this trope.