Villains make it easy to justify the end. A ‘bad guy’ does dastardly deeds throughout the story culminating in a suitably proportionate demise. Authors are happy, readers are happy and everyone walks away from the story satisfied that there’s justice and symmetry in the world.
But what happens when a good character dies? A character who has supported the lead throughout the story and become someone the reader and writer like very much, if not love? There’s shock, there’s sadness all round, often tears and angry letters to the editor: in short, no one is happy.
So why do it then? Why spend the time to introduce a good character in act one, only to kill him or her off in act three?
Let’s see, J.K Rowling apparently had slated Ron Weasley for an early demise when she was writing Harry Potter, but decided the golden triumvirate of friendship was more meaningful in the end and saved ‘the axe’ for Sirius Black and Dumbledore instead .
Han Solo, too, is rumored to have been on the chopping block, but George Lucas reportedly decided he didn’t want to kill off any of his characters. Yet Ben Kenobi and Yoda didn’t live to see the end of the series in corporeal form. The best they could manage was as an ethereal presence, guiding Luke from the great beyond with glittery spectral wisdom.
So, what’s going on with Sirius, Dumbledore, Ben and Yoda, which make them ultimately expendable? Why did it become necessary to kill them off?
There’s the obvious shock value, of course, which heightens the conflict in the story and creates a sense of realism and danger. But when it comes to mentor characters, the wisdom-spouting ‘fatherly’ characters who’ve been with the fledgling hero since page one—their death is almost as certain as a ‘Red Shirt’ on a Star Trek away mission.
Main characters need to grow as the story progresses. They need a chance to choose their own path, as it were, and if they are lucky enough to begin their journey with the aid of a mentoring friendship, that friendship has to be altered in some negative form in order for them to have the opportunity to show the reader what they are truly made of. As bittersweet as it is, the main character needs to experience sorrow and loss in order to gain the strength and depth of a hero and take on the odious bad guy at the end.
I felt Harry’s pain and disbelief when Dumbledore died. My jaw dropped in the theater when Ben Kenobi disappeared in a flutter of brown cloak as Darth Vader’s lightsaber passed through him. And oh boy did I ever want Harry and Luke to avenge their deaths. I couldn’t help but think at that point, no matter what their twisted motivation might be for becoming evil, Voldemort and Vader must die. And I was suitably satisfied at the end when the bad guys did die at the hand of the avenging hero (or in the case of Vader, becoming the hand of the avenging hero).
As a reader or a writer, what’s your favourite story character you wished had never died? Whose untimely death turned your insides into a knot and made you scream for revenge?