What are the odds that no one dies?
People die. Yes, I know. BAM! In your face is a very dark, morbid, pessimistic view of life, but it’s the truth. Everyone dies and anyone who has read my discussion posts before knows how important it is to me for fiction to mirror reality. So when no one dies in a book, I often find myself lowering my rating and opinion of said book. But let’s break this concept down because not every story needs a death, right?
Genres of Death
There are so many different genres out in the fiction world and they are each unique from each other. As such, it would only be understandable that certain genres would be more likely or less likely to have character death because of the type of story being told and the world in which the story is taking place. Want some examples?
- Romance: Given that an HEA is almost guaranteed, character death is least likely in this genre.
- Dystopian: Given that a rebellion is likely taking place, character death should be extremely likely in this genre.
- Fantasy: The likelihood of character death in this genre depends on the type of fantasy and the particular plot archetype. If it’s a hero’s journey, we all know who is going to die. If it’s some massive war being fought, just about anyone is up for grabs by Death.
Plot Types of Death
Of course, genre isn’t the only thing that plays a role in the likelihood of characters dying. As I mentioned above in the fantasy genre, there are certain plot types (of the seven) that are more likely to lead to character death than others. For example…
- The Quest aka “Hero’s Journey”: Potentially a loved one dies/does not exist. The mentor has to die for the hero to take control of their own destiny. And the enemy will likely die because this story type plays very heavily into good vs evil.
- Rages to Riches: A loved one dies at the beginning of the story/is presumed dead, thus throwing the character into an undesirable situation, which they will inevitably come out of because of love (potentially to the presumed dead person).
- Voyage and Return: Unpredictable. There are instances where no one dies in this plot type and there are instances where lots of people die in this plot type because it depends on what will have an impact on the main character.
So now that we’ve broken this down and offered some explanation, I can offer my viewpoint on why characters need to die and why they, unfortunately, do not end up dying.
Well, the most obvious reason for characters needing to die is because it’s reality. Even most magic systems do not allow the return of a character from death. It is final. It is forever. It is a fantastic way to motivate other characters to do something, as it’s often used. But more importantly, it’s a stake. If no one dies at the end of some EPIC battle – or at least no one of consequence – then, to the reader, it feels as though there were no stakes in the story. There was no real risk being taken in fighting because CLEARLY it wasn’t as dangerous as everyone thought.
(Honestly, this is one of the reasons why I don’t really enjoy superhero movies
because you KNOW the superhero ain’t gonna die.
Infinity War was kind of a joke.
So, if characters dying is so important to a story, then why do so many stories not have any major characters dying? Simple.
Authors are weak.
Oh yeah. I said it. I have no problems making this claim because I have seen enough authors struggle with killing their characters. God knows I have struggled with this (and then I jumped off the deep end and literally no one is safe in my books any more. I stop keeping tally now. Oops!) Authors become attached to their characters, most often because each character possesses a tiny piece of themselves so it’s like killing part of themselves when they kill a character. There is also this obsessive need in American stories for a HEA: Happily Ever After, but if people die, how can we have a HEA?
So there are no character deaths because authors love their characters, because readers EXPECT all characters to live (even though many of them are disappointed in the end), and because… you never know when you may need that character again. Which is where the ‘fake death’ cliche comes from. (But that’s a WHOLE other discussion, which I’ve already ranted about.)
But what do you think?
Is a story satisfying without death?
Leave your thoughts below!
And check out my discussion from last week: