Death in Fiction: A Discussion on the Killing Off of Characters (Spoilers for the Divergent Series, and Others)

(Note: This posts also contains some spoilers for the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series, the Song of Ice and Fire series, and the Wheel of Time Series. This post is about death, and most fiction has it.)

And now, finally, we’re reaching the end of my Divergent-centric posts, which is just as well, as I’d rather dwell on the great books I’ve read more recently; the Dangerous Women anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin, Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, and Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s BladesExpect reviews on at least both of the novels in the near future; I’m certainly excited to talk about them.

But for now we’ve one last plunge into the Divergent series, and a topic that is becoming both increasingly relevant in fiction today (especially sci-fi and fantasy) and is near the top of my list of things that can ruin books or series for me: Gratuitously killing off characters.

First let me clarify my statement a bit. I’m not opposed to having characters die when the story requires it. Sometimes characters have to die, even if they’re major or beloved characters. As a personal example, in my first completed novel, I realized near the end of the book that three side characters who had significant roles had to die. I don’t like killing my characters, and it was tough for me, but the story needed it. Deaths like that, or instances where a character’s death really means something to the plot, can work well. Heck, I’m even willing to accept a death that didn’t necessarily do something major for the plot, if I was affected by it. And no, anger at the writer doesn’t count as affected. Anger at the death, yes, but not anger at the writer.

Which brings us to the Divergent series (as well as, to a slightly lesser extent, the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series.)

As you might guess, one of the biggest problems I had with the Divergent series was Veronica’s Roth killing of so many characters. The big one, obviously, is Tris’s death in Allegiant, but by then I’d kind of seen the writing on the wall and her death was just the finals insult from the book to me. See, I had noticed, while reading the books, that at fairly regular intervals one or two side characters (many of whom had a fair amount of screen time) would get killed off. The first was Al, part of Tris’s Dauntless initiation group (of whom a mere handful survived the series), followed at the end of the book by not one, both both of Tris’s parents. That I think was where I started to go “Really? Was that really necessary?” I mean it did give Tris more angst, but mostly it felt like they were killed for shock value and to get Tris’s parents out of the picture. As annoyed as I was, however, the book was good enough that I could overlook it. It was her first book, after all.

Then we had Insurgent, and parade of side character deaths continued. And then Allegiant, and more deaths. By the end of it, we have 11 significant side character deaths, plus Tris’s death. And this isn’t some massive epic fantasy series. This is a YA trilogy of three books of around 400 pages each! Someone online made a helpful little chart, which I’ll link to here, that lists 27 significant characters (major side characters plus the 2 main ones), and you can better see how many died. And this chart includes two villains (one of whom is part of the 12 dead), as well as several side characters who had more marginal roles or only first appeared in the final book. (And lucky for them, as that put them on the bottom of the kill list, in theory, though I like to imagine Veronica Roth with a dart board that has all these names on it, and tossing a few darts per book at it and killing that characters whose names she hit.) And my little vision isn’t completely a joke. The way she went about this really does make it feel like there was a lottery and she would pick a few to kill each book.

But I did say before that killing characters can be necessary (and done well), and I understand that some books will have more death than others. A Brandon Sanderson book will have fewer character deaths than a George R. R. Martin. But what I’m looking for in character deaths (well, I never look for deaths of characters I like, but you get my meaning) is for me to care. For me, deaths of significant characters, be they main or important side, need two components: It has to serve the plot in some way apart from the person just being dead, and I have to care. Of course, caring comes in different forms, as a character I may not have liked that much can have a tragic or heroic death, in which case I will feel something. Caring also includes me getting angry about it. Ned Stark’s death in Game of Thrones, for example, was one such instance. Egwene’s death in A Memory of Light was another. And this applies even when I get genuinely angry about it and don’t like that it was done at all (such as with the Red Wedding, where I nearly threw the book across the room). But at least there, it was tragic enough and shocking enough that I felt something.

With the Divergent series, after the first couple of side character deaths, I just stopped caring. In trying to shock, and be edgy, it just stopped mattering to me. Even Tris’s death at the end (which was horribly done, on many levels), didn’t really affect me at all aside from it being the nail in the coffin. I saw it coming, and there had been so many deaths that one more, even if it was the main character, didn’t affect me at all.

For some reason, books aimed at younger audiences seem to feel that they need to be full of death to not be classified as ‘for kids’. The Harry Potter series did it with books 5 through seven, killing off the majority of the important adult side characters with only 2 getting deaths scenes that made sense and had an impact (Dumbledore and Snape, in case you were wondering. Another example is the Hunger Games series, particularly Mockingjay, which was also so full of random deaths that I stopped caring.

And on the other hand we have the Wheel of Time series, which is definitely considered an adult series, where no main side characters (yes that is a category in Wheel of Time for me) died until the last book, and then only a few! But the tension was always there, which is what matters.

I think I’m being clear about what my problem with gratuitous death in books is. To sum up, deaths of significant side characters or main characters can definitely be done effectively, but the most important things are how the deaths affect the plot and the reader. If it doesn’t serve the plot in any way apart from someone being dead, it feels like a waste, even if it affected the reader. But if the reader doesn’t care, then even if the death serves the plot it just feels like a plot device (see the Women in Refrigerators Trope).

So please, writers, before you kill someone off, think about why you’re doing it. If you find you just wanted to do it because it’d make the story more dark, and because it seems to be popular these days, please take a moment and think some more. In the end, readers want a story that makes sense and a story and characters that they care about. These considerations have to come first. (And to everyone else out there who hates killing off their characters, I feel for you, but sometimes it is needed.)

Until next time, keep writing, and remember to keep death in fiction meaningful.

3 thoughts on “Death in Fiction: A Discussion on the Killing Off of Characters (Spoilers for the Divergent Series, and Others)

  1. I agree that having a character’s death affect the plot is important. It’s definitely a problem when authors try to kill off more people just to make their books seem more serious or grimdark. If it doesn’t affect the plot or the other characters in the novel in some important way, it definitely seems pointless.

    Not sure if you’ve read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, so I won’t spoil anything, but he did an amazing job in killing off a very important character in the first book. That character’s death really affected not only the main characters, but almost everyone in the city they were living in, and was just amazingly done. Probably the best way of writing off a character that I’ve ever seen, Sanderson is amazing.
    Looking forward to your review on Staveley’s book as I just recently finished that one. 🙂

    • I have read and enjoyed the Mistborn books. All of the big deaths in that series were done extremely well. And I would definitely agree that Brandon Sanderson is amazing.

      I’m glad you’re looking forward to my review of The Emperor’s Blades; I’m looking forward to talking about it as well.

  2. “The Heroes of Olympus” series by Rick Riordan. The death in the 4th book. MAJOR feels. “Say ,’Hello,” to the sun and stars for me.”

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