Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Making a Reader Cry over a Character's Death - Part 1

 About a month ago, I answered this question on the OYAN writing forum:

I have an ally. He fights for the goal alongside the hero because he is the hero's best friend, because he loves the hero and the hero's sister who is at stake (although he is not in love with said sister...that's another dude) and because he believe it is right to do so.

This ally dies near the end of the novel, fighting (physical fighting, here) along side my hero to save said sister. He dies at the hands of one of the villain's men (or possibly the villain himself...can't remember) and it's all bloody and sad and all that good stuff.

What I was wondering was how I could make this really, really hard on my reader? My intention from the start with this character was to kill him to show some of the price that must be paid to attain the goal. In the end, though, I don't think I pulled that off. I want to know how I can make my readers love this character so much that they're really upset (and shocked) when he dies, but also how to do that without making him more lovable, admirable, ect. than the hero.

Any tips on how I can make his death heartbreaking to the reader, and unexpected?

I started dissecting possible reasons for the unexpected and hard death of someone in Forest of Lies. This is what I came up with. I am splitting it into two posts. Hopefully it’s helpful!

One warning: this will probably ruin a little bit of Forest of Lies for you if you haven’t read it already, though I never mentioned who exactly dies or exactly how. If you want to read it, it’s here: Forest of Lies.


This is an interesting question to me, because the ally that I have die is also a "faithful friend" kind of type. He's not really what you could call quiet and simple, but more of a mix of faithful, eccentric, funny, and gentle. Which sounds odd juxtaposed like that, but that's a pretty good description. So I'm going to philosophize on why his death was unexpected and why about every person who's read this books says: WHY DID YOU KILL ____?!! I didn't necessarily do this stuff on purpose. I'm just guessing that parts of it are why it worked out that way.

-I didn't want to kill him. He wasn't a character "marked for death" from early conception; I had ideas for his future; I thought he was awesome. My first reaction when I thought of him dying was: "NOOOOOO!" and then I kind of denied the fact that he was going to die right up until he did. Also, it never really sunk in for me that he HAD died until I started a sequel and realized I couldn't write him anymore.
---- So think about that. If this character survived this book, what would happen to him after it ends? Why CAN'T he die? (He has a future, my hero will be devastated, my hero needs a friend, etc.) Don't think of the character's worth stopping at his death. Think about how his life would have gone on if he hadn't died. Then you'll get some of the "he still had so much life to live" that's so painful. If you can make yourself feel that, likelihood is that your readers will too.

-Coming from that, I just plain knew this guy. I knew how he reacted to things, I knew how deeply he loved other characters (faithful friend bit coming in there), I knew his past, I knew his (cut off) future.
---- Get to know him better (I know this has been said a lot). Know what makes him tick, know his past and his (cut off) future. Why is he faithful to his friend? Don't just tack "faithful friend" onto him like a job title. Make us FEEL that job title. The friend everyone wants to have. I think this character of mine was like that. He was killed being faithful.

-His death was unimportant. He wasn't going to stop what was going to happen anyway, but he still stepped in between his friend and his friend's enemies. Plot-wise and conflict-wise, it was an unimportant death. He didn't die saving somebody. He just stood in the way for that moment. It was sort of like throwing his life away: a waste.
---- So, I don't know, maybe make it so even if the ally dies, the bad thing still happens. We lose the ally, but we lose the battle too. It's not fair. This could add a bit to it being unexpected, and an "unjust" or "wasted" death will irk us more.

To be continued!

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Josiphine said...

Ahh, well written and unfortunately true! I laughed out loud at the bit where you said that you didn't want him to die. I've killed off so many people who deserved to live...each time I can only hope that they're ressurected in the next draft, :) I can't wait for part 2!

Angela said...

Awesome tips. :) Thanks! I always have problems killing people... :-/

Sandy said...

All great ideas I hadn't thought of before... wanna make sure I use this! -files away-

Haniya said...

Aaah, Nai! You nailed it! I'm going to print this out and put it in my notebook. ^_^I'd never thought about it before, but the first tip is SO TRUE.

Nairam said...

@Josiphine: B-but it isn't funny! Just kidding. Yeah. Author denial IS always a leetle funny...just a little...

@Angela: You're welcome!

@Sandy: You probably don't need *everything*--some things I bring up were actually pretty obscure in use and it was more of "huh, well this COULD've helped." So of course feel free to try it (that's why I'm posting) but keep that in mind too. I didn't mean to do most of this stuff. It just happened. O.O

@Haniya: Yeah, I think that was (unintentionally) one of the best things I did. I think authors get in a habit of just thinking of a character as "stopping" at a current moment to heighten tension, emotion, blah blah...and forget the human side of things. So I definitely try to do that one now. Treating killable characters only as "that one I'm going to kill" makes their death that much less meaningful, I think.

I'm glad this is helpful! Part 2 is coming on Friday.

Laurale said...

I cried when said character died. :(

You hit the nail on the head with this post. I'm going to have to remember all this for my new story.

ZNZ said...

Oh my word I just finished reading your novel I love it so much so so good I don't even like historical fiction why did I like this so much

Anyway. Yeah. *cough* The death made me sad. But I didn't cry. But I was really sad. 'Cuz I loved the character. So yeah.

Nairam said...

@Laura: Hope it helps! :)

@ZNZ: Aw, thank you. That means buckets to me. Plus, muwaha, it's my evil plot to have historical fiction writers WILL TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Okay, not really. I'm glad you were able to make it past that genre-sticker. :)

I know everyone doesn't. It seems half cry there and the other half cry at the end and then a few don't at all (which messes up the math there, but who cares about math?). It's not necessarily tears I'm after every single time, though that's best. It's for it to _matter_. For the reader to care.

Thanks for commenting and for reading my beloved little book. :)

Taylor Lynn said...

Very good tips! I usually cry when a character I've fallen in love with dies, so it's definitely true that if your goal is to make readers cry, you need to get them to fall in love with the soon-to-be-dead character. :)

Great post!

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