Death Be Not Gratuitous

There’s an issue that’s been building up for me, and I think I’m going to do it as a theme week on Read 4 Tweens—gratuitous death in kids books. (“Tune in for Gratuitous Death Week!” That has a ring to it, right?)

But first there’s the whole definitional argument of what makes a death gratuitous.

I could go the route of sheer body count of minor characters, and maybe I will spend some time reflecting on that—just because we as adults have grown numb to characters keeling over as a matter of course doesn’t necessarily mean we should be wishing the same on our kids.

There’s also the tendency to kill family members—typically the parents, most often the mother if only one is dead—in the opening chapter or before the book even starts. This can serve to drive the story and the protagonist forward, but it’s used so often that it can start to feel like a cop out and therefore arguably gratuitous.

However, the kind of death most occupying my mind is when a main character is gratuitously killed off. And, of course, this is where the definition gets most murky. There are plenty of main character deaths that aren’t gratuitous, and I’m in no way suggesting that death has no place in kids books. But some deaths—and although I notice it most in kids books, it’s certainly not limited to them—feel primarily like emotional manipulation, a play for being accepted as a “serious” book, and/or lazy storytelling. And those, frankly, bug the crap out of me.

The thing is, when I try to clearly delineate between why some deaths seem fitting while other deaths feel like I’m being beaten over the head with a sledgehammer, it gets tough. “I know it when I read it” isn’t particularly useful when you’re tying to have a conversation about something.

Here’s an example that isn’t a kids book and the issue is more gratuitous violence than death, but I think it still helps illustrate my point. I know a lot of people loved The Kite Runner. Some people felt like it changed their lives. I absolutely hated it. What could have been a fascinating insight into life in Afghanistan devolved into a horror story of sexual abuse and betrayal. I’m not suggesting that authors shouldn’t depict horrific events, but it needs to feel like it fits the story. With the class issues, the prejudice, and a country torn apart by war, there was plenty going on to keep me interested. When a psychopathic sexual predator got mixed in, it was just gratuitous.

I’m not terribly impressed when authors pile implausible and horrific situations on their characters, and gratuitous character death falls into this. Of course you can make the best friend get run over by a bus—you’re a god in your literary universe and you can write anything into existence. The trick is making it feel like this is where the story really needed to go.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as I wrestle with this. What makes a character death gratuitous in your eyes? Are there any that stand out as either annoyingly gratuitous or truly moving and meaningful (either from childhood or books you’ve read recently)? I’m rereading The Bridge to Terabithia in preparation for Gratuitous Death Week—any suggestions of other kids books I should look at?

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8 Responses to Death Be Not Gratuitous

  1. John says:

    Gratuitous like excessive messy is different than gratuitous like it-didn’t-need-to-happen-at-all.

    If the author’s just being gross and thick with details, it’s basically showing off: all action and story momentum stops while they find new adjectives to describe death and gore.

    If the author is laying waste to characters because they think killing off people (often people orbiting the main character, since it’s perceived that the protagonist will/should be emotionally connected to them, and therefore we’ll be emotionally connected as readers) will make the scene(s) more compelling or “darker” or whatever buzzword they’re trying to sandwich into their work, then it’s extraneous.

    Characters qualify for death under 2 conditions:
    1. It advances the plot in a linear (often forward) vector. (The dead guy gets killed in a whodunit, the parents get killed to send Harry to his aunt/uncle…)
    2. The death propels the character development. The death of the Waynes ignites Batman. The death of Gwen Stacy changes the nature of Spiderman.

    Since it’s character development that propels attachment to the character (usually sympathy), deaths should serve a purpose you can point to in a novel. Deaths shouldn’t be evidence of an “existing condition” (the bad guy is bad….he just killed the sixteenth victim), because then the death (and the life, possibly) of the character doesn’t matter.

    Anything else is just flummery by an author to fill pages and move laterally rather than forward.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I think part of my issue may be that some deaths seem to be included in place of actual character development – “Now she’s motherless! The whole world is different!” – without really taking the time to fully explore what this means for the character. I know kids books are typically supposed to be kept short, so it’s possible it’s shorthand? But unless the death is explored, it often feels like it could have been handled in a less lethal way.

      And yeah, I’m exploring gratuitous as extraneous rather than as overly messy.

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    I have a handful of seminal YA books that I can really point to as shaping my view of the world. Most of them are still easy to find and show up on a lot of lists, but the one that I had to go to huge lengths to track down (pre-amazon!) was Paul R. Fisher’s Ash Staff series.

    Now, the first book – The Ash Staff – is almost by-the-numbers fantasy fare. Group of orphans, raised in a cave by a Wise Elder, hidden in a kindgom ruled by an evil wizard. The Wise Elder dies, the Orphans set out on their own, A magic sword is found, a king returns, the wizard is killed, spring returns to the land. La la lah.

    What got me was this: The second book, The Hawks of Fellheath, opens with the two youngest of the orphans climbing in an apple tree and playing. One pushes the other, who falls, and dies.

    No drama, no fanfare. Just a fall, a head injury, a tragic death. It’s the trigger that starts the story and it’s so abrupt that it _feels_ gratuitous, but the reality is that it’s the impetus that makes it such an amazing, powerful story (Perhaps even moreso since it’s still punctuated by utterly textbook YA fantasy stuff, like finding out a kid is a lost prince and so on.).

    It also frames the third book, which is all about sacrifice, and the contrast between the things which are magical and heroic and the things that actually matter, but that’s a bit outside of venue.

    Anyway, I think it’s probably the most blatantly “Character dies now” moment for me in fiction (Martin’s a piker) but it also reveals to me that it’s not the death, it’s what you do with it.

    Anyway, that’s my two bits. I admit, I can think of MANY more examples of good death than bad in my YA fiction.

    -Rob D.

  3. Rob Donoghue says:

    Just because: 2 good deaths.

    The High King by Lloyd Alexander. Lots of tragedy in this conclusion to maybe the best YA series ever. Body count racks up in this one.

    The Kestrel, also by Lloyd Alexander. Lots of death here too, but this gets a very special call out for one of the deaths coming at the hands of the main character, and what that means.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I think so much of it comes down to how it’s handled – it needs to really matter. And the books I love manage to do that, which is maybe why it bothers me so much when it seems like a character dies because the author wasn’t sure what else to do? Death can be so powerful, but when it’s used as a shortcut it might start to lose that power. Or something. :) I appreciate you helping me work through my thoughts on this!

  4. I shared some of this with Amanda on Twitter, but I’ll post here too.

    I had a couple of thoughts in this regard.

    1. Gratuitous death is okay to set tone but must ALWAYS be differentiated from major character death.
    2. I think major character death CAN be gratuitous, but if and only if theme or genre dictate it as meaningless/senseless, in which I wouldn’t call it gratuitous according to the definition of “extraneous” here.

  5. Clark Valentine says:

    Holding my tongue because we’ve talked about this too much, don’t want to steal thunder.

    • ayvalentine says:

      :) But I hope you’ll continue to share thoughts at home as I try to wrestle these ideas into a cohesive post or two.

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