The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly

Note: This week I’m exploring the role of death in books for young readers. I’m cross-posting here and at Reads 4 Tweens—so yes, if you follow both sites, this will look familiar.

Warning: some mild spoilers—if a book has been out for several years or has been made into a movie, I’m more liberal with the spoilers. If I can avoid specifics, I do—but please remember that all book reviews that are linked to in this article definitely contain spoilers.

Why is death so prevalent in books aimed at kids?

Sometimes, of course, it’s there for a really good reason. Some deaths are crucial to how the characters and/or the stories develop. Death might:

  • Motivate the surviving characters, such as Rue’s death in The Hunger Games or the murder of Calla’s mother in the Lily Dale series.
  • Be a pivotal moment in the plot and demonstrate the consequences of choices made—there’s a death like this in Gregor the Overlander.
  • Represent redemption, such as Boromir’s death in The Two Towers—it’s the ultimate proof that his character has atoned for his sins.
  • Cause the characters and the readers to rethink their ideas of death—Aurelia and Exile deal with this theme, as does The Hunger Games, Only You Can Save Mankind, and many others.
  • Be the catalyst for the protagonist to grow and the plot to progress, such as the very common trope of the death of a mentor—Dumbledore has to die for Harry to stand on his own.
  • Be a fact of life that is tied seamlessly and meaningfully into the plot. In Anastasia Krupnik, for instance, Anastasia watches her grandmother age and eventually die—it’s touching and Anastasia goes through issues I think most kids can identify with.

Death is a potentially powerful plot point when it’s handled well, and it engages the reader in an issue that all of us must face throughout our lives. It’s common ground we share with the characters.

Depending on the setting, death may be necessary for the world to feel real. Fever 1793 can’t portray the yellow fever epidemic without a few fatalities. When the purpose of your book is to portray the horrors of war, such as George Washington’s Socks, there’s nothing better to drive home your point than a few poignant deaths. A series called Warriors can be expected to have fatalities, as well as dystopian novels like The Hunger Games. It’s all a matter of whether the deaths are portrayed in meaningful and effective ways.

However, death is not always handled well and sometimes feels like a cheap ploy on the part of the author (and yes, my cheap ploy may be your incredibly moving and meaningful scene—not all readers respond the same way, so my apologies if I rip into any of your favorite scenes).

One particularly annoying type of death is when it’s required for the plot but not the story. For instance, in George Washington’s Socks, a character is killed off because he has information that would be helpful to the main characters—if they talked to him, the plot would fall apart. He’s killed off by the author in an odd accident, not by characters trying to prevent the information from getting out; therefore it serves only plot, and not story. This feels like lazy storytelling to me, and it annoys me.

Related, though different, is the routine killing off of parental figures. Sometimes this is a case of a necessary death that drives the story or the character’s actions, such as the coming of age situation where the protagonist must stand alone to grow up. However, often it simply serves the purpose of removing inconvenient obstacles to the plot—essentially leaving the children alone so the plot can move forward uninhibited by people who would support and protect them. (There’s a whole subtext in that mothers are killed much more frequently than fathers—it implies that fathers can’t or don’t protect and guide their children adequately. But that’s a post for another day.) Admittedly, when I used to play pretend with my friends when we were little, we typically killed off the parents without a second thought. It was much easier than trying to figure out how to work them into our kid-centered plots. So I understand, but it does give me a particular appreciation for books that manage to portray intact and healthy families without taking the focus and agency from the young protagonists. Killing the parents as a necessary step in a kid-centered book can seem like taking the easy way out. Some books take this trope to a humorous extreme, such as The Witches and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).

Especially in action or adventure stories that focus primarily on plot, it’s very common for a few minor characters to kick off as part of the plot, usually with little fanfare. It’s just what happens in stories like this, whether it’s books, TV shows, or movies. Some of the deaths in Warriors: Into the Wild fit into this, as do a few deaths in Gregor the Overlander. I have plenty of issues with this, because it just seems like a bad idea to bombard kids with meaningless death, and it can be handled differently. The Hunger Games is a good example of how to avoid this—sure, it’s full of violence and death, but even the deaths of enemies have impact. On the other hand, Mockingjay unfortunately handles death less deftly as characters start to fall faster than we can keep track.

Sometimes, though, characters are killed off for reasons that are harder to discern. Maybe there’s the idea that if a novel wrings an emotional response from the reader, the book will be more memorable. Have you heard that roller coasters and horror movies make for better dates? The theory is that your date may correlate the adrenalin rush and racing heartbeat with you, even though you weren’t the cause of it. Is making a reader cry over a gratuitously killed character the literature equivalent? I know my daughter remembers the books that made her cry, although it’s not always with fondness. The sudden accidental demise of a character in Beryl: A Pig’s Tale is an example of this kind of death. I’d argue that the end of Mockingjay and the battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows both fall into this category as well. If you’re going to kill off a character the reader has grown to love, it needs to feel meaningful, and not just like collateral damage from a dangerous world.

My (perhaps) cynical take is that there’s an impression that killing a character lets the story be categorized as more important and serious—it won’t get dismissed as simply a fluffy children’s novel because in this one, someone dies. I can’t help but think that Leslie’s sudden death in Bridge to Terabithia falls into this category—a beautiful story of finding yourself through friendship abruptly becomes an exploration of grief. Would this book have become the classic (and frequently assigned classroom reading) that it did if Leslie was allowed to live? Many of the classics have memorable deaths—Charlotte’s Web, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Bambi, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Little Women, etc. (Huh—many of those, especially the ones aimed at younger readers, are animal deaths, although to many kids those deaths are just as brutal as human ones.) Would these have stood the test of time if characters didn’t get so memorably bumped off? Does death somehow potentially raise the worth of a story, at least from the point of view of the adults who offer these books to kids?

I worry about character death as an easy shortcut in novel writing, especially in novels that kids are reading. Just as the thousands of killings we watch on TV wear away at our tendency to be shocked by it, the sheer number of character deaths threatens to make us numb, lessening the emotional impact. It’s a defense mechanism we have to put in place, or reading becomes too emotionally exhausting (more on this from my daughter). I’m certainly not suggesting that death should be avoided in all kids books. But if an author kills off a character, it’s much more effective if it really matters, if the story and the character development are stronger because of the tragedy.

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5 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly

  1. Patrick Ley says:

    The whole idea of necessity in fiction is, a sort of shorthand, that I think this issue advises setting aside for a moment. In fiction literally anything is possible. Dragons, FTL spaceships, good deals on mobile phones, and other things that don’t exist in the real world are available. We can, and will believe a man can fly if you tell us the right story about it. The creator(s) of the fiction decise what happens. They make a lot of choices. A choice is “neccesary” when it’s clear that any alternative would radically alter the story even on a thematic level, or damage the internal logic of the story. Which is to say it’s a choice that (at least once arrived at) is obvious. When that’s true (or true enough) then a death is what makes the story what it is.

    Now the internal logic or radical alteration don’t always mean that a reader won’t find a death annoying or pointless. That actually signals that a reader wanted a differnt story than the writer. Some of the examples might fall here. I think that Charlotte’s Web without Charlotte’s death is a totally different story. The themes, are totally different. For me, a big part of that story is about Wilbur confronting an unavoidable and natural death, in contrast to the violent death he escaped. Charlotte spared him being slaughtered, but she wasn’t trying to, nor could she undo mortality itself. And her own death, with her purposes completed, is a model of a “good death.” For logic, the example of Fever 1793 is a good one, as are the deaths of major characters in Harry Potter. HP is a story about Harry in conflict with a very evil Wizard, who kills people. Many of the people Harry knows are very brave people who face that Wizard and his forces at peril of their lives. It strains credibility in a way that dragons don’t if none of them pay that price. To Rowling’s credit, the death of characters tends to have very believable mental fallout for Harry and his friends. Harry is badly shaken up during Order of the Phoenix by the mix of fear, guilt, anger, and confusion caused by seeing Cedric slain. Dumbledore’s death, and the subsequent revelation that he might not be quite as ideal a father figure as Harry had constructed him, are the central concerns of Harry throughout Deathly Hallows. Death is the (hor)crux of the sotries as a whole. Riddle, can’t accept his own mortality, and ultimately lashes out against the whole world. Harry, can, and thus can put it back on course. So…er I guess it’s thematic too.

    There is however another, lesser sort of obvious chouce writers can make. Chosing something because it’s the most obvious possibility, or easiest way to get an effect. These sorts of choices are not always bad. It’s quite often acceptable to pick a totally conventional answer to “how will these space-ships cross the vast distances of space quick enough for a story to happen?” When it comes to death as an easy convention, it’s more likely to be annoying, troubling or both. Still not always mind. If someone dies in (or before) the first act because the story is a murder mystery, well that’s to be expected. But “the mentor dies, because that’s what you do, and the hero is kind of sad, but gets over it pretty quick, because she has to save the town from invading were-ravens on motorcycles” is not nearly as strong. Now of course someone might feel that while not trivilized, the death of Dumbledore was jusr as much a lazy formula. I don’t see it that way, but maybe it is for you.

    No real conclusions here, just my own random thought soup.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I agree that Dumbledore’s death is necessary to the story, and I appreciate that his death isn’t the end – the scene in the train station drives home how much he’s still a guiding influence on Harry even though Harry has to stand on his own now. I’m torn on Cedric’s death – we already know Voldemort is evil and doesn’t hesitate to kill. Harry is also reminded of this pretty much daily. Nevertheless, the long lasting consequences of that death on Harry make it an understandable choice. I’ve also always viewed it as a shot across the bow for parents, warning them of the darker turn the series was about to take.

      The other deaths…it kind of depends. The ones that bother me most are the deaths of Lupin, Tonks, and Fred – they meant too much to the reader to be collateral damage at the end. I’d have preferred to see only one or two die and have the impact of that explored more fully. Important characters dying at the end of a series is difficult to handle adequately, I think, unless that death is a major plot point. I had a similar issue with Mockingjay.

      The classics I listed don’t all handle death poorly – I just wonder if death makes us more likely to remember a book and recommend it to future generations? I loved Little Women, for instance, and Beth’s death seems fitting. I detested Where the Red Fern Grows and felt the death there was due to character stupidity, which was not a satisfactory ending. I felt manipulated because it didn’t seem to flow from the story – it seemed more like dogs aren’t allowed to survive books that are about them so the author had to find a way to kill one off.

      I agree that death needs to feel like the logical place for the story to go – maybe only in retrospect as we see how the plot and characters handled it, but it should still feel “right” on some level. You don’t have to like it, but ideally you shouldn’t feel betrayed or manipulated as a reader.

      • Patrick Ley says:

        Cedric isn’t just a warning shot for parents. It warns Harry. “People, even people you know, can die in this thing, and even if you are there, you might not be able to save them.”

        As for Lupin, Tonks, and Fred. I think people we cared about needed to die at the climax. This is a war, however much it’s about wizards, and it’s too romaticized if it doesn’t kill people we wanted to live.

        On the other hand I have some issues with it being those three. Lupin and Tonks feel like they are punished for not sufficiently adhering to “parenthood (or teaching) as the only worthy calling” think I feel like the books have going on sometimes. The best solution here would have been to just show a truly sympathetic adult at some point in the books who was neither a parent or a teacher.

        Fred I have two problems with. On the one hand by killing one of the never distinguished as individuals except by a wound twins, it’s a bit of an attempt to have and eat the character cake. On the other hand, it leads to my biggest frustration with the climax where Mrs. Weasley defeats Bellatrix, avenging her son, instead of Neville avenging his parents. Solution: I don’t mind the cake thing, but dang it why doesn’t Neville take down Bellatrix?

  2. Avie says:

    To this day, I sob like I’m 10 again when I read Little Women and Beth dies. It’s a new loss every single time. She’s the only character death I remember from the books I read as a child, and I’m glad that it was well-handled.

    • ayvalentine says:

      When my mom read Little Women to me (I was maybe 7 or 8?), she warned me well ahead of time about Beth’s death. When we got to the chapter where it happens, I asked her not to read it yet – as long as we didn’t read that part, Beth was still alive. So we skipped ahead and continued on. Then when I was ready, we doubled back and read her death. I remember it as very touching and almost beautiful. Had it taken me by surprise, I think I would have been really upset. Sometimes spoilers are good!

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