1. Veltman

    Veltman Active Member

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    How to make the reader feel shocked and impacted by character deaths?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Veltman, Feb 2, 2019.

    I can't exactly describe exactly what I want to go for here. For me, the most impacting deaths are the ones that make you stop reading to reorganize your thoughts because you're not completely sure of what just happened.

    The ones where the character overcomes incredible odds and, just when you think he's safe, something happens and after that and brings him down. Maybe it has to do with tricking expectations a little bit. Maybe it's that feeling of being so close and failing at the last possible second?

    To you, what makes a character's death work?
     
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  2. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    I think firstly I'd have to be emotionally invested in the character. Secondly, I think it should be foreshadowed regardless of how safe they seem, otherwise it could be seen as a cheap pull at emotion or trying to be unexpected. I also think that the characters attached to this person should have similar feelings and reactions to what you're trying to get from your reader, sort of. If that helps.
     
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  3. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

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    Are you old enough to remember a TV movie called "Brian's Song"? It was based on a true story about NFL players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Since it was based on a true story everybody knew he was going to die, but apparently the death scene had 300lb men crying. It was because the audience spent the whole movie getting to know the character and have empathy with his relationship to Sayers, so when he died, they felt it. Caused quite the conversations around the water cooler the next day. Another death scene that had "men" crying was when Chochise died in "Cooley High". The audience had spent the whole movie pulling for him to get a basketball scholarship so he could get out of the ghetto then he gets **************spoiler alert**********killed in a senseless act of violence that frankly, you just don't see coming. So with these two examples the audience was impacted because the characters were likable and you were pulling for them to overcome their obstacles but death came and messed up that warm fuzzy feeling.
     
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  4. Veltman

    Veltman Active Member

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    I guess what you two mean is the old advice of writing a death for a character, not a character for a death, right? I'm on the right track if that's it.

    I can finally think of an example: Million Dollar Baby. Damn. I felt that.
     
  5. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

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    Yeah, but I disagree with Dapper in that it has to be foreshadowed. Some of the best have been the ones you don't see coming.
     
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  6. LastMindToSanity

    LastMindToSanity Contributor Contributor

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    When the character still has so far to go, wants to go the distance and tries their best to, but is cut down when they just aren't ready yet.

    At least, that's what would get me.
     
  7. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    ---spoilers ahead---


    If you ever watched Seven(it's a great movie, everyone should watch it), at the end of the film, Brad Pitts wife dies. A murderer cuts off her head and puts it in a box trying to get Brad Pitt's character to shoot him. It's shocking because it's unexpected and we thought she was safe, and you'd think it wasn't foreshadowed at all, until you re-watch the film and notice the subtle framing used whenever she's on screen. This scene shows her only from the neck up, this one shows her from the neck down, in one it shows her washing dishes from outside the window with the window frame across her throat. It's subtle, but it subconsciously tells you brain what's coming so when it happens, you're still shocked, but for some reason it feels like it was kind of inevitable and show the audience that this wasn't a last minute thing tossed in there to throw you off.
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2019
  8. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

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    Not really sure that technique is FORESHAWDOWING though, but close, just not in the true definition sense. It's a directors trick that could not be used in books. Another example of what you are talking about though, is Sixth Sense (I See Dead People). *****spoilers coming****. Shaymalan used the color RED to
    indicate when a "ghost" was present. You don't really think about that until you hear that's what he did and then go back and watch the film again. Wonder if it pertains to this thread, is it a "shock" to know that the Bruce Willis character is dead?
     
  9. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

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    I take it back, what was done in Se7en is foreshawdowing, but how do you do that in a book?

    I always give an example of foreshawdowing as: If at the beginning of the book the character is in perfect health and then he breaks his leg. We know something is about to change in his life.
     
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  10. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    My favourite is using food to indicate power and dynamics. If a commander, or his troops are seen eating or drinking before a battle, and they win each of those battles, then if they have a battle where that setup isn't there, then there's a somewhat subtle hint that they're going to lose. As long as you don't draw too much attention to it and it's developed organically, then it's something people are likely to overlook but would be all, "no way, I totally didn't even notice that!"

    The classic example in Harry Potter is in The Prisoner of Azkaban, when everyone is sitting around for Christmas dinner. There are 12 of them, Professor Trelawney shows up and Dumbledore stands to offers her a seat. She refuses saying something along the lines of, "When 13 dine together, the first one to rise will be the first to die!" Unfortunately Ron is there, and Ron's brought Scabbers, his pet rat, who we learn later in the book is actually Peter Pettigrew, a human animagus. So there were actually 13 people at the table already when Dumbledore stood up. J.K. Rowling is actually really good at foreshadowing and does it a lot.
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2019
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  11. Veltman

    Veltman Active Member

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    So far this is the point that resonates with me the most. I'm not sure about the foreshadowing using different elements as motifs. It feels a little artificial to me.
     
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  12. Azuresun

    Azuresun Senior Member

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    Well, that depends on the genre. If it's a tragedy where characters are undone by their fatal flaws, foreshadowing makes sense. If it's, say, a story about how brutal and cruel war is, then having a character get randomly bumped off by a stray bullet is appropriate as well.

    I think foreshadowing done badly actually spoils the moment. That was what kicked me out of the Millenium series by Steig Larsson. Near the start of book two:

    We meet a happy couple who are deeply in love with each other and about to get married. Oh, and they're both investigative journalists who are about to expose a deep-running corruption scandal that goes to the heart of government sure would be a pity if something tragic happened to them, right????

    So if you're going to kill a character off, I don't suggest having them, immediately beforehand, confess their love, reconcile with their estranged family, reveal they're pregnant, announce their retirement, get engaged, impart a valuable lesson to their apprentice, or plan a long holiday. :) After they do too much of that, it's going to be more of a twist if they survive.

    Jojo's Bizarre Adventure springs to mind for doing character deaths well. Three examples, and why I think they worked:

    Part 1:
    Johnathan dies in the final confrontation with Dio? The hero, and the guy the series is named after, the one character you'd expect to have plot immunity? It's a shock, and the after-effects of his death resonate through the series, forming the entire basis of part 3.

    Part 2:
    Caesar's death works because it doesn't feel it's entirely for the sake of other characters (though it has a major effect on the other two heroes). Caesar felt like the hero of his own story, and the series could just as easily have been told from his POV. The fight he went into felt like one he was capable of winning (it wasn't the climactic battle where you might guess a non-hero lead would die), and he had his enemy on the ropes until he was just a little too hasty in going for the kill. I think it works because it feels unfair, and death often is exactly that.

    Part 3:
    Avdol and Iggy. First, it's the sequence breaking--we've seen the heroes come through a lot of enemies unscathed, so we expect that any deaths will only be in the final battle with Dio, meaning this Ice guy is just another disposable mook, ri--WRONG. Avdol's death is memorable for how abrupt (and again, unfair) it is--he looks round, and then he's been obliterated with no chance to even know who killed him. It's a very effective way to tell the audience that s*** just got real, yo. Iggy's death comes off what looks like a different character accepting that his death is inevitable--but he gets a second chance at the cost of Iggy sacrificing his life.

    For the nonspoiler version--setting things up to look like a different character will die, making the death feel unfair, sequence-breaking (figure out when the audience would expect a character to die, and pull the trigger before or after that point), killing characters who the audience think have plot armour. Those things all help make deaths memorable to me.

    To tag a spoiler (like I've done above), use the code

    [ spoiler ] (shocking twist) [ /spoiler ]

    without the spacing. Fast readers will thank you. :)
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2019
  13. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    Well, tropically, going for a mentor or parent death is less likely to be impactful because it's more expected. And these characters can feel relatively expendable which is why their death, among major and/or closely connected characters theirs is more appealing as an option.
    And I would say that foreshadowing is potentially good, but I wouldn't agree you always should or have to. Gotta leave room for completely expected deaths because that's life. In general the plot has to be able to pull sudden shocks and not just foreshadow every twist. Otherwise it'll be hard for them to all have impact. Especially when the point is sometimes to emphasise or acknowledge than unpredictability of death. In a dangerous situation you never know who'll slip.
    One thing I would say is avoid theatre than tells your audience to care and focus on things that make your audience care. One reason I think my mentor deaths can feel less compelling is because they feel quite constructed; done for plot and following outlines of predictable technique and trope. If the death is chosen and executed with focus on why the audience cares, in whatever way that is, there's a more natural path to the emotion. In other words the easiest way to make a death sad is if you yourself care and are in touch with the emotions you're drawing upon. You don't need to make yourself cry necessarily, but you should consider the emotions on a emotional levels and evoke what you understand there because that's the aspect you can most evoke. The best way to make something fictional is to base if something true to yourself. I often find the way to write beyond "what you know" in the whole "write what you know" issue is to consider what you do know in the things you don't. What parts of a character different to yourself can you still relate to? What parallels can be drawn with this situation, even if your experience is really more mundane?
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2019
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  14. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    There was some character death niggling in the back of my mind when I came to this thread, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what it was... until now!

    I'll try to explain it without giving away the book title. The novel was about an ex-soldier who got a job as a mercenary and ended up tangling with Brazilian drug cartels, the Mossad, and I can't even remember who else. Towards the end of the novel he met a woman, a reporter, who was just about to blow the lid off of a huge conspiracy. The main character started to fall for her as they had pretty obvious chemistry, both wanting to do the right thing but often being forced to play it dirty. They were both lonely and kind of hardened and cynical too, so it was pretty sweet when they hooked up. She wasn't sure if it was wise to go forth with the evidence she had, but he convinced her to do it, that the world deserved to know. But someone got wind of her plans, and she was fucking assassinated. It was like the very last pages of the book. I was gutted. The main character was gutted. There was like this slight promise of something good happening to him, for once, like maybe they'd go off on an adventure in the next book, but nope. She fucking died. It came out of left field, though in hindsight, it really did make sense, that she'd be taken down sooner or later.

    Not sure what advice to glean from that. Maybe if you put your character through the wringer and the reader expects a break, and then you give it in the form of finding e.g. friendship and then the friend died... I don't know, it just really got me in the book I described. It was well done, imo.
     
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  15. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    With regards to foreshadowing and expectedness, I would say you can have character's deaths be completely unexpected but not unpredictable. Which is to say, the possibility that someone could die is there, the audience just doesn't know if someone will, who will, and when. If a character dies suddenly from a heart problem, it's best if at some point their health was raised as an issue, even if the timing was sudden. Even if we didn't think they would actually die from it, it immediately makes sense. Rather than them just suddenly falling down and dying, and then we learn why only after it has happened. We might not have predicated it, but we could have, the threat was there. It feels like a logical sequence of events.
    In season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's mum dies totally out of the blue from complications related to a brain tumour, but previously in the season the characters found out she had a brain tumour and there was a whole deal made about it, before it seemed like it was all over and she had recovered. It caught people by surprise that it happened, but we knew there was a threat and we understood what had happened, rather than being completely blindsided by it.
    Similarly, if the characters are in the middle of a major fight, we may not expect a certain character to die in that particular fight, but when they do it makes sense why it happened. There was some lead up even if we didn't realize that's what it was.
    I think you don't have this, the death will feel less meaningful and impactful. A death that's not unpredictable should also naturally tie into the storyline.
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2019
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  16. Fallow

    Fallow Banned

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    While I think pulling the rug out from under the reader when they have invested in the character getting through is the most impactful, I think this thread brings up a separate point:

    If you don't know how you want the reader to feel about a character death, why was that plot choice made in the first place? It seems like many aspiring writers construct plots out of dramatic life moments rather than either the pursuit of a core narrative or an emotional arc for the reader. Death, romantic encounters, action scenes are too often used as ala carte building blocks of a story - and they really aren't. If it wasn't important from the beginning to have a crushing loss for the reader to deal with, why was a death selected to appear in the story?

    It isn't that I'm against characters dying, I just think that it is so often not connected to the story but a thing that is substituted for story. As if stories are little more than logically connected series of events, which they really aren't.
     
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  17. AmsterdamAssassin

    AmsterdamAssassin Active Member

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    I don't know how many of you followed the BBC television series Spooks (I think it was called MI-5 in the US).
    In that series pilot, we're introduced to the main characters. In the second episode, one of the main characters is gruesomely killed to put pressure on another main character.
    That episode caused a tsunami of complaints, but it effectively showed that any character of the series could die at any moment.
    Another thing they did is that there were no credits, so like real spies, the actors playing the characters were 'anonymous'. The uncertainty if any of these characters survived the episode was so tangible....
     
  18. LadyErica

    LadyErica Active Member

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    Simple. I need to care about the character, and want them to survive. It doesn't matter if they sacrifice themselves to save everyone, or slip, fall and break their neck on the way out of the shower. Everything comes down to caring about the character.
     
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  19. DarkPen14

    DarkPen14 Florida Man in Training Contributor

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    emotional attachment to the character is important, but it's also important not to spend too much time describing how the character was killed. But if any of their allies are around, trying to save/recessitate them, then the emotional feel of that is also important

    Don't take three hours of your reader's time describing how the man was bruttally beaten to death by his killer, but the reactions of the people trying to save him can make the death that much more of a punch in the feels
     
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  20. Daphne Thissen

    Daphne Thissen New Member

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    I'm going to draw from the last character death I saw, that also impacted me so much that I start the crying the moment I see a picture of him on screen. The thing is though, this is from a tv series, so I've had plenty of time to get used to him and root for him and, eventually, miss him. (I will put it in a spoiler tag, since it's a pretty big deal and I don't want to ruin it for anyone.

    In Jane the Virgin our MC Jane has a beautiful love story with her boyfriend, later husband, Michael. He's a cop that at some point gets shot, only hours after the long-awaited wedding to his love, Jane. He lives though, he rehabilitates and Jane and Michael pick up their life. Michael can't go back to work however and decides on a career change; he studies to get into law school, for which he fails every practice exam except the final one.
    So at this point we're all rooting for him. Then the show makes use of flashbacks of the very first date Jane and Michael go on, they take pictures in a photobooth and he is extremely nervous on them. The night before the exam, they go on that same date, the pictures this time feature a Michael who knows who he is and what he wants.
    Before the exam he opens his lunchbox, sees the pictures, a handwritten note from Jane: "be this guy." He does the exam, you see him walking away, feeling good and then suddenly he collapses to the floor and his heart stops.

    I was shocked, didn't see it coming. I thought he was safe, because he survived once before. And all this time they're giving him hope and a promise of a future, he's making big changes, things are finally coming together, and then everything just stops.

    That's what gets me. A character just going about life, having plans and hopes and dreams, and then all of that coming to a stop.
     

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