This post contains spoilers for the June 2 episode of “Game of Thrones.” If you did not watch the episode, have not read “A Storm of Swords,” and do not want “The Rains of Castamere” spoiled, do not continue. There are NO spoilers posted here for “A Feast for Crows” or “A Dance with Dragons.”
If you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” then last night’s “Game of Thrones” was a chance to relive the horror, the pain, and the rage you felt the very first time you read those blood-stained pages chronicling the Red Wedding.
And if you are a “Game of Thrones” fan who never read the books—I’m so sorry. Here—watch this video of a kitten stuck in a hamster ball.
When I read Catelyn’s final chapter in “A Storm of Swords,” I didn’t cry into my pillow or hurl the book across the room. I sat on my bed, staring at the page. I closed the book. I opened the book. I reread the last couple of pages. I closed the book again. The scene shocked me (anyone who claims they saw that coming is a liar), but I didn’t grieve the way I felt I should.
At first, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t mourn for Robb Stark and his mother. These were the good guys, and they were just stabbed in the back by one of their own! Shouldn’t I feel something besides a vague sense of shock?
It wasn’t until I finally opened the book back up and read Arya’s follow-up chapter that the true weight of it all hit me. Arya would never see her mother again. She would never be Lady of Winterfell. She would never have a home. Everything she suffered in “A Clash of Kings” and “A Storm of Swords” was for naught. It was Arya’s frantic horror upon learning of Catelyn and Robb’s fate that finally brought the anger and the tears out of me.
And that got me thinking—isn’t the real gut-wrenching power of a character’s death in how it affects the other characters?
George R. R. Martin has said that the Red Wedding was the hardest thing he ever had to write. So why did he write it? Sure, some of it has to do with keeping the plot deliciously unpredictable, but it also has to do with creating an impetus that drives other characters to action. As book fans will know, Arya’s story doesn’t end that night at the Twins. In fact, it’s only because of the Red Wedding that Arya ends up where she ends up. Given the direction of her story arc, I suspect that she has an important role to play in the ultimate course of the series plot—all because Walder Frey had a score to settle.
What’s the lesson to be learned here? I think it’s that character death in fantasy can serve many functions, and all of them are at the disposal of the author who’s willing to do the unthinkable and kill off beloved characters.
Here are just a few examples of how character death can be used in writing:
1. Character death as a motivation for the protagonist
Bear in mind that this doesn’t always mean the protagonist will be motivated to do good. Anakin from “Star Wars” makes a good case for this one. After his mother’s death, Anakin is willing to do anything to save his wife Padme from a similar fate. His fear of losing her becomes an obsession, and in his efforts to protect Padme, Anakin allows the Dark Side to consume him.
2. Character death as a punishment for characters who made the wrong choice
Eddard Stark and his oath-breaking progeny fall into this category, I’m afraid. Ned chose the wrong person to trust, and Robb chose the wrong person to cross. By killing them off, George R. R. Martin lets his readers know that in the world of Westeros, those kinds of mistakes have real consequences—fatal consequences—even for the heroes.
3. Character death as a catalyst of the action/plot
Sometimes characters get a little too comfortable in their routine, and it’s up to the writer to give them a kick in the pants. One example I can think of is “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. LeGuin. After Ged unleashes an unspeakable evil into the world, all he can do is go on living and try to forget that his Shadow is still out there, waiting to ensnare him. The Archmage sends Ged to a small town to serve as their local wizard, helping sailors protect their ships from the weather and treating the sick.
Then a little boy in the town dies of fever, and in his attempt to retrieve the boy from the land of the dead, Ged encounters the Shadow once again and is forced to flee the town and face his destiny. If it weren’t for that boy’s death, Ged might have lived out the rest of his days safe and happy in that small town, and what kind of story would that be?
4. Character death as a reminder of what’s at stake
The “Harry Potter” series makes poignant use of character death for this purpose. Voldemort is a scary villain to begin with, but occasionally the reader needs to be reminded of why it’s so important that Harry saves the day. The shocking deaths of fan favorites like Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Lupin and Tonks, and Fred Weasley drive home the message that Harry is fighting for something larger than himself.
5. Character death as a means of strengthening reader sympathy with the protagonist
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. In the hands of an accomplished writer, the heartbreaking death scene of the heroine’s parents/best friend/lover/children will have you cheering for her to win the day.
6. Character death as a means of strengthening reader hatred of the antagonist
…or cheering for the villain to get his just desserts. (Joffrey, anyone?)
7. Character death as a way to set the scene or tone of the novel
Sometimes death can even play a role in worldbuilding. Think of all the great battle scenes in fantasy. Now imagine how dull those battles would be without striking descriptions of the rotting carcasses littering the ground. Here’s a little snippet from something I wrote a few years ago:
It was the silence, more than the stench or the gloom, that woke dread in Vaelagr’s heart as his eyes scoured the ground for any sign of life. No breath disturbed that hushed void. It was a silence capable only of the dead. And dead they were. He sensed no trace of Aura among the lifeless forms. From this height, Vaelagr could make out very little, save the shrunken silhouettes cast up by the light of burning trees. Dragon corpses sprawled broken and limp in mires of blood, their twisted remains unidentifiable. Scattered among them were the mauled bodies of gryphons and humans, enemies no longer distinguishable from allies. His kin, his kilth, lay rotting in the mud.
8. Character death as a means of redemption
Boromir from “The Lord of the Rings” is the token example of redemptive death. After falling to the Ring’s corruptive power, Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo by force, but he fails and Frodo escapes. Meanwhile, Saruman’s Uruk-hai attack the Fellowship and kidnap Merry and Pippin, despite Boromir’s valiant attempts to save them. Aragorn discovers Boromir mortally wounded, and when Boromir confesses his act of betrayal against Frodo, and his shame for having done it, Aragorn forgives him. By his death, Boromir redeemed his honor and died a noble warrior’s death.
Other good examples—Severus Snape from “Harry Potter” and Anakin Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
9. Character death as the ultimate sacrifice
This plot device can easily cross the line into the realm of cliches, but when it’s done right, it is powerful as hell. There are countless examples in fantasy literature of Christ-like hero figures who sacrifice their lives to end a terrible evil. Harry Potter and Aslan the Great Lion from “The Chronicles of Narnia” are two I can name off the top of my head.
10. Character death as a rite of passage for the hero
I refer once again to “Star Wars.” Would Luke Skywalker have gone on to restore the Jedi Order if not for the death of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi? Yes, all right, Obi-Wan returns as a ghost to advise Luke, but his death (and later Yoda’s) forces Luke to come into his own as a Jedi Knight, ultimately forging him into a more mature hero.
There are dozens more examples I could talk about, but I’ve used only the most iconic cases here, to avoid spoilers for less well-known books and movies.
Can you think of any other uses for death that I haven’t mentioned here? Leave me your thoughts in the comments!