How to write character death that really affects the reader? Making Readers Feel Emotion Over A Character Death | EelKat on Writing Believable Characters
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For me, as a reader, the death itself is not the thing that gets to me. A death on the page, is just yet another death on the page. One of many. Not the first I've seen, nor will it be the last. Fast death. Slow death. Sudden death. Grizzly death. Doesn't matter. Means nothing to me. It's just another death. Death gallops across the pages of books.
This is not to say the death is meaningless, it is just that death happens so often in the types of novels I read (Fantasy and Murder Mystery), that is become difficult for the death to strike me and have me cry over the loss of yet another character.
What affects me, as a reader, about a character death, is the people left behind. Here are some examples of things I've read over the years that affected me:
- The mother who has said nothing for days, to in shock to respond, then finally collapses at the funeral in front of the open coffin. Her, I'll feel for. Her, I'll cry for. Her heart is breaking.
- The lover/spouse left behind. Putting on a brave face in public, and breaking down in tears in private. Smiling in church, and while running to the bathroom cutting their wrists desperate to join their loved one.
- The woman who can no longer eat strawberries because he brought her strawberries every day and the sight or smell of strawberries fills her with sadness now, knowing he'll never bring her strawberries again.
- The man who plasters his wall with thousands of photos of his dead wife, and sits all night, every night, for years on end, playing her favorite song over and over again, sinking ever deeper into an inner madness he can not escape, yet to the rest of the world he seems unchanged, uncaring, almost as though unaffected by her death. The more he hides his pain from the world, the more pain you know he feels.
- The lover/spouse left behind. Standing in the kitchen, holding a plate. Time to cook dinner, it's almost time for him to come home from work, dinner is nearly finished, she's setting the table to have it ready before he gets home... and now she's holding the plate, staring at it, unable to set it on the table.... remembering he died last week. He's not coming home for dinner. Her brief lapse back into the daily routine, forgetting his death, going back to her normal life, and the sudden snap back to the reality of her situation... is horrifying.
My personal favourite....
- The man who goes back in time, again, and again, and again, and against, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, trying everything he can think of to stop her death, but never able to do anything other the change the way in which she died.
- Rescue her from being hit by a car, only to watch her fall through thin ice.
- Rescue her from walking on the frozen lake, only to watch her die in a burning building.
- Rescue her from the burning building, only to watch her gunned down in a drive by shooting...
- He always saves her, every time, and just as he's about to go back to his own time, the last thing he sees, is her dying yet again. He can never save her, because it was her death that drove him to create a time machine, thus her death is now fixed in time and all he can change is how she died, because had she not died, he would never have gone back in time. He's now trapped in a time loop, driving himself mad trying to stop a death, that he can never stop, and now tortures himself watching her die not once, but hundreds of times in hundreds of ways
In each of these cases, it's not the death that strikes emotion, but rather, the emptiness the one left behind is experiencing. The reaction of the person left behind. Their lives torn apart. Their normacy shattered. Their desperate to make things right. They fight against a thing they can not change. Watching them struggle and fail to come to terms with the death. It's their failure to regain any ability to function normally that is heartbreaking. Watching them as they mentally and emotionally fall apart, is the thing that makes me feel for them. Seeing them suffer. Seeing their mind unable to go back to living a normal life. That's the thing that always gets to me. Seeing the person struggling to get through the small everyday tasks, while being reminded at every turn, the person who normally did those tasks with them, is never coming home. Watching them struggle to come to terms with the emptiness that now exists in their life. That to me, is far more powerful then the death itself.
The character death never affects me, but watching the survivor go mad in their attempts to adjust to life without someone they loved - that always affects me very strongly.
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