The other night, my dad told me about a couple of news stories: one where a boy was crushed in his minivan while trying to reach sports equipment, and one where doctors mistakenly switched a saline bag with formaldehyde. In both cases, the people died.
We can’t turn on the news, or even drive up the road without encountering some form of death. Whether it’s a homicide or road kill, death is inescapable. So I don’t know what it was about these two stories that made me stop and think. These people died. Things happened through no real fault of their own, and now they’re dead – completely, irreversibly gone. No second chances. Their loved ones have had to plan funerals and bury them, and now they’re dealing with grief that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
I realize this sounds a little dramatic, considering that these are people I never met and have no connection to. But there’s a weight to it when you stop and realize that these stories are real people, who have very real families. Just because I am not feeling the grief today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist for them.
So what on earth does this have to do with writing?
I say all this to remind you that death has weight. Unless you’re killing off a reclusive orphan with no friends, a character’s death will matter to somebody. That doesn’t mean a character’s death has to start a war – unless it does, like Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones.
But don’t use death like there is no consequences. It’s not a party trick. That isn’t to say that you have to show every character you kill being mourned – but just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Don’t write characters just to be disposable. Your readers will catch on, because chances are, your disposable characters will feel just that.
Sometimes a character’s death throws a country into upheaval, like with a monarch or other political figure. Maybe it causes a family or person a lot of turmoil – like Cathy’s death did to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
Don’t use death as a cop out. Make it make sense, and make it matter for your character and your story. Don’t forget that death is a big deal, that it is traumatic and stressful. Don’t use death like you would use a dinner party.