In this episode of my character death posts, I’ll touch the topic of emotional reactions.
Most of the time, the death of a major character will result in some reaction from other characters. What exactly the reaction will be is something that differs based on the character – and is one of the way to show their personality.
As with any other part of writing, the reaction should be consistent with the character’s personality. If a character is seen to be very emotional, it’ll make no sense to see them brush it off easily. Just the same, if an evil mastermind sends a disposable minion to its death, it’d be strange if they mourned said minion’s death.
This topic is usually simple for the villains: most of the time, they’ll either feel nothing, knowing that death of their minion was just a move on the chessboard; or they will feel rage for their perfect plans being brought to ruin.
When it comes to the protagonists, there are several options. They usually have the same starting point: the villain targets someone important to them in hopes of crushing their morale, or their whole plans (if the casualty is a leader or a strategist type of character). So, what the options are?
Especially those close to the deceased character will be taken by surprise in the first moments. It’s something they were not prepared for and the sheer shock is something that might put them into a state where they can’t see the world properly and can’t think properly before the shock passes (no different than injury-induced shock I mentioned in past). Even if the affected characters recover in time, the initial damage is done. A well-timed strike can send even the best plan downhill and force an unplanned retreat when someone expected to lead is too shocked to do so. Death of an important character (especially a leader) will force a change of plans and eventually a development of other characters.
Even protagonists can give in to rage and fury. The situation usually means the affected character will go on a temporary rampage, killing any enemy in sight until he/she is exhausted, satisfied with the result, killed as well, or goes out of enemies to kill.
What comes after will differ. Someone might need just a single moment of vengeful killing to let their rage out and, with some effort, return to normal life. Other characters might be too struck by such a moment and run off, becoming a dangerous lone wolf in turn.
One of the powerful tools in writing is heroic sacrifice. If someone dies but causes irreparable damage to the enemy in the process, it might be the moment that inspires the others to press on – and sends the villain’s plans on a downward spiral. Sure, not everyone in the crowd will react this way but if those who do can sway the others, they can become a tide far too hard to stop.
This is also a moment that’ll allow the writer to use another powerful storytelling tool – an inspirational speech. Even if it might be just another version of “we’ll not let his/her death be in vain”, it’s another angle from which we might see a character’s leadership capabilities.
While I think the three cases mentioned above are the main ones, there are more. They might be extreme reactions – a very gory or violent death might cause revulsion in a character to the point they’ll abandon the fight completely, or fall to madness. Or, it might have the opposite effect: losing one’s mind and become a hermit or a madman of any sort.
A shift in emotions
Apart from all the mentioned above (whether they are short-term or long-term), there will be impact on the character’s mood. Even someone who’s usually light-hearted and cheerful will probably be sad and gloomy for a time after losing someone dear to him/her. How long that state stays, how it shows on the outside (for example: unwillingness to talk, seeking solitude, drinking) and what will bring the character back to its original self is something that can show more not only about the grief-struck character(s) but also about those who help them recover.
I’ll end this post here. There will be more coming on this topic in time. For now, I’ll welcome your opinions – and your experiences more so. Feel free to share the most emotional character death moments you experienced, whether as a reader or a writer.