Character Deaths: Shakespeare vs. Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post from Melissa Caruso. Melissa Caruso is the author of The Tethered Mage (10/24/2017 from Orbit Books), first in the Swords & Fire trilogy. She loves tea, geekery, and the great outdoors. Melissa lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, a Labrador, and assorted cats.

Twitter Handle: @melisscaru

Shakespeare knew how to kill a guy.

He killed off over 70 characters in his plays (which is admittedly nothing on George R. R. Martin, but hey, it’s not a competition). His death scenes include some of the most iconic ones in world literature. His influence unquestionably lingers to this day—but there are some ways in which modern fantasy writers tend to handle character deaths rather differently now than Shakespeare did 400 years ago.

In Shakespeare’s plays, death is never arbitrary. No Shakespearian character gets picked off due to sheer bad luck with a casual “kill the spare” from the villain. In fact, the deaths of both major and side characters are often made inevitable by a kind of logic of fate that functions as consistently as any magic system.

Shakespeare’s tragedies chart an inevitable arc from the moment the main character makes a bad decision to their demise as its inescapable consequence. From the moment Macbeth decides to murder his king, you know this isn’t going to end well for anyone. Poor Hamlet proves that you can’t escape such a doom by avoiding a terrible decision, either; inaction is, in fact, also a choice.

Other bodies may stack up as collateral damage throughout a Shakespeare play, but these deaths, too, are part of the debt paid to fate. They are the clear results of choices made—each deceased character is the victim of either their own character flaws, or someone else’s.

What’s more, death is a fateful moment in Shakespeare, when destiny attends the words of the dying. And the dying always get their say: almost every character Shakespeare kills off manages to gasp out some last words (or a lengthy monologue), a comparative rarity in modern genre fiction. Sometimes these speeches look forward, uttering prophecies or curses that never fail to come true, or taking care of final business; other times they look backward or inward, tracing the path that led the speaker to this end. These speeches help secure the position of the character’s death in an orderly, purposeful universe. Shakespearian deaths are tidy; characters won’t breathe their last until they’ve wrapped up all their loose ends and helped send the plot along its way.

In modern fantasy, death is rarely so courteous and methodical. Rather than wielding the scythe to further some carefully laid plan of consequence and fate, death often strikes for a more emotional impact on the journey of the main character—or the reader. I can think of three umbrella categories that catch many (though of course not all) of the deaths that occur in fantasy and science fiction; interestingly, these each tend to serve a different purpose depending on what point they occur at in the story.

The first is the Character Motivation Death. If this occurs at or before the beginning of the story, it’s an inciting incident or a character’s tragic backstory. The most classic case is the Batman effect: the main character’s parents (or lover, best friend, etc.) were murdered, and now they’ve dedicated their lives to keeping others from the same fate—or to revenge. The death provides the driving force that propels the character through the rest of their arc. Motivational deaths can also create turning points later in the story: a main character who previously resisted the call to heroism loses a loved one, and this galvanizes them to fight at last. You can see this trope in everything from Dragonlance to Hunger Games.

Which leads us to the second category of common modern fantasy and science fiction deaths: the Sacrificial Death. In these deaths, a character nobly sacrifices themselves to solve a plot problem (at least for now). This is a new one; Shakespeare’s characters rarely faced difficulties they could resolve simply by Taking One for the Team.

There are some classic subcategories, here. There’s the Mentor Death, in which the character who has guided and helped our hero for lo these many pages nobly sacrifices themselves—not so coincidentally leaving the hero to have to finish the plot on their own. Any number of wise old bearded guys have met this tragic end. And then there’s the Redemptive Death, in which a questionably evil or at least unlikable character performs a final act of heroic self-sacrifice which changes how you—and the main character—look at them forever. Darth Vader is one of the most classic examples of this.

Sometimes, though, a Sacrificial Death is simply a toll that must be paid to solve a problem when, as Spock would say, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one. And this leads to my third category of modern fantasy and science fiction character deaths: setting the stakes.

Sometimes a death occurs near the beginning of a story to set the tone and lay down the rules. Things will get rough; people will die. You have been warned. Or a villain might casually or cruelly kill someone to show the readers just how bad they are.  Other deaths pay the bill that comes due at the end of the book, exacting a price for victory, or a consequence for the conflict in the book. These fulfill and validate the stakes already established.

But perhaps most memorable are the pivotal deaths that raise the established stakes, giving the reader an “it just got real” moment. Cedric Diggory’s death at the key turning point of the Harry Potter books is a great example of this. It transforms the series from a playful fantasy to a darker story where named characters can die, kids aren’t always protected, and not everything turns out all right in the end. The pivotal death at the end of A Game of Thrones is a stunning example of raising the stakes through the roof—after that, you know absolutely no one is safe.

Shakespeare didn’t use stakes-setting deaths; he didn’t need to. Everyone already knew coming in what to expect based on what type of play it was. I like to say that the way to tell whether a Shakespearian play is a comedy, history, or tragedy is that in a comedy, nobody dies; in a history, some people die; and in a tragedy, everybody dies.

Of course, some modern writers take a rather Shakespearian approach to death—George R. R. Martin chief among them. His unsympathetic characters frequently perish of a severe case of poetic justice (crown of molten gold, anyone?), and even the best of them can fall prey to a broken principle or a fatal flaw. Westeros itself may be plunged into chaos, but when you examine the major character deaths, they are often far from random. But Martin’s characters don’t usually get the chance to give final speeches and put their last affairs in order the way Shakespeare’s do; their deaths may sometimes be fitting, but they’re rarely tidy.

Overall, though, for Shakespeare, character deaths are the well-ordered consequence of what came before, a point on an arc of fate; while in modern science fiction and fantasy, deaths are more likely to be an emotional touchstone, shaping the main character’s journey.

Their audiences’ tears, however, taste just the same.