Character death is a contentious issue, and there are many stories out there that killed characters when they shouldn’t have. Today, we’re narrowing our focus to stories where a character death was called for but the author chose the wrong character. Which character dies can have a huge impact on the story, both in the death itself and the repercussions later, so it’s important to get that right. Let’s dissect five examples from the wild and see where they went wrong.
Spoiler Notice: Gideon the Ninth, Avengers Endgame, and Final Fantasy VII
1. The 100
A lot of characters die in The 100. Some of these deaths are poignant moments that make for an awesome story, whereas others are poorly conceived examples of a TV show burying its gays. For this post, we’re looking somewhere in the middle: the death of Wells Jaha in episode three. The 100 has a lot of complicated backstory to work through, but the short version is that Wells is killed for something his father did.
More importantly, Wells’s death is a major crisis for the rival leaders Clarke and Bellamy. First, they argue over whether to tell the other characters what happened, and when that fails, they have to deal with the fallout as the rest of the group start looking for someone to blame. Not only does this force Clarke and Bellamy to work together, but it’s also the start of two major character arcs.
First is Murphy’s arc. Murphy is the group’s resident asshole, so everyone naturally assumes he killed Wells. Pretty soon, this paranoia turns into a call for revenge, and Murphy is nearly killed. This puts him at a low point and builds much of the sympathy needed to make him a complex and interesting character for the rest of the series. The other arc is Bellamy’s. When the call comes to execute Murphy, Bellamy lets it happen even though he knows Murphy is innocent. He has understandable reasons, but it’s still the wrong choice, and it sets up a satisfying redemption arc in later episodes.
These are clear benefits to the show, but Wells was the wrong character to kill for two reasons. First, he’s one of the few Black characters on the show and easily the most prominent. His death leaves an already too-white cast even whiter. Second, Wells and Clarke’s shared backstory gives them excellent chemistry, both friendly and antagonistic. Without Wells, those interactions are gone. It would also have been really interesting to see how Wells dealt with his father’s antics later in the show, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Fortunately, there’s another character who could easily have died in Wells’s place: Finn. Finn is first introduced as the chaotic-good daredevil, but he quickly takes on a new role as the show’s main voice for peace. That’s something Wells could easily have done, as he even has a political background thanks to his father. Finn’s other job is to be one of Clarke’s love interests, and Wells already fits that description perfectly.
The only thing we’d lose by killing Finn is a brief love triangle between him, Clarke, and another character named Raven. If it’s really important to keep that triangle, then it could either be moved earlier, or Raven could have been into Wells rather than Finn. Or the triangle could simply be cut, which would be a small price to pay for keeping Wells around.
Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel is about a swordswoman named Gideon and a necromancer named Harrow. Gideon is our protagonist, a likable character who makes genre-savvy jokes while always doing the right thing, even if she’d rather spend the evening eating snacks and reading dirty magazines. Highly relatable. Harrow, by contrast, is not only a major jerkass, but she’s also the head of an aristocratic family, giving her institutional power that she uses to torment Gideon.
The main plot is Harrow trying to achieve ultimate necromantic power by becoming a Lictor while Gideon serves as bodyguard in the hopes of earning freedom. Over the course of the story, Harrow and Gideon reconcile and come to care for one another, until finally Gideon sacrifices herself in the final battle to make Harrow a Lictor so she can defeat the big bad.
This death is important as a sacrifice turning point. The villain is so powerful that it’s unlikely anything else would have worked. It’s also established that someone has to die in order for a necromancer to become a Lictor, and this is a convenient way for Harrow to do that without becoming a cold-blooded murderer.
The problem is that our main character is now dead. Her consciousness sticks around for a few minutes to give Harrow a pep talk, but then it fades forever. We’ve spent the whole book getting to know Gideon, and her dying to give Harrow more power is just unsatisfying. Why pick up the next book when jerkass Harrow is going to be the protagonist? It’s always possible Muir plans to bring Gideon back in the next book, but all that would accomplish is turning this book’s ending into a cheap fakeout.
There are technical issues with Gideon’s death as well. Before the final battle, it’s established that to become a Lictor, you have to perform the difficult necromantic act of absorbing another person’s soul. But then the story acts as if Gideon’s death can make Harrow a Lictor against her will. This is done so that Harrow doesn’t seem evil for taking Gideon’s soul, but it’s a significant inconsistency right at the climax. This section also has Gideon’s fading consciousness use Harrow’s body to do some awesome sword fighting, even though Harrow is specifically established to have the physical strength and stamina of a toothpick.
The solution for all of this is for Harrow to sacrifice herself instead and make Gideon a Lictor. Thematically, this is far more satisfying as Harrow actually had something to atone for, and it means we can look forward to a sequel about a character we actually like. It’s also a neat subversion of the original premise, when it was expected that Harrow would be the one to gain ultimate necromantic power.
As a side bonus, Harrow dying also solves the more technical problems. It’s easy to believe that a necromancer of Harrow’s skill could figure out a way to unilaterally transfer her soul and magical talent into another person. This would even fit with Harrow’s personality, as she’s all about performing acts of necromancy that everyone else thinks are impossible. Plus, this way we don’t have to wonder how Harrow’s nonexistent muscles could suddenly be capable of badass sword fighting.
The back-to-back films Infinity War and Endgame contain a number of deaths, several of them questionable. Killing Gamora and Loki only to replace them with slightly younger versions of themselves certainly comes to mind. But of all the deaths, the worst by far is Black Widow’s.
If you haven’t seen the film for a while, here’s the gist: Black Widow and Hawkeye go to get the Soulstone for team good, but in order to get it, one of them has to die. This is a superhero movie, so naturally they settle the question by fighting to see who gets the honor of sacrificing themself. Black Widow wins, so she falls to her death while Hawkeye helplessly looks on.
This is important to the story both because it was previously established that only a death can unlock the Soulstone and because it’s one of the film’s more interesting fights. Black Widow and Hawkeye each fight to save the other’s life, which is something you don’t see every day. Plus, audiences just love it when heroes fight each other.
And yet, killing Black Widow is a serious problem. The MCU is a more diverse place than it was back in the day, but most of the leading heroes are still men. Losing Black Widow is a serious blow to the franchise’s representation, and it doesn’t set a great tone for her upcoming solo movie either. I suspect fans won’t be super interested in watching the backstory for a character we’ll probably never see again. There’s also the fact that back in Age of Ultron, it was established that Black Widow can’t get pregnant. Having her die plays into the ugly trope of childless women being expendable.
That’s why they should have killed Hawkeye instead. Even with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers out of the picture, the MCU is hardly short on white dudes.* Beyond the representation issue, Hawkeye just isn’t as popular a character. Giving him a heroic death would actually help him stand out, something Black Widow doesn’t need as she’s one of the MCU’s heavy hitters despite not having her own film yet.
We could even use Hawkeye’s death as a redemption moment if we wanted to. It’s easy to miss, but at the start of Endgame, we find out that Hawkeye has spent the five years since Infinity War killing criminals. The film tries to portray this as a good man going a bit too far, but in reality, murdering people is bad, even if they have broken the law. Hot take, I know. Hawkeye’s death might not be a satisfactory redemption, depending on how people feel about vigilante justice, but it would be something.
This entry may strike you as a bit odd since hardly anyone dies in The Legend of Korra. All the major good guys have powerful plot shields, so what could I be talking about? Well, it all has to do with the show’s backstory, particularly its connection to the previous series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
That show had five main characters, and over the course of Korra, we find out that most of them are still alive. Aang has to be dead so that Korra can take his place as Avatar, but other than him, Sokka is the only one to have kicked the bucket. Katara, Zuko, and Toph are all still alive. This creates an immediate problem: with so many powerful benders running around, how can the show create meaningful threat?
The show’s solution is to retcon how age works. In Last Airbender, older benders just seem to get more badass. In Korra, they have to deal with arthritis and back problems. That’s certainly realistic, but it doesn’t really address the core issue: if the original characters are alive, Last Airbender fans will expect to see them do cool things!
Instead, Katara spends almost the entire show hiding away at the South Pole. Even when the Water Tribe civil war breaks out, she’s limited to healing duty. She has some dialogue about why her fighting days are over, but surely someone of her fame and accomplishment could be useful on the war’s political front? Meanwhile, Zuko does get into a fight with season three’s villains, but he’s defeated so easily it’s embarrassing. This raises another question: if aging impedes your ability to fight, why does Zuko go to confront the bad guys on his own? Has he gotten incompetent in his retirement?
Toph gets a better deal, becoming Korra’s crotchety teacher in season four. This makes sense, since everything is better in season four. But even this raises questions, since despite Toph’s protests, she certainly seems badass enough to take on the big bad.
All of these problems could have been avoided if Sokka was the one to survive from the original show. Sokka isn’t a bender, and more importantly, his main strength is planning. There’d be no expectation for him to go out and defeat the bad guys. Instead, he could have been a mentor figure to Korra, teaching her when to use her head and when to use her bending. Sokka’s perspective would have been especially valuable in season one, which features an anti-bender uprising. He’d have given us the much-needed connection to the previous show without sidelining anyone for being too powerful.
The seventh final fantasy game is well known for the death of Aeris,* and with the remake’s first installment only a few months old, now seems like a great time to revisit it. This sequence is legitimately shocking, even if you know it’s coming. It’s rare enough for a main character to die, let alone a playable character in a video game. FFVII also does a good job making the death feel meaningful, as the characters continue to talk about Aeris long after she’s gone.
Unfortunately, there are several major downsides. Most blatantly, of the nine playable characters, only three are women. With Aeris gone, that number is down to two of eight. From a narrative perspective, Aeris’s death also leaves a major loose end: the Ancient plotline. Aeris is the last surviving Ancient, and a lot of the plot is focused on that. When she dies, none of the characters have a personal connection to that aspect of the story anymore. Aeris’s final actions do end up mattering at the climax, but it still leaves a lot unaddressed. There’s also a mechanical issue, as any players who made the effort to level Aeris up are left with a lot of wasted time.
To avoid this, a different character should have died: the protagonist, Cloud Strife. That might sound weird, and in normal circumstances, I would never recommend killing off the main character, but FFVII is uniquely situated for it. For one thing, it’s a video game, which means it has plenty of time to ease you into playing characters other than Cloud before removing him from the story.
Story-wise, Cloud’s death would be far more shocking and subversive. Sure, losing a main character is rare, but fridging a female love interest is par for the course. Cloud, on the other hand, is a badass mercenary with a huge sword; losing a character like him is almost unheard of. And since he’s the party leader, his death would force another character to take the mantle of leadership for themself. This already happens for a short time when Cloud goes missing later in the game, but this way it would be permanent. Meanwhile, everyone else would have to ask themselves hard questions about what their quest means without Cloud to lead them. Talk about character development.
Speaking of character development, another reason for Cloud to die is that his story could easily be concluded first. In the canon story, we don’t get the big reveal and resolution to Cloud’s backstory until late in the game, but there’s no reason it couldn’t happen earlier, say around the time Aeris would normally die. That way, his death comes after a satisfying resolution, rather than cutting his arc short.
Mechanically, Cloud’s death would also ensure that no one is punished for the characters they chose to level up. Since Cloud is a requirement, the game would have to be balanced around losing him, as opposed to now, where Aeris fans are left out in the cold. If it was absolutely required to keep Cloud’s stats in the game, then another character could pick up his sword after he dies. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay good money to see Tifa wield the Buster Sword and swear revenge on Sephiroth.
Because character death is a forbidden fruit in storytelling, it’s easy for authors to get overexcited and rush in unprepared. This is how you end up killing the wrong character and hurting your story in the long run. So if you encounter one of those rare situations where killing a character is the right move, stop to consider a minute. Which character should die here? What are the potential consequences? Chances are good the answers are different than you might first assume.
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