Q&A

How Do I Introduce Characters Who Need to Die?

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Hello, not sure if this is something that has been answered in a previous article, pretty sure I haven’t read all of them, so I apologize if it has.

Anyway, in my story, the protagonist is a part of a noble house-ish thing that is ostracized for betraying the nation, and in the inciting incident, most of them are killed in an event that starts a civil war, launching the protagonist into the leading role for the remnants of his family.

My problem is that I’m really not sure how to portray that. The protagonist doesn’t really get over it until the end of the story, so I know how to go about that, but how much time he should initially spend to mourning them I don’t. Also, how many of them should be introduced and characterized before that? I don’t want to spend too much time in the beginning with characters whose only purpose is to die.
-Bobbert

Hey Bobbert, thanks for writing in!

To your first question, everyone mourns differently, so there’s no specific time period for this. Instead, I recommend thinking about how the protagonist’s grief will motivate him. If he’s the kind of person to seek revenge for his losses, then his mourning could go on for quite some time as he hunts down those responsible for his family’s death. If his grief is the more introspective variety, then I recommend saving it for the quiet points in the story between the high points of conflict. Having a moment for the hero to stop and let his grief out can make for a good breather between scenes where death is at stake. It’s powerful, and it gives readers a chance to pause and catch their breath.

To your second question, you’re right that you need to establish his family ahead of time if you want their deaths to mean anything for readers. I’m guessing you want to avoid a situation like what happens in A New Hope, where the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle is treated more like it’s relieving him of a burden than a true loss.

At the same time, you’re also right that you don’t want to bore readers with a bunch of character introductions when nothing is happening. That’ll just turn them off the story entirely. Instead, I’d recommend having two or three family members who are part of some smaller conflict with the protagonist, something that will lead into the family’s destruction later.

Just as an example, perhaps the protagonist and his family are hunting a murderer. That’s part of their job as lords of the land. This is an exciting conflict that will let you build attachment to the family members fairly quickly. They eventually catch the murderer, only to discover he’s the heir to a really powerful noble family. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he must face justice, so the hero and fam bring him back to their keep for trial.

This leads to the murder’s family launching a pre-emptive strike to free him. In this strike, the hero’s family is killed. Now, you’ve launched the main story, and readers never had to be bored on the way.

Hope that answers your questions!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I agree with Oren here.

    When it comes to grief, it’s very different for people. Some mourn loudly, wear black for a long time (or whatever the mourning colour in the character’s culture is), keep memorabilia of their lost ones, and show clearly how they feel about the loss. Others are outwardly unchanged, don’t give any indication of their feelings, but are still deeply mourning and missing their lost ones all the same. Therefore, you can ‘tailor’ the mourning very much to your story. If you want for it to make your main character angry and fuel his rage at the situation, you can do that. If you want for it to come out when he’s not occupied, that is fine as well, work it into slower, more introspect scenes.
    It might help to look up the five stages of grief, since you can have the character pass through them all during the story.

    I also agree that, if you want for the death of the family members to mean something to the reader, you need to introduce them and start before the event in which they are killed. A minor conflict can do, which should be connected to that event – since you speak of being accused of treason, you can depict the ‘act’ of treason from the side of the family, so the reader also knows the accusation is wrong.

  2. Dave L

    A related question:

    How do you have characters die to motivate the main character, and not be called out for “fridging”?

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, don’t use their wife or girlfriend – those are the two people most commonly fridged, closely followed by daughters.

      Apart from that, the question is very much how the characters die and why (in-story). They are travelling with the MC and fight a group of bandits with him, but are slain? That is not fridging, that is characters dying in a story. If the characters have an agency which leads to their death, it’s generally less likely someone will claim it’s fridging (some still might, but then, some people will say that every time a female character dies).

      Most fridged characters are caught or cornered by the villain and then killed and left for the MCs to find – or killed in front of his eyes for no other reason than to hurt him. So, generally speaking, characters dying while actually doing something and in a situation which isn’t just set up for the MC are usually not fridged, they just die, as can happen.

      The MC can still want to avenge a character not just there for being killed. He can want to find out why his brother was killed after claiming he’d found out something weird was going out in the company he just started working for. He can vow to clear his family name (which would be close to what Bobbert asked) after his parents and siblings were killed for being traitors. It also helps when that’s not the only motivation for the hero, when there’s something else than just ‘you killed my X, now you die.’

      • Jeppsson

        Spot on.

        For instance, I don’t think anyone ever called Supergirl’s death in the Crisis on Infinite Earths “fridging” (comic book, 1980:s, not the Arrowverse TV show thing). A bunch of powerful superheroes are literally fighting to save the entire universe from an extremely powerful being, the “Anti-Monitor”, who comes from an anti-matter universe and will consume theirs completely unless they stop him.
        There’s this moment where Superman is fighting Big Bad, but he’s losing and it looks like he’s gonna die, when Supergirl comes to the rescue. She just smashes into the Big Bad and fights him till she dies. She hurts Big Bad so much that it at least buys the remaining heroes some time to regroup and come up with a new strategy, even though their ultimate win is much later on.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes.

          “Fridging” always suggest that this (usually female and close to the MC) character only exists so their death can be used to motivate the MC. They have no other role in the story, no agenda, no choices. They are just put in the story so they can die and thus motivate the MC to fight the Big Bad.

          Supergirl in this story clearly has another role, sacrificing her life to make it possible for her team mates to regroup and go on fighting, sacrificing herself so a stronger fighter can go on fighting. It’s her choice, it’s her action, thus it’s her agenda and she has the right to that.

  3. Erynus

    My story is all about my MC wanting revenge for the death of a loved one, and since they are all spies, he is stuck on the denial phase for a long time, because he refuse to aknowledge his demise even in face of proofs (but spies can fake a death and tamper the proofs, though, so he thinks all they want is to mislead him).
    The dead loved one is never shown, we know all of him from MC investigation and memories.
    There is also anothe MC that, upon my protagonist disappearance to get deep undercover for the investigation, thinks he is death and mourns him in his own way, this time baragain, doing several things that he wouldn’t do because “it is what the MC would want”.
    I’ll find out eventually if i hit the spot.

  4. Leon

    You make the readers love them

  5. Thomas

    Also don’t forget that as the leader of the survivors your protagonist may not let himself mourn as they’d whish to. With the hopes and lives of everyone now onto their shoulders they may fear to look weak or make it all look hopeless if they’d let themselves express openly their suffering.

    It’s a point that should be taken in account.

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