Many people are familiar with the character shield and plot-armor tropes: those points in a story where it really feels like a character should die, but the writer won’t let them. It turns out that many stories have the opposite issue: a character dies for no reason. This problem can be as big, but it isn’t as well understood. Too often, fans who don’t like a character’s death are written off as just being overly attached.
But fans should be attached to characters, and if a death doesn’t add anything to the story, then it’s a mistake. Since so many storytellers are still obsessed with making their stories as grimdark as possible, we have plenty of examples to choose from.
Spoilers: Crescent City, Middlegame, and The Priory of the Orange Tree
1. Lehabah: Crescent City
Crescent City is a novel with fantastic worldbuilding and terrible plotting. Some of that plotting comes to a head near the end of the book, when Lehabah the fire sprite performs a heroic sacrifice to help protagonist Bryce.
First, the scene’s construction makes it clear this sacrifice is totally unnecessary. A wounded Bryce is trying to escape through a reinforced door before the bad guy catches up to her when Lehabah proclaims that she’ll stay behind to buy Bryce time. But the door is right there. Bryce doesn’t need more time; they can both easily escape. Worse, Bryce loses way more time arguing with Lehabah than could possibly be gained by the sacrifice.*
The argument goes on for several paragraphs, which is an eternity in fight scene terms. Once Bryce finally gives up, Lehabah has to go through a long speech about all her reasons for doing this, which makes it even more apparent that Bryce had plenty of time to escape on her own. Finally, Lehabah jumps into action, but she doesn’t even attack the villain. Instead, she melts open a big tank of water, which kills her and delays the villain for a few seconds at most. This is also weird because, as a fire spirit, I assumed Lehabah could shoot fire to melt the tank open from a safe distance. Though the book never specifically says she can do that, it just seemed logical given her other powers.
With some work, it would have been possible to revise this scene so that Lehabah’s sacrifice is actually necessary. Keeping the long argument and monologue would be a tall order, but if our goal were to create a scenario where Lehabah had to die to stop the bad guy, it’s doable. Even so, that wouldn’t solve the scene’s dramatic shortcomings.
You see, there’s no storytelling reason for Lehabah to die here. She doesn’t have any bad karma to pay off or any other character arc to finish, for that matter. Killing her doesn’t make the villain more threatening, as he’s already killed a number of far stronger characters. For the same reason, Lehabah’s death doesn’t increase tension. In fact, as the least prominent member of the main group, her death has almost no impact at all. There’s certainly no character development for Bryce here; the narrative quickly moves on to other problems. The only thing Lehabah’s death accomplishes is to draw out a boss fight that was already too long,* and to annoy anyone who actually liked her.
2. Madison: Supernatural
There are more than three hundred episodes of Supernatural, and lots of them feature pointless character deaths, but I’m going to focus on the season two episode Heart, brought to you by 2007’s finest LiveJournal edgelords. Heart holds a special place in my heart for waking me up to the fact that this show just doesn’t like women very much.*
The episode starts simply enough: Sam and Dean are hunting a werewolf named Madison on account of how she keeps killing people during the nights around a full moon. But then there’s a twist: Madison has no control over her transformations, and at first she doesn’t even know anything is amiss. In all this confusion, Sam and Madison manage to fall in love, or at least in lust. They proceed to get busy.
To the Winchester boys’ credit, they don’t love the idea of killing Madison for something beyond her control. They try to cure her, and it seems to work for one night, but then she’s suddenly a werewolf again. Since the episode is almost over, Dean and Madison both decide that death is the only option. Also, Sam has to do it. There are a lot of tears, and the episode ends on an offscreen gunshot because that’s artistic, I guess.
Right away, we have practical problems. First, the cure actually worked for one night, but then stopped working, and the brothers don’t seem to think that’s worth investigating. Dean has a line about how maybe it only worked because Madison didn’t go to sleep that night, but that’s hardly satisfying. Second, they act like locking Madison up on transformation nights is impossible, but that’s clearly not true. In just this episode, we see Sam keep her contained inside a closet.
While Sam and Dean do spend some time looking for a way to cure Madison, they don’t give any thought to the possibility of managing her condition. If that was the point of the episode and it hadn’t worked, then maybe the tragedy could have been effective, since their conclusion would have lined up with what actually happened in the episode. Although now that I say it like that, it sounds like a parallel for disability, and that probably wouldn’t be good either.
Instead, we have Sam execute his lover, and for what? The angst is gone by the next episode, and frankly we’ve already spent over a season watching Sam grieve for a lost girlfriend. We didn’t need more.
3. Smita: Middlegame
Regular Mythcreants readers can probably tell that I don’t care much for Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated novel about two alchemically engineered twins. We did a whole podcast about it, but today I’m only looking at one aspect of the story: the death of Smita Mehta. Smita is a fairly minor side character, and yet her murder manages to be a serious low point in a story that was already struggling.
The premise is simple: through her research, Smita discovers a small part of the villain’s plan.* She doesn’t know what she’s found yet, but the bad guy can’t have this info getting out, so he sends an assassin named Erin to silence Smita. Erin is already posing as Smita’s friend, and she also has plans to betray the villain. But it’s too early to act on those plans, so she has no choice but to carry out the assignment.
So far, this isn’t actually a bad setup. Part of Erin’s character arc is regret for all the horrible things she’s been forced to do in the villain’s service, and seeing one of those acts could help readers invest in that arc. What makes it feel pointless is how the scene is milked for every drop of angst, even when it doesn’t make sense.
Before the murder, Erin needs to find out if Smita has shared the research with anyone else. Since Erin is a brilliant actor* and Smita thinks they’re friends, you might expect a subtle approach. Erin could show interest in Smita’s work, then work up to the big question. Once it’s clear Smita has the only copy, Erin can quietly dispatch her friend. That is not what happens.
Instead, Erin opens the encounter by telling Smita horrifying stories about how Erin is totally going to murder her, thus ensuring that Smita spends her last few moments in abject terror. Erin then moves on to threats, saying she’ll torture Smita if information about who else has the research isn’t forthcoming. Smita says she has the only copy, but just like real torture, Erin has no way to test whether that’s true. In fact, Smita now has every reason to lie, since she knows Erin will kill anyone else who’s seen the research. Maybe Erin is supposed to have magical lie-detecting powers, but those would have worked even better with a kinder approach.
The scene is so long and drawn out; it’s difficult to believe Erin’s protestations that she doesn’t want to do this. Surely, if she didn’t, she would have taken one of the many other options available to her. It gives the impression that Erin is playing a sick game with Smita, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to take from it. Worse, all this angst doesn’t make Smita’s death any more tragic than it already was. All it does is make the reader hate Erin and create a lot of pointless unpleasantness. Also, it was not a great idea to kill off a woman of color in a cast that’s otherwise extremely white. Even if the scene had been handled better, that would have been a mistake.
4. Airiam: Star Trek Discovery
Take the ship to grimdark alert, because it’s time to talk about the first show in CBS’s plan to flood their streaming service with endless Star Trek. Discovery has a number of questionable deaths,* and even more sections of over-the-top angst, like the time they tortured Burnham to death to summon a time traveler. But today, we focus on just one instance: the death of Lieutenant Commander Airiam.
For most of seasons one and two, the cyborg bridge officer is kept entirely in the background. Then, in the episode Project Daedalus, we suddenly have a bunch of backstory and relationship scenes for her. Anyone who’s watched more than a few episodes of TV knows what that means: Airiam is doomed.
Indeed, a few scenes later, Airiam gets hacked by the villain and attacks the other characters. She’s trying to upload a bunch of data that the villain needs to complete their evil plan. The good guys manage to trap Airiam in an airlock, and after a lot of anguished yelling, they eject her into space. Sad, but it had to be done, right? It was a classic case of sacrificing one for the good of the many.
Not so much. For one thing, Burnham is standing outside the airlock with a phaser rifle. Airiam seems resistant to the stun setting, but even a full power shot to the chest would have given her a better chance of survival than getting spaced. Star Trek medicine is pretty advanced, and they could have beamed her directly to sickbay… Oh right, the transporter. They could have just beamed Airiam into a holding cell at any time. They didn’t even bother to throw in a line about how the transporter is broken this week.
Look, forgetting about the transporter is one of the Star Trekkiest things you can do. But most other episodes where this happens don’t also make me listen to Burnham’s anguished screams as she begs the captain not to kill Airiam, while Airiam begs to die. Yeah, the actors did a bit too good a job that time. If a show is going to demand I experience that level of emotional distress, the least it can do is get its transporter ducks in a row.
Beyond the practical issues, Airiam’s death doesn’t feel meaningful. In fact, the sudden focus on her backstory makes the whole thing contrived. If the only time you develop a side character is right before her death, then the audience has no time to get attached. Instead, it feels awkward because the show is taking time away from the more important characters. Plus, if the audience can predict that a side character will die because of a random surge in screen time, then the death doesn’t even raise tension. It’s obvious that won’t happen to anyone we actually care about.
5. Susa: The Priory of the Orange Tree
Back in the land of prose, we have a death that’s somewhat unusual. It’s not pointless because of anything in the death itself, but rather because the book doesn’t follow up on what could have been a serviceable arc. It all starts with Tané, dragon rider in training, a character whose schtick is not ever learning from the consequences of her actions.
Tané’s country has a policy that nearly all foreigners are banned on pain of death, which becomes relevant for Tané when she meets one of those foreigners while out for a swim. This is a problem not because Tané has any qualms about turning in a man to be executed, but because she’s not supposed to be out swimming. She’s supposed to be in religious seclusion, and if she gets caught, it might cost her the chance to be a dragon rider. She also doesn’t want to let the foreigner wander free because of a mistaken belief that he carries plague.
Naturally, Tané hits upon an elaborate scheme: she recruits her friend Susa to deliver the foreigner to a stranger’s house, convince the stranger to take the foreigner in, then make an anonymous tip to the police. This will probably result in the deaths of both the foreigner and the stranger for helping him, but at least Tané’s dragon riding career will continue uninterrupted, and that’s what’s really important.
So Tané clearly has some likability problems, but that’s not actually my point. Fast forward to later, when the police have figured out Susa’s part in this plan. They bring her in, torture her for a bit, then force Tané to watch as Susa is executed. The cops know that Tané was in on the plan, too, but by then she’s an important dragon rider, so they can’t touch her directly.
Ideally, this scene would be a catalyst for Tané to realize how bad the foreigner ban is. Failing that, it could lead to Tané’s realizing she needs to be less selfish, since putting her needs above others has now led to her friend’s death. Instead we get neither. Tané barely considers the laws which mandated all these deaths, even though her dragon goes on at length about how evil they are. Tané does feel bad about Susa’s death for a while, but then she meets an old monk who convinces her to stop being so hard on herself for a little thing like getting her friend killed.*
In Tané’s next plotline, she decides to keep a precious magical artifact to herself so that she can hopefully use it to complete a glorious quest. This is despite the fact that the proper authorities would be able to make much better use of the artifact. She goes on the quest to redeem herself, but it’s for an entirely different problem that wasn’t even her fault.* This sequence reads eerily similar to the scene when she roped Susa into a dangerous plan to benefit her career. This time Tané’s scheme works out, and she gets everything she wanted. Since Tané never learns from her mistakes, I’m left wondering why the author had me read a bloody description of Susa being decapitated.
6. Data: Star Trek Picard
This last entry takes the cake for pointless deaths because of how bizarre it is. Like Discovery, Picard has several ill-advised character deaths and plenty of excessive grimdark, but none of it can compare to what happens in the finale’s last few minutes.
First, we find out that Data has been alive all this time. Surprise! It’s just as random as it sounds. Picard’s plot focuses a lot on androids, but not on Data specifically. He died back in the film Nemesis, and this show doesn’t do anything to make you think otherwise. There’s no foreshadowing that he might be alive, nor does the reveal close up any plot arcs. We just find out that some side characters have been keeping Data’s personality alive in a simulation for years, even though they can make android bodies. Did they offer Data one? Who knows!
Then, just as you’re trying to figure all this out, Data dies! He gives Picard a few lines about how being able to live forever would make him not a person, somehow, and then they turn off his simulation. Hold on, Data, maybe try one of these shiny new bodies we have? I get it if you don’t want to live forever, but all your friends are still alive, so maybe you’d enjoy life more if you were with them instead of trapped in an empty computer program? No? Sigh.
Even for a show that prided itself on shocking audiences with gruesome deaths, this was a bit much. Data is a fan favorite, rivaling even Jean-Luc Picard in the hearts of Trekkies. For the show to tempt us with his resurrection and then snatch it away was particularly cruel.
And to what purpose? From the dialogue, it sounds like the writers are trying to make a point about mortality defining life, or maybe about assisted suicide, but there’s no time for that. Immortality isn’t a major theme of the show. There’s nothing to lay the groundwork for Data’s choice, not even an ill-fated scientist trying to create the elixir of life. Even if you agree with the idea that immortality cheapens life, Picard’s writers simply weren’t ready for such a fraught topic at the last minute.
The result isn’t anything meaningful. It’s a depressing speed bump that comes just when we’re supposed to be enjoying the first season’s resolution. It’s a classic case of writers trying to do too much and ending up with nothing as a result. In fact, that’s a common thread in all of these stories. Some authors seem to think that killing a character automatically makes the story deeper and more meaningful, but that isn’t true. If you don’t set up a story that actually benefits from a character’s death, all you’ll do is pointlessly alienate anyone who liked that character.
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