Dealing with death in books is difficult. Some characters are “expendable” and so as both readers and writers, we move quickly away from them. Other, more important characters, need a moment of dwelling, and sometimes as readers, we need a moment to mourn. It’s not as simple as putting the book down and walking away for a moment – as readers, we want that closure as we read. This death cannot be in vain.
Watching the Hunger Games recently has brought to mind the deaths of characters who demise was essential to the story, but still heartbreaking for the reader. I give you my favorite three literary deaths, and why they are so powerful to me.
1. Rue, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Being in the theatre during this scene was an interesting experience, because you could hear the universal sniffling as the little girl from District 11 lay dying in Katniss’ arms. In a story filled with so much brutality and death, it takes true craft to make something turn into a pivotal moment in the story – to make the reader feel for Rue.
Rue was Katniss’ friend. She was abandonned by Peeta, hunted by Cato and co., but Rue never sought to kill her. Like Katniss, she just wanted to stay alive. Hide, and stay alive. I think that is part of why the readers cannot help but to love her – we know, the moment Katniss first sees her, that this little girl has a pure heart and a good soul. I think we also know in that moment that she is going to die, but we cannot accept that truth until it happens. We want to vote for the good people, because we are expecting a happy ending. We want truth and justice to triumph, and while we know it’s not going to be smooth sailing, we hope and pray that the the good ones will live through to the end. Because they are the ones that deserve it most.
Additionally, we see Rue through Katniss’ eyes. In everything from her size to her smile, Rue reminds Katniss of Prim, the sister she volunteered for. In ways, Rue fills that void in Katniss’ heart for the short time they are together, and losing family has its own special ring of sadness.
2. Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
We had been with Dumbledore through everything. He was our wise mentor, he was our teacher, he was our friend. We knew, the whole time, there was more going on behind those half-moon spectacles than he was letting on, but we listened and waited patiently for him to reveal his plan. Even now, a year after the release of the final film, you can find the internet plastered with quotes from Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was more than a mentor to Harry – he was our mentor.
Dumbledore’s death wasn’t just sad in that it happened – it was the way it happened. He was the first casualty of a war, and he was betrayed by his friend. His death was intended to corrupt a sixteen-year-old boy, to bring his family honor after they had lost so much. There is so much complexity in the way that Dumbledore died, and so much to the reasons he had to die that I don’t think any real fan of the books can argue that it needed to happen, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make us cry.
3. Boromir, in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
The character on the slimy edge of friend. From the moment in the mountains, we know of Boromir’s unhealthy fascination with the Ring of Power. We hate him, because we know he is going to betray Frodo and take the ring for himself. It is simply a matter of when. Not to mention he is the son of the lord of the most powerful city in Middle Earth. There are a lot of things about Boromir that make the reader cringe. And then he takes the ring, and we throw the book across the room, because we knew it was going to happen.
Then shortly thereafter, he dies.
Normally for a character of Boromir’s questionable loyalty, the reader would be thrilled to see him out of the picture. But it is the way in which Boromir dies that breaks the reader’s heart. This character has spent most of the book preparing to betray our trust, but in a moment, he is changed, protecting Frodo so he might get away. We see his good heart and as he dies, we wonder… what else might this man have been capable of? And did we judge him too harshly? After all, he’s only human.
I believe that there are three ways to write a successful death scene, if done carefully. The reader must be effected and touched by one of the following: the character who is dying, the reasons for the death, or the way the character dies. Any one of these can ensnare the audience and make them care about the death. And I cannot help but to wonder… do the authors cry, too, when they are writing these beautifully sad scenes?
These are the deaths in my genre that stick out the most in my mind, that I think were written the most successfully. “My genre” is sci-fi/fantasy, leaning towards YA. Obviously there are many other powerfully written death scenes out there. Feel free to share some of the ones that broke your heart!