We often come across very likable characters who do not quite make it through the story alive. Sometimes, they even grow into Heroes in a 'what if' alternate timeline spin-off. So why do their creators choose to have them dead, if the characters themselves are held dear by a majority of the audience?
Note: SPOILER ALERT (Game of Thrones, The Good Dinosaur, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Kung Fu Panda)
A scene from Game Of Thrones: Season 01.
And just when I was convinced that this man would solve some problems in the realm, Lord Eddard Stark was sentenced to death. That sure came from outta nowhere.
Sometimes the 'what if' theories leave a lasting impression on the audience; so much that its worth taking the risk of losing a lovable character. It is a risk, nevertheless. The fans just love to build their own versions of the story with their favourite characters alive and kicking in them. More often than not, the dead character gains greater popularity for a legacy that he never had. In other words, the audience are, in good possibility, capable of doing a better job at closing the arcs for themselves, than the Writers. No wonder leaving movies open to interpretation towards the end leaves the audience talking and debating over it.
People like to do that when it comes to sports as well. There are many people out there who believe that a professional athlete should retire at the peak of his achievements if he knows for a fact that his career cannot not go downhill from that point. And its arguably the right thing to do if legacy and reputation matter to the athlete the most. Humans are tuned to remembering most individuals predominantly for the most recent things they were witnessed doing (Unless of course that individual won a Nobel Prize or something). And that applies without a doubt to any character who will take the stage in a fictional story. You would prefer that she exit the world while being the centre of all attention rather than going away silently into the night unnoticed some time later (when the plot does not need her at all).
Sometimes, the death of a character is planned at the very beginning to set the main plot of the story into motion.
'Had he not been killed, the war would have ended in a day'
'Had she not died, the business would have never taken a dip'
'Had the kid still been around, the King would never have resorted to his evil ways'
In each of the above cases you realise that the primary conflict of the story arises due to the death of a character. Had the character still been alive, none of this (all those disheartening events that put the world in turmoil) would have ever happened. That means no conflict to be resolved; and that means no story at all.
A scene from Kung Fu Panda.
Master Oogway, the best fighter in the land who could have stopped the antagonist Tai Lung with ease, leaves the living realm, setting up the stage for the Dragon Warrior, Po the Panda, to save the valley. And did I forget to mention that Po was a pathetic fatso then? So much for some legendary Dragon Warrior...huh? But wait...
The same death of an important character can be pushed to a much later point in the story, just about before the climax. All through the story you have this one reliable character (sometimes the Mentor to the Protagonist) who will definitely see the protagonist through to the end. And just when the final conflict is about to be confronted, the Mentor dies.
We know that the Protagonist isn't ready for the climax just yet.
So what next?
A scene from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
The best among the 'Good Guys', Professor Albus Dumbledore gets murdered most unexpectedly right before author J. K. Rowling set the stage for the final installment in the Harry Potter Series. How will Harry face Lord Voldermort alone?
The Mentor's absence tilts the balance of the fight in favor of the antagonist. Pushed completely out of her comfort zone, the protagonist now has no other way, but to fight alone. Think of this as losing your best player on your basketball team just before the finals. How great would it be if your team, now greatly weakened, still pulls off a victory. Degree of difficulty to accomplish a feat is a very important factor to be considered while measuring greatness. In other words, if you want the story's end to be one heck of a nail-biting climax, do consider raising the degree of difficulty for the Protagonist.
Things to be remembered though:
1. The degree of difficulty should not be impossible. You might otherwise need some sort of Godly Intervention to save the day. Although this strategy worked well with stories of the past, the audience of present day are well beyond that.
2. Despite all the difficulty, the resolution should, in one way or another, come as a result to the protagonist's conscious/subconscious actions.
On other occasions, the death of an important character is merely meant to set the stage for a more important character to take over. The classic story-line, of a parent passing away, leaving the child vulnerable and helpless and eventually forcing him to overcome all challenges the hard way, is not unheard of. Not only does it churn out sympathy for the orphaned protagonist, it also allows the creators to rise the odds against the Hero who was, until this point, either mocked and downtrodden or portrayed as a weak and insignificant individual. In this format of the story, the audience gets to see the transformation of the character from a not so influential commoner to the savior of the fictional world. The resolution doesn't necessarily have to be a physical feat, it could also be overcoming one's internal conflicts to become a better individual. The protagonist's character arch would then be complete, when she finally overcomes her shortcomings against the tests of the world (and, in this case, does justice to all that her parent had prepared her for).
A scene from the movie: The Good Dinosaur,
Poppa, the father of the protagonist young dinosaur Arlo, is seen talking to his son. Moments later in the story, Poppa loses his life in an attempt to save his Arlo.
All in all, the death of a lovable character in a story can go a long way in keeping the audience glued to their seats. If perfectly planted, it strikes the right cord for attaining audience immersion. Death is one of the highest forms of losses that a writer can provide you with; and what comes after the biggest loss? Redemption of the greatest comeback, resolution and/or fulfillment.
In order to pull it off, however, the stakes need to be pretty high.
You cannot just introduce a character for the heck of it and get him killed right away. The audience would never feel for the loss unless they are well informed about the dreading repercussions that will befall this story upon the character's death. The more a character's absence is felt (subtly of course) after her death, the greater the impact. Likewise, the more the inference taken from the references made to the late character, the greater the justification of the strength of the narrative.