Death as character motivation: good tool, stereotypical hack, or something in between?

The title of the piece really says it all, but to spell it out plainly: there are works of media where the death of a major character serves as a motivational force for the protagonists.  The pain of the loss shocks them into action, the dead person stood up for their beliefs and thus became a martyr, the murder of a loved one spurs a rampage of revenge, and so on.  I have heard it argued that often this is a cheap bit of melodrama.  Others have said that it is an effective tool not only for justifying motivations but to tug on the emotional strings of your readers as well.   My thoughts lie somewhere in the middle, but let’s take a look at what problems readers can have with this story device.

The first argument has some validity to it, certainly.  There are certainly pieces where the death of a throw-away character is used to justify and motivate the actions of other characters.  In those cases, the story tool certainly feels cheap.  There is no emotional investment in the throw-away character killed off, so why should the reader feel any investment in the motivation imparted on the protagonist?  This situation gets even worse when you encounter an infamous ‘woman in the refrigerator’ incident, not uncommon in the comic book medium, where a female character is killed off or seriously harmed simply to motivate a male character.  It’s equally sexist the other way around, but it’s far more often done to women over men.

What makes it wrong in those cases, though, isn’t necessarily the story device itself, though if you encounter long strings of these cheap motivational deaths, it’s easy to make that connection.  The vital difference between a ‘good’ death and a ‘bad’ one really comes down to the writer.  Did she/he lay out the important emotional connections so that the death had meaning?  If the death was part of the protagonist’s backstory before the narrative, is it referenced with enough detail to capture the necessary emotions to make it carry the right weight for the reader?  Did the death itself make sense or did it feel like a nonsensical invention simply to create motivation?  Has this story tool already been used in the piece?  All important considerations to keep in mind about using this story device.

In the cases where it is done well, such a character death is an effective tool, if one to be used sparingly.  If you have properly invested the reader in the characters and the death fits into the narrative without pushing or reworking the tale, go for it.  Few things can make a story feel closer to reality (even if everything else is fantasy) than a meaningful, permanent death.  Exploring the chain reactions of grief, anger, and emotions caused by it can provide an extra level of depth to your other characters and sometimes even to the deceased.  Think about it, just think about it fully.  Good luck writing!

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