Why Do We Care When Characters Die?

Death

Why’d you have to take Ned Stark, man?

Did you cry when Bambi’s mom got shot?

It’s okay. You can admit it. Though we know they’re not real, the death of fictional characters evokes real emotion in us. I find that amazing. After all, when fictional character die, we’re essentially mourning the loss of someone who does not, has not, and never will, exist.

The question is: why? Why do we care when a nonexistent character bites the dust?

I don’t claim to know the answer. But I do have some theories.

Here’s the first: we humans can’t help but empathize. When characters feel realistic, when we become invested in them, they become mirrors. We see our own traits reflected back at us, both the good and the bad. We draw parallels between our lives and theirs. So, when one of them dies, we see parts of us dying, too. And nobody likes that.

Here’s another: the more time we spend with characters, the more we become attached to them. Especially in book series, TV series, and film franchises, we watch these characters grow, watch them succeed and fail, watch them change with us. I think this is especially true for something like the Harry Potter series, in which the readers/viewers grow up right alongside the characters. When you’re going through the same experiences with another person at the same time, you’re likely to form a connection with them (even if they’re made up).

My third and most out-there theory: death in fiction reminds us of our own mortality. A popular theory of filmmaking states that we love movies because they solve problems in a matter of hours that are otherwise unsolvable in real life. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Frodo extinguishes every last shred of evil in the world just by tossing some jewelry into an active volcano. Of course, we know that destroying (or even defining) evil is not that simple. But it’s still satisfying to see it done in fiction.

When characters die, however, it’s a subconscious reminder of the real world. We react so strongly to death in fiction because it reminds us that problems like death can’t be solved, not even in fictional realities.

It’s weird, but as much as they can sometimes upset us, character deaths often shape good fiction. Without people dying left and right, would A Song of Ice and Fire be the compelling series that it is? Definitely not. No matter what the reason, killing beloved characters is an essential part of fiction.

But still. Bambi’s mom was over the line, Disney.

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2 thoughts on “Why Do We Care When Characters Die?

  1. Pingback: Is All Art Really Quite Useless? | Kyle A. Massa

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