In fiction, everything happens for a reason. So when characters bite the dust, the audience wants to understand why. (Unless we’re talking about someone like Joffrey Lannister. In which case, reasons need not apply.)
A film called Trick ‘r Treat got me thinking about this topic. I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a horror-comedy Halloween anthology film featuring a murderous school principal, zombie children, and a demonic trick or treater. I loved pretty much every minute of this film—except for the very first scene.
It begins with two characters: Emma and Henry. They’ve just returned from a night of trick or treating, and Emma decides to dismantle their Halloween decorations, since she knows Henry won’t do it. Henry’s kind of like, “Yeah. True.” He also points out that removing decorations before the night’s over goes against tradition. Emma does it anyway.
As she’s putting away the decorations, an unseen assailant murders her. Henry comes out later and finds Emma’s dismembered corpse in the yard. And…scene!
Okay, this is a horror movie. The mortality rate for characters in horror films is far above the national average. And, as I mentioned, I think this is an excellent film. Yet I have an issue with this scene because the character’s death feels undeserved and pointless.
First of all, when we meet Emma and Henry, Henry feels like the character more deserving of death (no offense, Henry). He’s dopey and clueless. Plus, he won’t help with the stupid decorations. Emma, on the other hand, seems like a perfectly likable character. She doesn’t do anything in the scene to make her death feel earned aside from breaking the rules of Halloween. Yet she isn’t ware of the rules (nor is the audience) until it’s too late.
Here’s the thing about character deaths: Oftentimes they should feel either earned or significant to the plot. Otherwise, they feel cheap. If the villain dies at the end, no one minds. If the main character’s best friend dies and that death has no further bearing on the plot, something’s off.
I’ve seen cheap character deaths in other films as well, and they’re just as jarring. For instance, in Jurassic World, there’s an assistant character named Zara who’s needlessly and brutally eaten by dinosaurs. It isn’t just the character’s death that’s jarring—it’s the way she dies, being dropped into the waiting jaws of a sea monster. Seems unnecessarily nasty.
As mentioned earlier, I’ll admit that genre bends this rule somewhat. We expect character to die in horror films, often in gruesome ways. This makes sense, considering the genre is all about scaring its audience.
Still, the best works of fiction, horror or not, should strive to make character deaths feel earned. Deaths are plot points, after all, so like any plot point, the preceding actions must progress toward them. If an author/filmmaker doesn’t work toward a character’s demise (whether it’s a nasty one or just a regular one), it can often feel hollow. Plus, if a perfectly innocent character gets killed in a really awful way, audiences are likely to be repelled.
Character deaths work best when they’re earned or they serve a purpose to the plot. Striking that perfect balance is a challenge, one that even experienced filmmakers and authors don’t always get right.
Okay, I’m gonna go clean up my Halloween decorations. Wish me luck.