Stranger Things Spoilers (specifically character deaths)
It’s generally known that character deaths in any form of media can elicit passionate emotional responses from fans. Whether it's sadness (the death of a beloved side character), joy (the defeat of the villain), plain confusion, fear, or anger, simply offing one of your characters is a great way to get your readers riled up - especially when said character’s death is tragic. That’s how you can really break your reader’s heart. Whether it be tragic circumstances, tragic endings, or tragic deaths - empathetic readers will always mourn what could’ve been a happier ending. But what happens when all your strategic planning and plotting, results in your readers feeling disappointed? What happens after you burn down the village and nothing happens? What happens when your tragedy is pointless?
Unearned tragedy is no stranger to the world of books and film. All the time, we’ll see kingdoms and innocent people suffer from dictators, or evil monsters and the like. Tragedy can be unfair and unjustified - and sometimes characters can die just because of someone’s spite or greed. However, there should always be a reason for these deaths. For example, when Max ‘dies’ in Stranger Things, it’s not because the writers wanted to scare the audience; it’s because Eleven failed to save her. It shows the true threat of Vecna and the danger the group is currently facing, that Eleven is not strong enough to defeat him and (most importantly) the dire consequences of them losing. Even though she is brought back to life later, her death stills serves as a somber reminder that there is a powerful evil out there that they couldn’t defeat.
On the other hand, pointless tragedy is what we get when a character is killed or disadvantaged simply for the sake of forcing a reaction from the audience. We are supposed to be sad that the character is gone, but what did they really die for? Another popular recent example from Stranger Things is Eddie Munson. In the season 4 finale, Eddie gives up his life to lead the demobats that were attacking him and Dustin away from the trailer they’ve taken refuge in. After succeeding in doing this, he decides to stay to fight the demobats instead of running away from them, since he has ‘always been running away for his entire life’. In this case, the smart move would’ve been to run away. The one time running would’ve been justifiable, Eddie chooses to stay.
By leading the bats away from Dustin, Eddie makes himself into a hero and saves Dustin’s life. Instead of running away when he had the chance, he did something brave in the face of adversity, but he doesn’t recognize this as overcoming his desire to flee. He decides that fighting a horde of demon bats that he knows he cannot defeat instead of taking shelter, is the only way for him to be heroic, which is simply not true. Eddie’s death proves to be pointless because not only does Dustin go back into danger to save him, but the demobats are all killed moments after Eddie has received fatal wounds from them. If he had simply continued leading them away, or hidden somewhere, he wouldn’t have died. His battle with them didn’t change anything about the story, other than taking him out of it.
Stranger Things already has a history of introducing and then immediately killing off new side characters, so Eddie’s death was not very surprising to many. That and the fact that even if he did survive, he was wanted for murder and would’ve gone to jail, makes it pretty clear why the writers went with the easy route of killing him off. However, Eddie’s sacrifice ultimately means nothing in the end. It's pointless, easily avoidable, but also memorable, cementing him into the Stranger Things Hall of Fame, and making him one of the most popular characters of the entire season. Sure fans would want to see more of Eddie, but now that he’s dead there is grief, sadness and longing surrounding his character that makes people hold onto him more than they would if he was still alive.
While pointless tragedy can sometimes work in your favor to make your characters stand out more, it is also really good at making your audience angry. After all, you may have just killed their favorite character for no discernible reason. Imagine you’re reading a book where the protagonist is searching for someone. Finally, after 700+ pages of strife, endless perseverance, and an unending amount of hope, the main character finally finds the person they've spent the entire journey trying to rescue... and they're dead. Although this is a trope more often seen in games, it perfectly illustrates the frustration of a needless kill.
After dedicating hours to reading (or playing) a story and becoming just as invested as the character themself in finding what they’re searching for, it can be beyond disappointing to realize that it was all for naught and was essentially a waste of time. Finding a character who is then immediately killed or taken away again can be annoying, but finding a character who is already dead is frustrating. When done correctly, the exhaustion, desperation and helplessness of your character finding out that they were too late can be incredibly impactful to a reader - but in order for this to happen, there has to be a good reason for your character to die. Dying ‘because the plot needs it’ or solely as motivation/emotional baggage for another character isn’t good enough. Think of what will happen after the death, how it will affect other characters, what can happen moving forward and will it impact other choices and decisions made in the story. Your character’s death shouldn’t be solely for shock value or to flip the audience’s expectations. Even if it’s not a particular compelling one, there should always be a reason for killing a character.
I’m not here to say that your character can’t slip on an orange peel and die halfway through the story, or suddenly get into an accident without having some immense build up. Characters can be struck with tragedy for any reason at any time, and the fun part of being a writer is that you get to decide whether that happens or not. Maybe your character dying suddenly results in another character deciding to live their life to the fullest, which starts the plot of your story. Who knows? You don’t need to always have a clear, simple reason for killing a character, but there should be something backing it. Are you going to kill your protagonist because you want to shock your audience, or because it ties into the narrative of them never being able to accomplish their goals? Is the hero’s love interest going to get shot because you need the hero to be sad for the rest of the story, or because you want to show the brutality of the villains? Not every tragedy has to have a clear consequence that causes it, but it can’t just be empty. Give your audience rich tragedy. Give us a reason to feel sad. Give us tragedy that has a clear goal, a clear point and a clear purpose.
is a Canadian-Jamaican student, slowly making her way through the writing world. She aims to not only write, but be impactful and play her part in making the world a less judgmental and more accepting place for people everywhere.
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