News Ticker

MIND MELD: The Most Memorable Deaths in Science Fiction and Fantasy

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In science fiction and fantasy, death comes to both protagonists, antagonists, heroes and villains. Sometimes, those deaths move us.

We asked this week’s panelists the following question:

Q: What are the best rendered deaths you’ve come across in SFF books and movies? Why did it move you? How did they make you feel?

NOTE: Spoilers are unavoidable for this topic. Proceed with caution.

T. Frohock
T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Find her on her website or on twitter.

I studied acting back in high school and college and have performed both onstage and in short films. The differences between the two mediums are striking, with both being extremely difficult. Personally, I prefer stage over film, because the medium feels more intimate to me. I can forget there are people watching and lose myself in the role. Film, on the other hand, requires a different mindset, because the camera is always there, sometimes right in your face.

In either form (onstage or film), the choreography of fight scenes and high impact death scenes often rivals that of a ballet. My favorite onscreen death goes to Willem Dafoe in Platoon. That whole scene came together and was so powerful, some of us actually cried out in the theater when Dafoe went to his knees. It was—and is and always will be—one of the most amazing death scenes I’ve seen on film.

The best death scene in a SFF movie goes to Luke Pasqualino in Snowpiercer. Pasqualino plays Grey, who is mute, which just doubled the intensity of the scene for me. During that entire movie, Pasqualino conveys more emotion with his body language and facial expressions than all of the actors combined—except for, maybe, Tilda Swinton, because, my God, Tilda.

Tilda Swinton aside, Pasqualino has the most intense death scene in the movie and one that remained with me long after Snowpiercer ended. Merely minutes before, Grey has seen his lover, Gilliam, murdered. Grey is fighting for his life against one of Mason’s henchmen, Franco the Elder, in a beautifully choreographed fight scene. Franco gets the upper-hand, and as he pushes the knife into Grey, you just see this amazing cascade of emotions go over Pasqualino’s face. You know the exact moment when he realizes he’s not going to make it, and I think I died a little with him in that scene. Beautifully, beautifully done.

An excellent example of a death scene done right in a novel is in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe. A major character dies, and between the prose and the affection the reader has developed for the character, the overall impact of that character’s death is beautifully rendered. The death was very organic, and necessary to the story, which in many ways made it even more touching. I can’t tell you who or why without ruining the novel for you, so I won’t, but if you want to see how to do a death scene right, read The Troupe.

Death scenes are extremely difficult, because they require the proper set-up in order for the scene to really wrench the reader. The trick is to draw your reader so deeply into the character’s psyche, the reader loses touch with the real world while immersed in your story. Which brings me to another point: I never use death scenes in my own works simply to jar the reader. In order for me to kill a major character—I’m not talking about redshirt characters, but a protagonist, antagonist, or a major supporting character—that character’s death has to serve a specific point in the storyline. I want the death to be meaningful for the story and the characters most closely affected by it. Kind of like the way it is in real life.

Richard Shealy
Richard Shealy (sffcopyediting.com) has been a reader of SF/F as long as he can remember, and he finally figured out he might make a living from that by combining it with his horrifyingly enormous word-nerdery. In his still relatively new career (he started in this racket only two years ago), he already has had the enormous pleasure and honor to work with a number of authors and editors from across multiple spectra, not to mention becoming completely certain that he has found his dream job (seriously, people pay you to nitpick their babies?). He tweets occasionally via @SFFCopyediting but far more prolifically in the guise of his alter ego, @SheckyX. Caveat: Taking anything seriously from the alter ego is a massive waste of time.

Death as a part of the writer’s toolbox has recently spiked in the public awareness due at least in part to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, especially the televised Game of Thrones. This is no new thing, of course; poor Sean Bean died yet again in The Fellowship of the Ring to show us that Tolkien wasn’t foolin’ around; that Ring takes no notice of mere mortal lives save in how they can serve it and its master. But both of these examples also show the other side of that coin: that death and life are necessary in the service of story and can be used . . . or overused.

Many gripe (and not unjustly) at the flood of death in ASoIaF; surely so many deaths, especially one the unsuspecting first-time reader or viewer almost certainly did not expect, much less want, are (pardon the pun, but I won’t apologize) overkill, right? Well . . . yes and no. There are plenty of arguments that GRRM’s deathfest makes each death worthless in the long run, but they do serve a powerful purpose: to make the surviving characters’ world a nearly bottomless pit of the Suck. Martin needs his characters to suffer and greatly, to feel umoored, bereft, utterly alone. Even the underdog Sam, redefining himself as a member of the Watch, must be cut loose to fend for himself. Arya, already feeling alone from the start of the series, is required to peel off her very self in order to start to become what she is to be. Cersei, despite feeling herself under her father’s thumb (which she was, of course), finds herself unprotected after his death, and she is forced to the bare core of herself (and, knowing Martin, probably much further) as a result. The list goes on; the flood of deaths, rendered nearly pointless and insignificant on an individual basis, becomes a world-reshaping force, one necessary to Martin’s vision of what his characters and world need to become. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier on the shellshocked reader; even several books into the series, many readers still feel overwhelmed by the gloom-and-doom approach. In Martin’s case, it turns into an issue of individual taste . . . but there’s no arguing that his deathapalooza accomplishes his intended story goal. For me, it can get to be a bit much; the unrelenting Suckiverse wears me down emotionally. That being said, I still read the books, perhaps because so much death has caused me subconsciously to cling to the survivors that much more.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series comes at the question from what superficially appears to be the opposite side, that of comparatively few character deaths. Some scoff at what they feel is comic-book immortality when the main character is resurrected, and they often say that it cheapens death. But remember the Martin Suckworld: the survivors must suffer. They must undergo ordeals to work necessary changes in themselves. And this holds especially true for Dresden and company. None of them are unscathed; they are all changed in the crucible wrought by the deaths around them, the deaths of people important to them. Hell, Harry was mourning Susan years before her ultimate death (at his hand, yet; how’s that for Making Your Life Suck More?). Michael’s severe injury continues to have expanding repercussions for Harry, the Knights and the world in general; it didn’t take a death to make his story—and the overarching story line—deeper, more painful and further complicated. Deaths are few and far between in the Dresdenverse because the characters’ lives can be turned into a transformative hell without boatloads of deaths. Still, death does play a powerful role; the few that do occur are used to great effectiveness. Shiro’s death in the same book where he’s introduced (which remains my “favorite”—with strong caveats regarding the positivity of that term—literary death; his self-sacrifice never fails to hit hard) resonates throughout the series. Susan’s death changed the world. Harry’s mother’s death at his birth continues to have powerful ramifications. And the reader feels the continuing ripples from those and other deaths. There’s a sense of portent, of Great and Terrible Things to Come. Between sympathizing for the suffering of the living characters and feeling the foreboding set into motion by the deaths of those few characters, the reader’s emotions become suffused with “Serious sh** is about to hit the fan.” It’s exciting, and that’s due in great amount to the judicious employment of death and the lavish but controlled use of suffering for the living.

mirrorThere’s another relevant book I’d like to address (with the ulterior motive of nudging people to go find it somewhere, as it’s out of print and unjustifiably poorly known): A Mirror for Princes by Tom de Haan. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but suffice it to say that the first-person narrator is a decidedly non-classic Last Man Standing: in all honesty, he’s nothing special. He’s not a hero. He’s not a genius. He’s not a “bring it on, I can take it” tough guy. He’s thrust into unwanted power and responsibility through a series of deaths: old age, riding accident, disease, you name it. Frankly, he’s a milquetoast . . . yet the author nevertheless conjures sympathy from the reader. The one person who should, in any world that can lay the slightest claim to justice, die horribly? Cheaters prosper. And the one person he finally finds to live for? Well, you can already tell that that’s not going to end up pleasantly. And the narrator? Inevitably left adrift, without even the closure of death. To adjust the popular snark, “Life sucks and then you don’t die.” It’s a horribly depressing book, but it’s so compelling that I have to reread it every now and then. Some people like the schadenfreude of watching people self-destructing on daytime TV talk shows, but this is not that; Mirror actually engenders sympathy in the reader, a mourning for each step taken by the main character down toward the abyss. Every single death seen by the protagonist hits the reader hard.

Death is, in short, just another tool for the author. Different authors use that tool in different ways, pushing different buttons for different audiences. Some are wholesale, some are retail, some are custom-made individual commissions, and in this light, “the best death” is incredibly difficult to define.

John Hornor Jacobs
John Hornor Jacobs is an American author best known for his breakout novel Southern Gods, which began as a rough draft created through the NaNoWriMo process and ended up shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award. His next novel, Foreign Devils, is a sequel to The Incorruptibles.

Like religion, literature likes to insert itself into all the big events in a human’s life. Birth, coming of age. Death. For me, literature is far more welcome.

When asked to contribute to this SF Signal, the first death in fantasy literature that popped into my head was Gandalf’s, quickly followed by Gollum’s sorry and fortunate end. However, The Lord of the Rings has been so present in my life since I was a kid – yearly re-readings, yearly calendars, the Rankin-Bass adaptations, and later Ralph Bakshi’s aborted duology, the BBC audio-drama, and more recently Jackson’s adaptations – it’s hard to remember the impact those deaths had on me.

The death that blew my mind – SPOILER ALERT – was that of Diarmuid in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Darkest Road, the last book in The Fionavar Tapestry. Diarmuid, throughout the series, while able and formidable, is shallow, rakish character, often providing some comedic relief. His death, his sacrifice, coming at the final battle was a complete surprise. His end was dramatic, and sad, and perfect – it worked on so many levels I found myself amazed at the audacity of both the character and the author to have the courage not to give such a wonderful character a happy end. (This was in the 80s, before Tad Williams and GRRM shifted the magnetic poles of what can be done in fantasy.)

Just as a shout-out, I don’t hear Guy Kay mentioned enough when great fantasy is being discussed. Tigana is a masterpiece.

As a novelist, I want deaths to have meaning in fiction (in this way they differ from reality), and I often – too often, possibly – have relied upon character sacrifice for dramatic effect – though I’ve gone to that well for the last time. Er, for a while at least. Okay, I lied. It’s in my current novel. Shut up.

In Southern Gods, I knew the whole book would lead to a Mithraic tauroctony – a ritual sacrifice of a bull, in this case, my main character, Bull Ingram (again, SPOILERS). In This Dark Earth, a character named Knock-Out sacrifices himself to preserve the small haven of civilization that the characters had carved out of the post-apocalyptic ruin of America. To some degree, character sacrifice is built into the third act of the screenplay three-act structure. It’s a perennial winner. Or loser.

Having written some crime noir, death is a wonderful inciting event. How many books start with discovering a body? Every murder mystery. Revenge dramas? Yes please.

The only reason to have meaningless death in fiction is meaninglessness itself. And laziness. Maybe drugs, or cats knocking your coffee onto your keyboard.

Ramona Wheeler
Ramona Wheeler is primarily a student of ancient Egypt. Her novel, Three Princes (Tor Books), is an alternate history in which Egypt survived to become the foundation of the modern world. Ramona is currently working on a series of novels set in that alternate reality. She has been road-crew, graphic designer, web-site designer, sound/lights technician, seamstress and cook for my husband’s rock and roll band, touring clubs all over New England. She is retired from that day job and finally a full time writer. She no longer has cats.

“King Kong” -1933
“…when the great ape climbed the tower of the tallest — he only wanted love.” *
We carried our technology of cameras and guns into an unknown wilderness, arousing the monster at the heart of that darkness and provoking the innocence of animal-on-animal violence. We mourned the monster when he fell to his death from the pinnacle of the civilized world, because the confusion and fear of confronting technology had fueled the violence of his rampage. Animal innocence, even in gigantic form, could not survive in our modern reality.

“The Day The Earth Stood Still” – 1951
“Klaatu barada nikto.” **
Humanity has become the monster, a gigantic beast feeling the confusion of confronting a civilization beyond understanding. Our rampage of animal fear caused Klaatu’s death, but the honor of a civilized man saved us from technological violence. Klaatu blamed no one for his death, and so his technology brought him back to life, while we are left to mourn our innocence.

“Forbidden Planet” – 1956
“You really don’t understand, do you?” ***
The deer and the tiger were both drawn to the innocence of the girl, like the lion and the lamb of Isiah. Then the starship captain “kissed her,” the tiger smelled the man on her, reacted with animal innocence and was killed with the casual gesture of swatting a fly. Our technology has made us the most dangerous of all animals.
The starship captain and the wizard of the Krell each represented the pinnacle of their technologies, yet the innocence of the girl provoked the clash of these two great men, arousing their bestial violence and, between them, they destroyed the entire Krell world.

I first saw these movies as a child, when the shock of death on the screen went deep because I did not understand why anyone had to die. My childish innocence wanted a kinder solution to their confrontations.

“Serenity” – 2005
As an adult, I found the abrupt death of the starpilot of the Serenity so pointlessly shocking that I cannot watch “Firefly” anymore, even though I had been a devoted fan. The crew survived a savage and insane battle of animal rage, only to find that civilization and technology had become so complex that individual death no longer had any value.

In my novel Three Princes, (Tor Books) a climactic scene ends with the death of a lead character, a death that is the logical conclusion of a long descent into personal madness, a death which everyone is trying to prevent — honor against madness. There are also plenty of dire circumstances in my “Ray and Rokey” stories published in Analog.

People die, but civilized technology prevents the permanence of real death.

My own recent experiences with the permanence of real death have changed my perspective again, full-circle to the animal innocence of King Kong. Every one of us begins life as Kong, king of our emotional jungle. We wrestle with dinosaurs in the depths of our inner darkness, but the only death is that of our innocent selves, sloughed away like reptile skins in exchange for a greater understanding of life.


* Illya Kuryakin, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, “The Pop Art Affair.”
** Klaatu’s dying instructions to the robot, Gort, in order to save Earth from destruction.
*** Captain J.J. Adams to Altaira, the daughter of Morbius.

Richard Parks
Richard Parks has been writing and publishing fantasy and science fiction longer than he cares to remember…or probably can remember. His work has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Realms of Fantasy, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and several “Year’s Best” anthologies. His first collection, The Ogre’s Wife, was a World Fantasy Award Finalist in and his work has also been nominated for the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature. He is the creator and author of the Yamada Monogatari series published by Prime Books. The third in the series, The War God’s Son is scheduled for October. He blogs at “Den of Ego and Iniquity Annex #3”, also known as: www.richard-parks.com

When it comes to the subject of death in fiction and particularly death scenes, thinking of what qualifies as a “good” one leaves me a bit at a loss. When I consider death scenes in fiction, even some of the greats, the effect I’m most likely to experience is annoyance, if not outright anger. I’ve been trying to puzzle that out for some time now, and this is a good a place to muse as any.

Why anger? Because quite often a character’s death in stories and novels is not an event but a plot device. In certain types of mysteries, if no one dies there’s no story. Or someone may die to trigger a crisis or to resolve one. Sometimes the reader is asked to care, as it might be a character we’ve grown to like, so there’s an emotional investment involved. Or someone we’ve come to dislike, even revile, and the emotion then might be satisfaction when the villain or the unlikeable sort is terminated. In either case it’s a false emotional investment since, deep down, we understand that what we’re reading isn’t real. Yet we will still react on an emotional level to the demise of someone we don’t really know, who never existed in the first place.

The only real part of the equation is the emotion being played.

The irony being that, the better the author does his job, the more pissed off I’m likely to be. As both a reader and a writer, I know that I’m being emotionally manipulated, and I don’t like it. Granted, any decent story is going to do that regardless, but never is that more blatant than in a death scene. To find a fictional death that doesn’t affect me that way, that makes me understand why it was necessary and why it had any meaning beyond a plot device, I have to reach way back, all the way to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and the death of Thorin Oakenshield. This was a character with a fatal flaw, and if “Hell is the truth seen too late,” then Thorin was in hell, and it was one of his own making. His own greed and stubbornness brought about his end, and he only realized this too late to change his fate. That elevated his passing to something more than a plot device, all the way to tragedy. In symbolic terms, that’s a death with meaning.

Death in fiction should have meaning, for the same reasons that the real thing often does not. If you’re born, sooner or later you die. Perhaps there’s a mystery beyond that, but on the fact itself? No. Any meaning it might have is one we impose, and one reason—not the only reason, but an important one—for writing a story is to distill meaning from a world where that commodity is often in short supply. Naturally, as a writer I’ve killed a lot of people—figuratively, at least—and any time I feel it necessary within a piece of writing I make it a point to ask myself “why?” There may not be a reason in real life, other than it is inevitable. In a story? Not so much, so I know I better have a damn good answer.

Alasdair Stuart
Alasdair Stuart is the owner of Escape Artists Inc, who produce the Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Podcastle  podcasts as well as the upcoming magazine Mothership Zeta. He’s an active freelance journalist and writer as well as an RPG designer whose most recent work includes both the 6th and 10th Doctor sourcebooks for the Doctor Who RPG. He tweets at @alasdairstuart and blogs at www.alasdairstuart.com

Huillam d’Averc’s death in The Runestaff series is perfect because, decades after I read it, it still hurts. His death is cruel, arbitrary and entirely accidental and as a result it hits harder than any other in the series. It also grounds and contextualizes the action around it. There’s a tendency, or perception of tendency, in heroic fantasy for battles to be neat, ordered affairs where everyone lines up and hacks at their opposite number until someone’s chucksteak and someone’s king. With this single death, Moorcock throws that out of the window and shows us just how complex, tragic and random death can be. That was a lesson I learnt for myself rather too young and it meant I’m both oddly immune to the usual approach to death taken in genre fiction and extremely appreciative of when it’s done realistically and well as it is here.

More recently, Matt Wallace’s approach to death is pragmatic, clear eyed and often profoundly moving. Sundae is a perfect example of that, as he uses a couple of familiar fantasy tropes to explore the concept of the good death in heart wrenching detail. But it’s Slingers where he really excels. There are surprisingly few deaths in the five volume series but the ones that are present rip me apart every single time. Like Moorcock, Wallace understands how entirely arbitrary it can be but he also walks the razor thin line between heroism and pragmatism. The fight is always rigged in Slingers and what the characters do when they realize that says more about them, oddly, than a fair fight ever could.

Outside literature, the end of Star Trek II has wrecked me for years but the ends of the next two movies actually link to and top that moment. The ‘Jim…your name is…Jim.’ and the quiet, distant little Star Trek fanfare at the end of III is a series highlight for me but even that’s eclipsed by the end of IV. The use of the fanfare as we see the NCC 1701-A is one of those rare moments of perfect cinema, and the end of a micro three act cycle across the three movies. Amazingly they don’t cheapen the death either, but rather emphasize the season in Hell the crew have come through. The end of III gets me because it’s all, just about, worth it. The end of IV gets me because, as they say, they’ve come home.

What links all these moments is how quiet and small they are. Vast heroic death has it’s place and it’s certainly gloriously operatic when done right but in the end, death is solitary. We come in alone and we leave alone and the honesty and impact of these moments lies in their focus on that solitude, what we do when we face it and what happens to those who are left behind.

Martha Wells
Martha Wells has written well over a dozen fantasy novels, including the Books of the Raksura series (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, Stories of the Raksura Vo.l I, Stories of the Raksura vol. II), The Wizard Hunters, Wheel of the Infinite, and the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer, as well as YA fantasies, short stories, and non-fiction. She has had stories in Black Gate, Realms of Fantasy, Stargate Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and in the anthologies Elemental, Tales of the Emerald Serpent, and The Other Half of the Sky. She has also written the media-tie-ins, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary, Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and Star Wars: Razor’s Edge. Her web site is www.marthawells.com

I wanted to go back to some books that are the earliest I can remember where the deaths of characters made a huge impact. It’s The Children of Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston, which I read when I was growing up in the 70s.

The premise sounds very conventional. Young boy comes to visit his great-grandmother in a big old country house that turns out to be magical. But the magic in the house is wild, and varies dramatically in each book in the series. It can be protective, gentle, fantastic, horrifying, and deadly. The three children who Tolly meets in the first book are family members from the 17th century, and sometimes he sees them as ghosts and sometimes the house seems to shift and blend time periods to let the lonely Tolly hang out with them. There is no sugar-coating of the fact that all three of them, two brothers and a sister, are dead. Tolly eventually sees the events that lead up to their deaths, but can’t do anything to change it. The magic in this book is relatively gentle, but the plot sets the precedent that kids, and animals, can die, and they can die in this house. (Tolly is nearly murdered by a cursed topiary of Noah in the garden; he’s saved when a protective spirit in the house animates a Saint Christopher statue and the cursed topiary abruptly discovers it came to the wrong rodeo.)

The books have different and sometimes recurring main characters, and many of them have faced death outside the house and danger in it. In the 18th century there’s Jacob, a young black page who escaped from slavery in the West Indies, and Susan, who is blind and unwanted by her stepmother, and both are in danger from an evil butler when Susan’s father isn’t there to protect them. In modern day, there’s Ping, a Chinese war refugee who comes to stay in the house. Ping goes from exploring the fantasy worlds and time-shifted landscapes of the house’s waterways to harsh reality when he helps a gorilla that’s escaped from the zoo and then sees it shot to death when the authorities catch up to it. (The gorilla’s ghost returns later, when Tolly and Ping team up to save the house from a powerful necromancer in sequences so horrifying to a ten year old that I still remember the folklore they used to repel demons nearly forty years later.)

None of the books would work as well as they do if the author hadn’t made the point from the very beginning that kids can and will die in these books. It’s a take on death in fiction that I think affected how I write about it in my own books, even years later.

Tina Connolly
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series, from Tor Teen. Ironskin, her first fantasy novel, was a Nebula finalist. Her stories have appeared in Women Destroy SF, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many more. Her narrations have appeared in audiobooks and podcasts including Podcastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, John Joseph Adams’ The End is Nigh series, and her Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake.

Sometimes the deaths that stick with you are the ones you read early on, when you still aren’t expecting the betrayal. (Then you become jaded! Alas.) I think one reason I was never really able to get into reading category romances (despite liking to have romance in the novels I read) is because I don’t want to know for 100% sure that there’s a HEA. Now, granted, I do tend to like happy endings, so I’d say that when I pick up a book I’d like to be 95% sure there’s a HEA. (Or reasonably happy, you know, says the person who doesn’t exactly write hearts and flowers ending herself. But some ray of light is all I need.)

At any rate, after you’ve read enough (contemporary) books you do start to get an idea of the formula, and you become fairly sure that, no matter how much the author tries to ratchet up the tension, that they won’t kill off the main character. (Except for GRRM, *obviously*.)

So I was 13 or so, and I had just jumped into the Adult SFF by way of Anne McCaffrey’s YA books (and then, wait, she has more? In this other section?) I found Moreta. I think they had mentioned the Ballad of Moreta’s Ride in one of the other books I’d read at that point, but I didn’t remember that it ended tragically. So I was shocked when Moreta (spoiler alert!) didn’t come out of that last jump between. I’m pretty sure that’s the only McCaffrey to end with the death of the protagonist, but see, that’s the thing. You only need one. After that, everything I read by her I thought–well, that other book didn’t end happily, so this might not…(the ending of Killashandra totally got me the first time. I mean the ending before the epilogue.)

I think Dumbledore’s death would have gotten me but despite getting that book at midnight and reading it immediately, someone on the internet managed to ruin it for me. Oh, and this is more the movie version, but the ending of Goblet of Fire? Where Harry pops back into the arena with Cedric’s body and the band strikes up and Cedric’s dad cheers? And THEN everyone realizes? That gets me every time.

Susan Jane Bigelow
Susan Jane Bigelow is a writer, librarian, and political columnist from Connecticut. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, and the Queers Destroy Science Fiction special issue of Lightspeed. Her Extrahumans series is being republished by Book Smugglers Publishing in 2016.

buffyThis piece has spoilers for Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. Which you’ve all seen. Right?

It’s funny, I can give you plenty of examples from SFF books, TV, and movies that I felt were really cheap, lurid, or otherwise badly handled—but it’s very hard to sort out the ones that were actually done well. Too often it feels like characters die because that’s what the plot demands, otherwise the other characters would never be able to grow up/get together/be inspired to defeat the evil dude/whatever. Other times, character deaths happen because they’re a way to manufacture cheap drama, or because an actor or actress is leaving a TV show (see: Tasha Yar). These are often sad or infuriating or even satisfying, but they don’t feel real.

But it is possible to get it right. The death that still hits me the hardest, even after many years, is the death of Buffy’s mother Joyce on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy comes home at the end of an episode to find her mother simply… gone. She’s lying dead on the couch. The entire next episode, “The Body,” deals with how Joyce’s death affects everyone around her, as well as with the mundane minutiae of dealing with death.

It’s hard to watch. It’s impossible to look away. It feels like a hole has been ripped in the world. Unlike with most shows or books, there’s no quick, satisfying scene of closure or a montage of grief shots—we stay with characters as they go through the awful stages of figuring out what to do next. One of the most affecting scenes is Buffy’s friend Willow trying to figure out what to wear to the funeral.

The really amazing thing about how well this episode was handled is that the Buffy universe is soaked in blood and violence. People die on the show all the time, and sometimes those deaths are really badly done. A few seasons later, when Tara dies, it feels like a cheap trick intended to make Willow lose her mind and go skin a nerd (really). But when Joyce Summers dies, it feels upsettingly, nauseatingly real. It’s probably the best-handled death I’ve ever seen.

There are lessons here. I don’t use death too often in my own work, because too often it feels like killing someone off is a cheap way out of a plot bind. When someone dies or is killed, I don’t want it to be just because the plot demands it. And I want it to be something that actually matters to the other characters, something they really have to deal with instead of a moment that’s easily forgotten.

Christian Klaver
Christian Klaver, an author of Science Fiction and Fantasy, lives in the suburbs just outside the sprawling decay of Detroit, Michigan. There he resides with his wife (Kimberly) his daughter (Kathryn) and a group of animals he refers to as ‘The Menagerie’. His first book, Shadows Over London, stars a young girl in Victorian England that finds that her life-long, forbidden desire to become a ship’s captain is central to saving England as she and her family battle an invasion from the Faerie. Christian is also the author of The Supernatural Case-Files of Sherlock Holmes. www.christianklaver.com

All my favorite books and movies are chock full of events that ripple. (Spoilers abound, by the way. I’ll be a bit more careful with books than movies, because the movies below seem a little more widespread, and less dangerous to spoit.) Each event, climb or fall, reverberates throughout the rest of the story and deaths more than most. The best ones change everything. Whether it’s Spock (or Kirk) in the radiation chamber, Jane Margolis choking to death in Breaking Bad (While Walter White watched!), Boromir catching a bzillion arrows or Artax dispearing in the swamp, death smacks you in the face with a nasty wet dose of reality.

For some reason, my go-to guy for looking at both the good and bad deaths (the ones that moved me, or just plain ticked me off) is Joss Whedon. Joyce Summers’ death in ‘The Body’ is just a masterpiece, but Tara’s death later in the series just made me angry. (No, to me, the meaning of meaningless death just doesn’t work as a message, thanks, Joss.) Coulson in the Avengers, wow, just ties the whole story together, but Wash’s death doesn’t do anything for the story to me. Take it out, and, to me, it’s just a better story. Take out Coulson’s death, and half of the Avengers doesn’t happen.

For books, my favorite example is always Guy Gavriel Kay, a poetic and lyrical fantasy author who’s never afraid to kill off your favorite character. There are some deaths like near the end of The Darkest Road (last book in the Fionavar Tapestry) that just break your heart, but seem, to me, to have bought something beautiful with their sacrifice. The end of Lions of Al-Rassan, I just don’t feel the same way. In fact, color me a little bitter.

Another example of death done right is Emma Bull. If you haven’t read War for the Oaks or Finder, do yourself a favor and grab those. I promised to be more careful with books, so enough said.

And…no look at death in fantasy would be complete without the stab-a-palooza that is Game of Thrones. To say this series is a game-changer in epic fantasy is probably redundant, but here I go: Game Changer! We’re used to watching our heroes wade through destruction, and have the majority emerge unscathed. The books above all use an unspoken standard of making death fairly rare, but Martin uses death with a much more liberal hand, to increase the scope of his entire story. Even now, many books in, while there might be just a few characters that probably are going to be around for awhile, the vast majority, good and bad, are more likely to perish than not, and it changes everything about how you view the world. Just when you’re all caught up in Stark vs. Lannister, major cast members that you adore get butchered in some of the most horrific ways possible and it changes everything, forcing the reader to start looking at a bigger picture than we ever have before. Big, BIG doom! It’s coming, and it’s no joke.

Joe Sherry
Joe Sherry lives in Minnesota. His reviews and articles have appeared in Fantasy Magazine, the Sacramento Book Review, and in Speculative Fiction 2014. He blogs at Adventures in Reading.

The obvious and easy answer that I expect to read about it Ned Stark, but he’s not the character who came immediately to mind. I struggled to get into The Dragonbone Chair, but after pushing far enough I came to enjoy the book and overall the series. So, we come to near the end and Josua is killed by Elias we are presented with this momentous sacrifice. It is painful and it is important. I would describe this as one of the “best” character deaths and it was a fantastic ending to the book and to the trilogy, except Tad Williams then went and undid everything that came before with one more chapter. He revealed too much, gave the reader too much and the ending lost all the power it had up to that point. Josua wasn’t dead, he snuck back to let Simon know he was okay before walking away from a throne he didn’t want. Which is okay, except that this wasn’t set up as Josua fakes his death. It was set up as BOOM, Josua is killed and the characters are left to deal with the wreckage of victory. It’s been almost ten years since I read this and I’m still a little pissed off about it. I struggled enough to read enough of the first book to stick with the series (after several failed attempts to read it) and that’s the cheap ending we got? If you’re going to kill your important characters and make their death have meaning – the death should stick.

This reminds me of Durnik from Enchanters’ End Game (Eddings, The Belgariad), but at least that death required a super magic orb and the power of gods to undo / reverse.

Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack has four published novels, two anthologies, a medieval history book or two, some short stories and a historical cookbook. One of the novels (Ms Cellophane/Life through Cellophane) was a Ditmar Finalist, as was one of the anthologies (Baggage). She was awarded the Best Achievement Ditmar in 2010.Her PhDs are in Medieval History and in Creative Writing and she claims she needs a third to ‘round things out.’ This means that she also has academic publications. Her current research on how writers think of history and how they use it in their fiction will be published in 2016.

Gillian has received two writing fellowships at Varuna, arts grants, and is in demand at SF conventions mainly because she bribes fans with chocolate. She was the GUFF delegate to the 2014 World SF convention. She currently lives in Canberra, Australia, which explains everything. Some of the places she can be found include her blog, livejournal, twitter, facebook and the History Girls blog.

The deaths in fiction that move me the most are those touch on the small realties of everyday life, where I know the people and their lives and feel that I ‘llsee them shopping or playing or talking if I visited their neighbourhood. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is this. There are a thousand others, but when I encounter a beautifully written and disturbing death in a novel, I turn back to Paterson and think “Is this written as well? Does it move me as much?”

Judy’s death in Seven Little Australians matches Bridge to Terebithia in my memory, but I was young when I first read it and I come from a large Melbourne family, so I had a strong natural affiliation with it. The same, oddly, applies to Beth in Little Women. I was the third daughter in a four child family. The pathos in the deaths of Beth and Judy appealed to me as a child. It was the remorseless gentle realism in Bridge to Terabithia that trapped me as an adult.

None of these novels are SFF, though Terabithia comes close, which surprised me to realise, for I am an ardent SFF fan. I opt for Paterson’s approach in my own writing, when I can, because the adult in me is more troubled by maudlin sentimentality than the child. When I wantedd to kill characters in Ms Cellophane, I made the deaths prosaic rather than dramatic, and I focused on the emotional consequences far more than the moment of discovery. Still, the memory of the pathos of death in Victorian novels is there, and my personal background informs this, and so personal deaths in my fiction has a choice of paths.

Death echoes in my fiction, and those echoes are not always comfortable. I have a fascination with ghosts, or rather, they have a fascination with me. I use SFF techniques to show this. Many amazing writers have influenced me in this, ranging from Ruth M Arthur’s YA horror novels to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, leading me into trapping people in mirrors, cursing them, and destroying their lives and their afterlives.

People linger beyond death in my fiction because they linger in my life. It isn’t due to literary influence. I read a lot of gentle horror, and authors like Joan Aiken who take seriously the darkness humans face, are my favourites. My father’s ghost haunts Illluminations, however, because my father died just before I wrote it, not because I understood haunting from reading. The reality of death for me therefore is complex and overweighs my literary self. After death, then, is a mixture of life experience and what horror writers have taught me about distilling those emotions and events and persuading them to echo and to re-echo through a story. I’ve written about the ghosts that haunt me in my blog and my next novel (to be published by Satalyte, later this year) will explore some of that haunting in a magical Canberra. I’m not a horror writer, but death leads me into horror moments.

It’s interesting that I don’t use SFF models in my work for the deaths that count. It means that I haven’t been as racked by the loss of favourite characters in George RR Martins’ work, or in Jennifer Fallon. If the death doesn’t hit me closely and in a person way, if it’s not intimate and everyday, then I can keep reading., The spectacular deaths and the egregious deaths and the extraordinarily important deaths touch me, but they do not move me enough to close the book and sit silently for a while, contemplating. That’s what a good death is, for me, in any writing. It’s when the sense of reality overcomes the fiction and one is moved beyond bearing.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

7 Comments on MIND MELD: The Most Memorable Deaths in Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Nice article with some great novels. You had the Runestaff series, but I’d add the Elric saga to the list, though, since Moorcock was doing the “anyone can (and will) die” thing long before the more recent crop of grimdark fantasy writers. I much prefer happy endings overall, but that series has stayed with me through the years.

  2. A couple that had outsized effect on me (probably because they hit me right in my formative years): Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars (that look of serenity right before Vader swings, then Luke’s reaction from across the hanger) and Théoden (holy cow! autocorrect put an accent on that E for me!) on the Pellenor Fields, again mostly for its impact on Eowyn and Merry.

  3. StephenFromOttawa // September 9, 2015 at 9:34 am //

    For some reason I have never forgotten the death of David Bowman’s teenaged older brother in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2010”. It’s briefly but quite vividly described as a traumatic formative event in the development of Bowman’s distant personality, as I recall. Something about the terrible consequences to the rash young risk-taker really hit me. I’ll have to read it again some time.

  4. @John Hornor Jacobs: In fairness to Diarmuid, he’s not actually shallow, at least IMHO. He’s rakish and the rest, sure, but he has hidden depths that come to light fairly early on. He just acts shallow much of the time.

  5. Jan the Alan Fan // September 10, 2015 at 4:46 am //

    In the TV series ‘Babylon 5’ when Ambassador Kosh is dying, he appears in Captain Sheridan’s dream as his father (think of them both as Obi-wan and Luke). Sheridan only realises it’s really Kosh at the end, when it’s too late. Tramatic and moving at the same time.

  6. Just a couple quick ones.

    The death of Sturm Brightblade in the original Dragonlance Chronicles was deeply moving. We had just spent a considerable amount of time getting know this character and what he brought to his friends and the larger world. Readers expected him to be around doing heroic things. And suddenly he is dead. You just had to read that section again and again to be sure you read it correctly.

    The other would be the death of Huma from the Legend of Huma; another Dragonlance book. Huma was no one special. He was socially the least of the Knights of the Solamnia.

    The one thing that was special about Huma is that he always believed that he was inferior to the knight’s Oath and the Measure. He constantly lived his life trying to be worthy of the knight’s code of honor. The arc of his service in the Knights of Solamnia was inspiring and heartrending at the same time.

  7. Grimjack. Ostrander killed off the title character in his creator owned series and followed it through in a way that he could have closed the series from there. This was well before the Death of Top Tier Superhero to sell books, well before Jean Grey returned from the dead. The caveat at this time was “they’re still alive if you don’t see the body.”

    We saw the corpse.

    The series continued and Ostrander used the death to change the mythology of the title but, at that time, the death itself was unexpected, and I challenge anyone who read it at the time to say Grimjack’s death didn’t take them like a gut punch.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: