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My family is kind of weird when it comes to death.
So far most of the deaths in my family have not come as a surprise. It grieves us, but we keep moving forward. We cry, but not much and not in public if we can help it. We don’t go in for dramatic displays of grief. We tend to not even discuss it. (In fact, aside from a few short conversations with my brothers, all of these statements come from my own observations and perspective, so I could be completely wrong about all of this.) But, on the surface at least, my family and I tend to be very pragmatic about the whole thing.
And yet I will break down into gut-wrenching sobs and go through all five stages of grief when a fictional character I love dies.
On the surface, this seems strange, even sociopathic. I don’t cry for my dead relatives but will bawl my eyes out for someone who never even existed? It seems backwards, almost wrong somehow, and has bothered me for quite a while. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. But I think I may have solved the mystery.
When real people die, we know there is nothing we can do. There is no way to reverse death. There is no one to appeal to, nothing to bargain with. Prayers don’t halt or even slow it. Tears don’t undo it, so why waste time crying? The best thing we can do is to continue living, to do the best that we can in honor of those who are gone. In my family, we try to honor memory with action.
But with a fictional character, you know it didn’t have to be that way. With real death you can wish things had played out differently and come up with reasons to explain it. However, ultimately it’s out of your control. But with a character, everything that happens to them is up to the writer. A good writer will make a character’s death seem inevitable or make sense or have some kind of meaning. Bad ones make it seem out of place, unnecessary, or overly cruel. But for me, even the best-explained deaths still leave that tiny niggling feeling, that little voice that says, “It didn’t have to be this way. There could have been another choice, another setting, something to get them out of this. It might have seemed like a deus ex machina if it was changed, but it could be done. Why didn’t you do that? You had the power to make it okay, so why didn’t you?” That kind of question can be haunting, and the more you love a character, the worse it is.
We can’t make the deaths in real life fair. But we can in stories, and when it feels like it isn’t fair, it hurts. Then I can’t rest until I have “fixed it” with fan fiction, head canon, or even a simple refusal to read or watch past a certain point. It’s how I make it feel fair to me, regardless of how contrived. It’s the only way I can cope with the thought of them not continuing “somewhere out there,” even though I logically know that eventually they will die, even within their universes. Crafting that head canon is the way I take action to honor their memory, even though paradoxically it undoes the very reason why I’m writing it in the first place.
I know that if a character’s death hits you that hard, so hard that you wander around in a daze, wondering how everyone around you can just keep moving, getting choked up every time you even think about that character, then it means that the writer did a good job. They made that person so real to you that you mourn them. I can appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that requires. But it doesn’t make me feel any better. Make all the arguments you want about how undoing or avoid a death cheapens the sacrifice, undercuts tension, or is unrealistic. I remain deeply opposed to the deaths of characters I love, even when it makes sense for the story. I want to see them struggle and go through great trials, but ultimately, I want them to have a happy ending.