No, not real death, don't panic. :P Real death is worthy of far more thought, discussion, and introspection than I can cover in a blog entry. All I'll say about it is I hope that when my time comes, I get to choose who escorts me to whatever happens after this life, and if that's the case, I'm taking that trip with Death as created by Neil Gaiman.
Today, I'd like to talk about character death. I've recently been traumatized by a work of fiction, so this seemed like a good time.
I've seen a lot of people talk about fiction wherein it's made very clear that anyone can die. "Game of Thrones" and the book series it's based on are famous for this; it's the only series I know of where saying that a character lives is just as much of a spoiler as saying that they die. Once, I saw someone genuinely upset that a character they didn't like was still alive at the end of the third book.
There's something to be said for this kind of storytelling. I do like the idea that there's no such thing as a "main character halo" - there's nothing that ensures someone will survive the story just because they're playing a lead part. It keeps the reader/viewer on their toes and keeps them from making assumptions about how things are going to turn out.
However, after thinking on it for a while, I don't know if that's the best way to orchestrate character death.
I think death works best in a story when it comes as a surprise, not an inevitability. I mean, we know death's inevitable, whether we want to think of it or not. So we know that all characters are going to die eventually, though we might not see it within the course of the story. If we like the story, we want to see these people live.
No, not all of them; I know I've enjoyed watching a despised character get their final reward. There's no schadenfreude quite like laughing at the moment when they realize their end has come.
But when I look back on all the fictional deaths I've read and seen, it's always the ones I didn't see coming that hit me harder. The ones where yes, I've seen people die in the story, but I never expected it would happen to the main characters. The ones where I had to stop and reread a paragraph or rewatch a scene to make sure I saw what I think I just saw. The ones where the "main character halo" is fully intact right up until it shatters.
And this effect is at its best, or perhaps its worst, when it happens far enough into a series that I thought everyone was going to reach the end alive.
This, I believe, is the best way to handle character death. Give the character time in the spotlight. Let them change and learn and grow. Hurt them, traumatize them, but see to it that they endure. Do all you can to make it seem like they're going to have a "happily ever after", or at least a "made it through alive".
Then pull the rug out from under your reader in the worst way possible with that character's untimely and unpredictable end.
And then, cake.