Dr Musacha says...
In real life, death is inevitable. But in fiction, death is the result of a conscious decision made by the author (unless of course it’s based on historical events…that trip to Ford’s Theater is probably not going to end well for Lincoln). And while you may think that character deaths are thrown into stories at the random whim of the writer, the vast majority of deaths fall into one of four escalating categories that I refer to as “Levels of Death”. Each level (and thus each death) has a distinct purpose for a story, and I firmly believe that the misapplication of this system can ruin an otherwise great story.
To illustrate the concept, I’m going to review each level starting at the bottom (Level 4) and culminating at the top (Level 1). For further clarification, I’ll give examples of each level based on the medium of movies (though this concept works for books, video games, and so on). Note that spoilers abound (we’re talking about characters dying here!) though I’ve tried to restrict my examples to well known movies that should come as little surprise. Still if you’re the type of person who’s been holding out on this whole “Star Wars” thing and you have a good feeling about how things turn out for this Darth Vader guy (whoops!) then maybe stop now.
Level 4 – The Red Shirt Guy
If you know anything about Star Trek, then you’re already nodding your head. When Kirk, Spock, Sulu, and some generic guy in a red shirt beam down to the alien planet where another ship’s crew disappeared without a trace, guess who isn’t coming back? Let’s just say they’re paying Shatner a lot of money to captain the Enterprise, not to die before the second commercial.
Wondering if you’re seeing a level 4 death? First, ask yourself if you know the character’s name. Or if he/she even has a name. How about defining characteristics…does he have a back story, a defined personality, an established connection to other characters? If not, you’re definitely in level 4 territory. Even more telling, how do the other characters react when “red shirt” dies? Is it like a dark cloud hanging over the rest of the film/episode/book? Or do they pretty much proceed like nothing happened, as if they were expecting it from the start?
And that’s the thing: they DO expect it. The reason they aren’t getting all emotional is because the writer didn’t care about “red shirt” guy and he didn’t expect you to either. His death is akin to a little science experiment, like tossing a gerbil to a python and taking notes on how the snake dispatches it. It’s the writer’s way of telling you “Kirk and Spock will be facing a tentacle monster this week, and this is how it kills people. Keep watching to see how they defeat it!”
As for villains (because hey, they’re characters too!), a Level 4 death is less of an option and more of a career choice for the vast majority of henchmen. The second you slap on that generic outfit and join the legion of baddies, know that your Level 4 death will come swiftly, surely, and with no fanfare whatsoever from the protagonist. You might as well be a traffic cone with a machine gun taped to it, pal.
Fat guy from New York that gets squashed by a meteor – Armageddon
Guard who gets his heart pulled out of his chest – Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom
Late night swimmer – Jaws
Practically every person killed by Stallone/Schwarzenegger/etc. in action movies
Level 3 – I died as I lived…serving the plot
Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to level 3. You’ve got a name (probably first AND last), some lines, and a personality that can likely be summarized in five or fewer words. You might even be played by a recognizable character actor (Hey, I saw that guy on Seinfeld once…). Here’s the bad news though: you can still die. Oh, you might be thinking “I’m not one of these generic types so I’ll be okay.” No such luck though, because the reality is that the story can still easily proceed without you.
A level 3 death differs from level 4 in several key ways. First, the character that dies is far more distinct. More importantly, the main characters acknowledge a level 3 death as momentous and important. They are often stricken with shock or grief that such an event could transpire. What a level 3 death does is announce to the audience “Shit just got real here…this is a story where people CAN DIE”. Nobody thinks that the monster that offed red-shirt is going to get Kirk. But if a level 3 character death occurs, suddenly things get murkier. The anguish that the characters are showing is partly driven by the realization that “Death is in play and I could be next…”
Level 3 deaths also often serve to “thin the ranks”. As in, the author needed a group of people at the start of the story for the purposes of dialogue/plot exposition/etc., but now things are a little crowded. A nice level 3 death or two can whittle down the group while creating an emotional impact for the survivors and the audience. These usually happen in the middle of a story, since we need time to know the character but not so much that we get attached.
Level 3 death is pretty rare for a villain, as it involves a person who’s slightly higher up than a henchman but still not important enough to survive to the climax of the film. Generally the proper order is to kill all the generic guys, then the sub-boss types, and finally the main baddie. Still, it does happen. I’m reminded of the classic quote from Commando:
Arnold: Remember Sully, when I promised I’d kill you last?
Sully: That’s right, you did!
Arnold: I lied.
Harry Ellis, who pretends to be Bruce Willis’ friend and gets shot – Die Hard
May the hooker – Dark City
Helen, the nice old lady who gets blown out of the bus – Speed
William Laughlin, a member of the resistance – Running Man
Levels 1 and 2 are here.