I know we’ve all been shocked and upset when a favorite character unexpectedly dies in books and TV shows. I haven’t seen the TV show based on Cass Morgan’s The 100 series but I heard about one of the main character’s recent deaths’ and how enraged fans were (even though this character isn’t even in the books).
I know that killing off beloved characters isn’t new in books or TV series – but in the past it seems like it happened more infrequently – and characters weren’t always really dead. The “it was all a dream scenario” trope (like Bobby’s death in Dallas, yeah, I know, many of you weren’t even born then!) was used in many books and shows. Soap operas repeatedly reinforce the idea too.
Because of that, we’ve been primed to think that major characters won’t die but when it really happens in books and shows, we refuse to believe it and rail against the writers for killing off our favorite characters (Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, or Will from The Good Wife) – even if that’s how it was originally written in the books that these shows were adapted from!
Even YA literature, where a majority of the books end happily or on a more hopeful note, is trending toward killing off more major characters than ever before.
I think it’s a reflection of the reality of the world we’re living in. More readers are also aware of it because of the prevalence of social media with its instant access to the news and the plot points from books and shows.
Is this a healthy trend? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, when times are tough you want to escape reality by reading about positive things where good triumphs over evil. I know that’s why I love fantasy and science fiction. Superhero movies and graphic novels fulfill that need to believe that evil will be defeated and that the good guys may seem to die but aren’t really dead because they then come back to life.
Since we’re so used to superheroes that don’t or can’t die or books that have happy endings, when beloved characters do die, it’s even more of a shock and a betrayal. I don’t blame fans for going ballistic when a character dies, especially those who did not deserve it (Rue from The Hunger Games or Chuck from The Maze Runner).
Yet we know that death is a very real possibility in our daily lives. Characters have physical and mental illnesses and they die or take their own lives. It’s a tough reality but it’s still heartbreaking when it happens, especially when it happens more quickly or to a different character than you expected (like Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars). That’s why I think a lot of teens like realistic fiction because it doesn’t lie or mislead, the truth is there in all of its starkness and finality – like it or not. There’s a catharsis that the reader experiences in going through what the character does. You’ve survived at the end, even though the character hasn’t, even if you do have a headache from crying your eyes out over their death.
Maybe we as readers have we gone soft in always expecting characters to survive? Supernatural fantasies may use reanimation to being characters back to life that really should be dead but what about other dystopian books that realistically portray the reality of a cruel, hard world where few will survive? Is it really fair to expect authors to keep characters alive because they don’t want to anger or disappoint their fans? I don’t think it is.
If you want to read a great teen guest Hub blog post about getting over a fictional character’s death from 2014, check this out. Up to this point, I’ve tried hard not to blatantly include spoilers of some readers’ favorite characters who have been killed off, including my own favorites, but now I’m going to be specific.
Stop reading if you don’t want to know!
(HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD)
I know I’m not alone in having too many books to read and therefore not ever getting around to reading all the books in some popular trilogies. I had not read Allegiant by Veronica Roth until recently, and, somehow, had no idea what fate awaited the major characters. I was just as shocked and upset as the fans who read the book when it originally came out that Roth killed Tris (and of course, wasn’t happy about Will’s death either, but that’s easier to understand).
I think that’s one of the few instances I know of where an author was forced to defend her reasons for doing so in print. Roth spoke out on her personal webpage and to MTV.com about the overwhelmingly negative reaction to her third Divergent book – and it marked the first time Roth ever talked to the media about major plot points in any of her novels. When she was asked, “Why did she have to die?” Roth said to MTV:
“It’s actually been set up that way. At the end of the first book she almost experiences death … and she sort of plays around with the idea of self-sacrifice…. In the second book the same thing happens …. In the third book, she learns what it actually means to sacrifice yourself. It has to be necessary; it has to be out of love. And to me it was her finally understanding what her parents were trying to teach her in Abnegation,” she added.” Go to her blog for a longer explanation.
It might also explain why Roth’s Divergent and Insurgent were “Teens Top Ten Picks” but not Allegiant.
Although I was heartbroken by Tris’s death, I understand the reasoning behind it, and am resigned to it, but like so many others, wonder if they’ll change it in the movie. (I’m not ashamed to admit I really liked the films made so far based on Roth’s books).
Another death that hit me hard was Daniel from Susan Dennard’s Strange and Ever After (Something Strange and Deadly Trilogy Series #3). If you like Dennard’s most recent novel Truthwitch, you might want to read her earlier series. Eleanor is a Spirit-Hunter in 1850s England who has lost just about everything – her family, her friends and her ancestral home. And now, her friend Jie is missing. To get her back, Eleanor travels to nineteenth-century Egypt. While there, she has to learn to control her growing magical power, face her feelings for fellow-spirit hunter Daniel, and confront the evil necromancer Marcus–all before it’s too late. The price she pays is unimaginably high – Daniel’s death.
Tommy Wallach’s We All looked Up is about the lives of four high school seniors that intersect in the weeks before a meteor is set to pass through Earth’s orbit, with a 66.6% chance of striking and destroying all life on the planet. One of the four teens, Peter, a smart, overachieving athlete, is beaten to death by his younger sister’s violent drug dealing boyfriend Bobo. Even though we know there’s a very real possibility that no one will survive the meteor crash, Peter’s death is still very shocking.
In Jillian Cantor’s Searching for Sky, a sort-of reverse dystopian book, Sky and River have grown up together on a deserted island where they live with Sky’s mother and River’s father. Now both of the parents are dead, and while Sky is quite content with their life, River wants to be rescued and returned to civilization. A ship does come, and the two are taken to California to be reunited with their families. Sky does not adjust well to her new environment – with such strange things as cars and cell phones. She longs to reunite with River to return to the island but tragically, River is shot and dies.
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz takes place in the Vietnam era and features Sammy, who lives in a poor, Chicano, small-town New Mexico barrio. His mother’s dead but he has a caring father. Sammy falls in love with Juliana, a girl living in a nightmare of domestic abuse. We, the readers, and Sammy, are heartbroken when her alcoholic father murders her entire family. Sammy grieves, and in his grief, the memory of Juliana becomes his guide through this difficult year. This is one of first books I read where a major character dies and I still remember how upset it made me.
In Andrea Cremer’s Bloodrose: A Nightshade Novel, Calla has never shied away from battle or her role as Alpha among her pack, a group of wolf-human hybrids called the Guardians. She has brought her old lover Ren home to keep him safe only to face the wrath of her current lover Shay. Only once everyone is together—Ren, Shay, Adene, the pack and the Searchers (humans who have fought the Guardians until recently)—can they truly begin to fight the Keepers—the evil masters of this world. Ren dies in this last book in the series. Many readers were really upset about this because he seemed to be sacrificed for the sake of making Calla end up with Shay, and not to further the plot.
Joseph Brook looks like an average eighth-grader at Eastham Middle School, but he’s not, in Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter. He became a father at age 13, spent time in juvie, and has an abusive father. Living with Jack’s family on their Maine farm could mean a normal life for him, but he is obsessed with finding Jupiter, the daughter he’s not allowed to see. Tragically, Joseph dies before he ever gets that chance. His is one of the most heartbreaking fates of any character I’ve read in a long time.
These deaths are all the more meaningful because of the sacrifice they’ve made for others. You may not like it, and you might want to throw the book again a wall, but in the end, it’s fitting, as long as it makes sense to the plot. There are books where deaths occur that don’t advance the plot, but are just there to make the story tie up nicely and in a more convenient way (usually in the case of love triangles). You don’t usually see this in well-written books because the authors’ have really have thought long and hard about their character’s story arcs.
What are some of your favorite characters who you hated to see die in YA books?
Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury and listening to 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
8 thoughts on “Major Character Deaths In YA Lit”
Spoiler: Charlie the brothel owners in Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the Easy. She was one of the richest and most vivid characters in the story and supported Josie when her mother couldn’t along with keeping all of her “girls” and the men who frequented them in line. Loved her!
Alicia, I forgot about Charlie from Out of the Easy. I liked it when I read it. Thanks for the suggestion.
I don’t think I’m alone here when I say Hedwig. I know the whole seventh Harry Potter book pretty much ended up a bloodbath as far as killing off characters, but I was more upset about Hedwig than anyone else.
Don’t get me started with Harry Potter books! There are so many characters I can mention: Snape, Fred Weasley, Dobby, Dumbledore, and so many others. I agree that Hedwig’s death was one of many devastating characters’ deaths.
Rachel from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – I guess I should have known better based on the title. I actually watched the movie and haven’t read the book yet. But I’m glad to know I’m not the only one out there who has cried so hard about the death of a fictional character that I gave myself a headache. Great post, Sharon!
Thanks, Tara! I’m glad you mentioned that book. It came out the same year as Fault in Our Stars too and I really liked it. I haven’t seen the movie yet though.
I absolutely love the Seven Realms fantasy series by Cinda Williams Chima, so when Flamecaster, a new book set in the same world decades later, came out, I was psyched. Until I read the beginning, however, in which Chima killed off one of the main characters (a favorite of mine) from the earlier series. I often recommend this series to teens as a kindler, gentler alternative to Game of Thrones, but I didn’t want to be that much like Game of Thrones!
I didn’t watch The 100 either, but I saw the fallout with a lot of young adults on tumblr. What I gathered from it was that it’s fine for characters to die, but when the character is a minority and the book (or in this case TV show) goes out of its way to court audiences who will identify with that minority character, it can be irresponsible. A lot of stories sacrifice their minority characters without considering all of the implications of doing so, and it goes well beyond making the audience sad to lose a fave. It’s really important to listen to why young people are sad about a particular death and not accidentally use something like this as an example of fans being too sensitive about a character who “wasn’t even in the book”. Did you know that fans of the show have organized more than $130’000 in donations for The Trevor Project, due to the alarming spike in suicidal posts from queer teen girls following the airing of that episode? The character’s lesbian romance was used to market the show to queer teen girls, and then they killed her with a stray bullet right after that romance was consummated. It’s part of a really damaging pattern in the media. The outrage that resulted from that death wasn’t about fans with unrealistic expectations about fictional deaths. It’s a much more interesting conversation than that. I hated that show and disliked the character, but her death still really bothers me on behalf of all those teens. I don’t know much about some of the other books on this list or how complicated those deaths were, but I do think it’s important to figure out what is behind teen outrage before discussing how appropriate it is.
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