Archiv für September 2011

Dumbledore’s Death

In my last blogpost, I discussed how writers can use death scenes to show us who the character truly is and what matters to them most. I analyzed Dobby’s death, but another truly great one is Dumbledore’s.

Dumbledore dies at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince, at the hands of Severus Snape. Harry saw him performing the curse, and it seems clear that he is a cold-blooded killer and a traitor, and that Dumbledore was wrong to have put so much trust in Snape. Only at the end of the seventh book is it revealed that Dumbledore had been slowly dying from the effects of touching a cursed ring and knew that he had only weeks to live, and he intended to use not only these few weeks, but even his death himself, to work against Voldemort. He had planned everything in minute detail, and he had ordered Snape to kill him.

Dumbledore uses his own death as part of his genious plan to defeat Voldemort. He cares just enough about himself to ensure a relatively painless death, and shows no fear of or regret about it. At no point does it occur to him to avoid death. He does everything he can to save Draco’s soul--who is actively planning to kill him--, and yet is very harsh with Snape when he voices his reluctance to play the murderer and kill his own mentor (the argument Hagrid overheard between Snape and Dumbledore, where Snape accuses him of taking a lot for granted). On the tower, facing the Death Eaters, his last fear is that his death might not come about exactly as he had planned, and when he begs Severus, it is one of the very few scenes that show him vulnerable and scared, and one of exactly two scenes that show him at the mercy of and dependent upon another. The other scene is after his death, as he makes his confessions to Harry and asks his forgiveness, revealing that he did not only play out his death like a master chess player to defeat external evil, but also to atone for his own old sins. Sins he does not try to forget or excuse. This lies at the heart of his nobility.

So his death shows Dumbledore to be… quite complex, actually. A genious tactician, a saviour to his enemies and ruthless towards himself and to his ally (I debated whether or not to call Snape his friend), cold and calculating as he plots, but ultimately human in his last breath, seeking reassurance and redemption.

Rowling didn‘t manage to show all of this at his death scene at the end of book six, and needed another scene at the end of the last book, where he and Harry meet in the twilight between death and life. Another interesting facet is that Dumbledore, unlike Dobby, doesn‘t undergo any fundamental change throughout the entire seven books. Dumbledore as we meet him at the beginning of The Philosopher’s Stone would have made the same choices as he eventually does at the end of the series. The change that enables--and requires--him to sacrifice his own life takes place entirely in his backstory, decades before Harry is even born. JK Rowling gets away with this because she weaves this backstory about his sister’s death into the seventh book in ways that directly influence Harry’s actions and are important to his emotional growth.

He is already slowly dying of the ring’s curse when he decides to have Snape kill him, so that’s not the moment of his sacrifice. It’s when he chooses to pick up the Resurrection Stone, because he must have known what the consequences would be. He throws caution to the wind and his life away the second he finds a chance to bring back his sister, to correct his greatest mistake. In this instant, he even forgets his world-shaping plots to defeat Voldemort. As I said earlier, it’s the character’s actions that show us what matters to them most.

While Dobby is faced with external foes and chooses to act courageously, Dumbledore has to confront the terrible consequences of his own immaturity and arrogance and chooses to act with a nobility he has to gain through guilt and the loss of his family. This is a task that takes him an entire lifetime.

Next up: How a character’s death can affect the surviving protagonists.

Harry Potter and How (Not) To Kill Your Characters, Part I

…in which I am going to explore what makes a character’s death good — from a storytelling perspective — and what doesn‘t, using examples from the Harry Potter novels.

This is, obviously, going to be full of spoilers about who dies and how and why. So for the love of all things purple, if you haven‘t read all the books yet — what are you even doing reading this instead of the Harry Potter series?

I am going to focus primarily on the deaths of the good guys, not only because there are so many powerful examples of this done well and done badly in Harry Potter (I am looking at you, final fight scene of Deathly Hallows), but mostly because this is much harder to do satisfactorily than killing off the antagonists. After all, the readers want those bad guys to pay anyway, but for the characters your readers love, you have to have very compelling reasons why they need to die, or your readers might not forgive you.*

So how do you make a character’s death meaningful? There are three major ways, and they work best if combined: Make the death deeply relevant to who this character is, to the characters around them, and to the plot of the story. You only get to kill off characters solely for plot reasons if they are really minor or if you are writing mystery.

In this first part, I will focus on what a powerful death scene can reveal about the dying character.

Let’s take a look at the death of Dobby the House Elf, which is one of the best examples of the entire series.
Dobby starts out in Chamber of Secrets as a well-intentioned, but completely incompetent character. All his attempts to save Harry backfire, and his absurd reasoning and creeping servility towards his owner make it hard to take him seriously. Maybe we feel sorry for all the abuse he suffers, maybe he just annoys us, but other than that he carries no great emotional depth or weight. He is certainly not heroic.

At the end of the book, Harry sets him free from his cruel master, Lucius Malfoy. In the course of the series, he becomes more and more competent and helpful to Harry, his personal quirks develop (his love for socks, for example) and we begin to care more about him. He has this honest desire to please, he has been through a lot of unfair suffering and yet is exceedingly cheerful and takes his life into his own hands. We don‘t want bad things happening to him at this point, because he just doesn‘t deserve it.
And then, through no fault of his own, he dies.

Openly defying his old masters, Dobby rescues Harry and his friends from Malfoy and his evil sister-in-law Bellatrix LeStrange, and, just as they are about to Disapparate to safety, she throws a dagger at him, piercing his heart.
And his death is beautiful and tragic and poetic, because it shows just how selfless and genuinely nice Dobby really is, which are qualities he possesses from the beginning; and because it shows him standing up to those who would deny his rights of freedom and autonomy, which is something he only learns throughout the course of the series, and he learns it the hard way. In other words, his death exposes his core nature and his personal growth.
Had Bellatrix‘ dagger missed, none of this would have been shown so clearly and so emotionally striking.

In order to reveal his true character, it is essential that Dobby makes choices and takes actions that, in this case, ultimately lead to his own death. I‘m not saying that he is responsible for his own death — Bellatrix is. I‘m just reiterating the importance of the Show, Don‘t Tell rule: We know exactly how selfless and noble the elf is, not because Harry says so while digging Dobby’s grave, but because we were there when he marched into the Malfoy’s living room, head held high, telling Bellatrix that he won‘t allow her to harm Harry Potter. This is arguably his Crowning Moment of Awesome. Dobby has to actually do brave and selfless things, and this means he has to choose them. He could have stayed save in the Hogwarts kitchens, but instead he makes a conscious choice to risk his own life for the person he is devoted to, and to fight against his old masters, and he acts upon this choice.

If you want to show us who your dying character really, truly is, you cannot afford to have them be a victim of circumstances. You need them to make choices that reveal what does and does not matter to them, and they need to act on them.

There are circumstances in which that isn‘t why you kill a character. Sometimes, the death of the character is only used to reveal how vile and dangerous the villain truly is, how those around them cope with the loss, and to move the plot along. An example of this done really well is at the end of Season Six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where --Spoiler!-- Willow’s lover Tara is shot.

But even then, one thing you should avoid is cutting a character’s development short by killing them off before they are done with their journey. Really think about this before you kill them: Are they in the midst of internal change or growth that they haven‘t completed yet? Is there something they need to overcome, a character flaw or unfinished business? They don‘t necessarily have to settle everything nicely before they die, but you should think about the effect it has on your readers when a character dies before fulfilling their potential. I am going to talk about this at length in my next post about Sirius.

So, lesson one: Use the death scene to explore the dying character. Show what this character truly is. Make it a consequence of the choices he_she made and actions he_she takes. And if you‘re really good, make the death bittersweet by making us happy for the character that they could finally make this choice. Just think how sad and pathetic it would have been if Dobby had cowered before Bellatrix instead of standing up tall.

*One valid reason would be that yours is a crapsack world in which good people die for no good reason. In which case this article doesn‘t apply, and that’s fine. You don‘t necessarily need emotional justice in your fictional world. Also, there are some genres like mystery or thriller that have a much more cavalier attitude about killing off characters, which is also completely ok.