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.