#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 2: melting shoes and raising stakes)

In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:

A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.

These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.

Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:

Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.

I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.

The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.

But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.

I mean, you know that scene.

The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.

I still. Remember. That screaming.

A shoe, screaming.

You only saw the shoe in that one scene.

You sure as hell didn’t forget it.

And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)

In this one moment, we get:

  • The judge’s disregard for toon life
  • That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
  • That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
  • That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge

The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.

We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.

Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.

Does the podling die? No.

Then it’s not character death, Jean!

Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.

This may as well be death.

Once again, this is a moment that

  • establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
  • displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life


That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:

We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.

These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.

When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.


How to swing this in a book?

Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.

On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?

I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)

That’s why.

The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.

We don’t have to wait long.

The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept.

“Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)

The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:

It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body.

Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)

We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.

It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.

There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.

Use it wisely.

How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!


Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

64 thoughts on “#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 2: melting shoes and raising stakes)

  1. The ancient film ‘Don’t Look Now’ I watched the DVD with parents a few years ago had a kid drown at the start and that triggered all the events that followed in the movie. Powerful, weird film. ~ George

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh wow, Jean, I remember my first reaction to the poor podling, I hid my face and cried. But, characters deaths are hard when writing. I was writing one day, when I still lived with my Mum and I was crying, she asked why. “I’ve killed off Marion.” oh dear.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. We JUST watched the Dark Crystal with the kiddos. There were nightmares afterward…
    The first one that comes to mind is from Schindler’s List (which I haven’t watched in a LONG time, so here’s hoping I’ve got the details right) and the little girl in the red coat. We don’t know anything about her, but that red in the black and white film stands out, as it cloaks her in life and then, as it lies alone after her death. And now I’m getting teary so I’ll stop…
    Another great post, Ms. Lee

    Liked by 3 people

  4. You make some great points here Jean, and what a wonderful use of examples to illustrate. I’m glad you included a clip from the Roger Rabbit movie, because that’s the only one I haven’t seen of the ones you describe. And yes, oh my goodness, what a way to convey the stakes!

    Liked by 3 people


      Let me reiterate:


      You’re seeing a crazy grim reaper of a man with a plastic glove COVERED IN DRIPPING RED GOO, still talking like nothing matters.

      Ye GODS, can you imagine that sort of thing in a movie today?

      I swear, that shoe gave one of the most powerful performances by an extra in cinematic history.

      Ugh, you got me wound up just by commenting. Thanks, Joy! I mean, for commenting. I’ll go calm myself down now… 🙂 xxxxxx

      Liked by 3 people

      • OMG I know — that dripping red goo on his glove was HORRIFYING! You’re right: that kind of gore would never be allowed now. But I suppose back then we didn’t have as many animated movies, so the censors (and writers, directors, etc.) maybe didn’t realize that viewers — especially young viewers — would relate to an animated character and be horrified by its death as badly as if it was human. Can you imagine them doing that to a PUPPY? NO, of course not!

        Liked by 3 people

      • Ooooo, that’s an excellent point! That would have played right into the theme of racism running through the film–toons are all second class citizens, treated with little respect and paid even less. A puppy really would matter more in that world!

        Liked by 2 people

      • And I forgot to mention — I just watched Dark Crystal two weeks ago, and I had the same reaction to the scene where the podling’s life essence was drained out: that it was super graphic and traumatic for a kids’ movie. My guess is that they figured it was okay because the podlings all recovered at the end of the movie, which is better than not recovering, but come on, they were ZOMBIE SLAVES that whole time!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I know, right?! I admire Jim Henson for bringing this vision to the screen, but daaaaaaaaaamn, man, this stuff ain’t ready for kids. Labyrinth was safe-dark for kids, but noooooooooot Dark Crystal.
        Then there’s his Storyteller series, where he made these muppets that looked like LEGIT DEMONS. I have no clue what story that was, but I remember those f’ing muppets. Still scaring me decades later!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I just watched Labyrinth again too, and I agree –I had forgotten how young the girl was supposed to be. I remembered her being so much older! Haven’t heard of the Storyteller series, and now I’m intrigued to see his demons, hmm….. Hopefully they won’t be too scary now that I’m an adult!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Great article, Jean! And now I need to track down Who Killed Roger Rabbit, because I had completely forgotten about the poor shoe and now feel a lesser human being for having done so! But I do completely agree with you regarding deaths and how they can raise the stakes – it’s not something to be done lightly, but when you do need to kill off a character, you shouldn’t shy away from it, either…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Name or No-Name, a character death done early and done right can show soooooo much about the world and its people. I was thinking of the Clint Eastwood westerns, too, and my fav, For a Few Dollars More. In that first minute before you even see the title, there’s this unseen whistler messing around with something while a man rides in the far distance. Suddenly the whistle stops, a trigger’s cocked, and BLAM.
      We know we’re in for somethin’ good. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the lovely mention, Jean. I’m chuffed to be quoted.

    Ahh, that Boot. It had slipped back from my memory. Your clip, and explanation, are perfect. Unlike the star-trek ‘Red Shirts’ (how brilliant is that label? I wish I’d thought of it.) the Boot was cute, loveable, even. It wasn’t just horror I remember feeling, it was loss. I wanted that Boot back, I wanted to get to know it. I’d also forgotten what a good film that was. Thanks for the reminder, and for an interesting analysis of something that I think is often a problem, the need for writers to be willing to be ruthless.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You were spot on, Cath, you really were. It’s tempting to go into all the killing in horror and slasher, but we *expect* everyone to die there, so it’s almost a game to see which single person lives (only to die in the sequel). Red Shirts–yes, I wish I could take credit, but the phrase has floated around among Star Trek fans for some time, so you know I’ve been hearing it for ages. 😉
      And we do. We need to be ruthless. If we want a death to make things serious, then we MUST make that death worth witnessing. I’d say watching a living shoe melt in acid counts.
      Such nightmare fuel, but SO effective. xxxxx

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Really interesting post! I chickened out of killing a character near the beginning of my wip children’s story. I let them escape. It somehow didn’t seem right for this particular story.
    Thanks for the Star Trek memories. We weren’t supposed to take the stories seriously, were we?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha! Yes, I’ve chickened out too. I always felt like if the characters *can* live, then why not let’em? 🙂
      Well I think there’s a degree of seriousness to what the shows were trying to teach us, but the stories themselves could get pretty darn zany, not to mention the effects…I mean, c’mon the robot in the video blasting red shirts is just a few pounds shy of being a Dalek. Oh people take them seriously now, but when you see the original constructions of those guys…yeah. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Absolutely fantastic post Jean Lee and not a topic I’ve ever really thought about. Some very interesting comments too. I’ve skimmed through them initially but will return to read the post and comments fully.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is just a brief note to let you know you’ve been nominated for The Blogger Recognition Award. There is a post live now on Speaking Bipolar.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Sunday Post – 26th May, 2019 #Brainfluffbookblog #SundayPost | Brainfluff

  11. Pingback: #writing #music: #DarkCrystal by @DANIELPEMBERTON | Jean Lee's World

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