Why Do We Care When Characters Die?



by Kyle Massa


Did you cry when Bambi’s mom got shot?

It’s okay. You can admit it. Though we know they’re not real, the death of fictional characters evokes real emotion in us. I find that amazing. After all, when fictional character die, we’re essentially mourning the loss of someone who does not, has not, and never will, exist.

The question is: why? Why do we care when a nonexistent character bites the dust?

I don’t claim to know the answer. But I do have some theories.

Here’s the first: we humans can’t help but empathize. When characters feel realistic, when we become invested in them, they become mirrors. We see our own traits reflected back at us, both the good and the bad. We draw parallels between our lives and theirs. So, when one of them dies, we see parts of us dying, too. And nobody likes that.

Here’s another: the more time we spend with characters, the more we become attached to them. Especially in book series, TV series, and film franchises, we watch these characters grow, watch them succeed and fail, watch them change with us. I think this is especially true for something like the Harry Potter series, in which the readers/viewers grow up right alongside the characters. When you’re going through the same experiences with another person at the same time, you’re likely to form a connection with them (even if they’re made up).

My third and most out-there theory: death in fiction reminds us of our own mortality. A popular theory of filmmaking states that we love movies because they solve problems in a matter of hours that are otherwise unsolvable in real life. In The Lord of the Rings,for example, Frodo extinguishes every last shred of evil in the world just by tossing some jewelry into an active volcano. Of course, we know that destroying (or even defining) evil is not that simple. But it’s still satisfying to see it done in fiction.

When characters die, however, it’s a subconscious reminder of the real world. We react so strongly to death in fiction because it reminds us that problems like death can’t be solved, not even in fictional realities.

It’s weird, but as much as they can sometimes upset us, character deaths often shape good fiction. Without people dying left and right, would A Song of Ice and Fire be the compelling series that it is? Definitely not. No matter what the reason, killing beloved characters is an essential part of fiction.

But still. Bambi’s mom was over the line, Disney.




Guest post contributed by Kyle Massa. Kyle writes speculative fiction, blogs, some non-fiction, and the occasional tribute to coffee. 

29 thoughts on “Why Do We Care When Characters Die?

  1. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    I’ve cried when characters die because I experienced a hard-to-explain connection that often occurs as a result of exquisitely written books by talented writers who have the super-power ability to grab readers’ attentions and hold us log after the last page . . . or maybe I’m just stark, raving mad 🙂


  2. I feel with fictional characters we come to know them better than we generally do regular people. We see into their hearts, we learn their motivations. They’re closer to us than “real people”.


  3. So true, we’re sympathetic creatures at heart, we care and raise our offsring longer than any species on this planet. Of course whilst reading we’re gong to have our favorite character kick the bucket into the never-never every now and then. If this upsets you, then know this, we’re only human after all.


  4. When Trinity died in the Matrix, I felt so bad for Neo. And you’re right, neither of them really exist. So why do I feel bad for them. It’s a trip and I’ve never really given it much thought until now. Thanks a lot! But I’m toiling now with whether or not to allow the hero of my soon coming trilogy to die. His death would fit better than allowing him to leave, but I like the chap a lot and would really hate to see him go. Man, that’s weird now that you think about it.


  5. Reblogged this on MJ And Jenn's Place and commented:
    Interesting thoughts on this subject here. My thoughts? Because we get lost in a good book, movie or TV show. Sometimes we even “live” vicariously through them! The characters become our friends and family. sometimes we even see ourselves in various characters. When they die (or otherwise move on) we loose part of the magic. Just my 2 cents 😉


  6. And also (a different angle on empathy), even though our heads know a character isn’t real, our hearts don’t know the difference. Whether the character is physical or virtual doesn’t seem to matter if they feel real and we’ve invested emotionally in them.


  7. I don’t remember about Bambi’s mother but I know do remember that it was hard to leave my characters once I finished writing my book. And I’ve shed many a year watching movies where the character died or simply during sad scenes.


    1. Very true. I have an emotional connection with most of characters and they never leave you. They are like old friends that you lose touch with, but you never forget them and are on some level, always connected. So a loss is always going to be a loss, plus if you are writing about that loss, you are going through the emotions and pains of losing that character.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I like to think our favorite characters actually live in another universe that we can tap into. I hope to see my own characters when I die. Maybe it’s my way of avoiding mourning the loss of them when one dies or a series ends.


  9. I think character deaths are impactful based on who they are and what they stand for. We usually don’t cry when a villain or a secondary character who betrays the protagonist dies, but we get upset when a character we empathize with or whom the protagonist tries to save perishes.


  10. Oh love this post!! I really love your theories- and think it’s probably a mixture of the first and the last reason. We certainly learn to empathise through reading, but we also map ourselves onto the characters- so when they die it’s a bit like a friend *and* a bit of ourselves has died. Really excellent post- and yes, Bambi’s mum was over the line 😉


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