Killing Characters in Novels: Red Shirts or Dead Ponies?

Many years ago, I read a short story in school about a kid and his favorite pony. Bad stuff happens to the pony and the kid goes through herculean efforts trying to save it. In the end, the pony dies and the story was very depressing. I think it may have been a classic written by a famous author, but I’m not sure. After all these years, I don’t really remember much about it, except how much I disliked it.

I disliked it so much, in fact, that some of my friends and I started referring to the unnecessary death of a main character or a sympathetic supporting character in a novel as a “dead pony.” For example, if a fantasy author kills off a main character for no other plot reason than to show that the villain is a bad guy, that’s a dead pony. The author could have chosen other ways to signal to the reader that the villain was bad.

To this day, I still dislike dead ponies in novels. If I am warned that an author tends to kill main or secondary characters, I generally avoid reading that author’s books. (You can probably guess which immensely popular fantasy series of the past few years I did NOT watch on television.) While a character’s demise may occasionally be an integral part of a plot, gratuitous character deaths always annoy me. (One of my friends refers to those as “murder by author.”)

(And, by the way, I am only talking about fantasy novels. Other genres are very different. You can’t write a murder mystery without a murder.)

There is, however, one exception to my opinion about dead characters in fantasy novels. One type of character death does not trouble me – the death of one or more “red shirt” characters.

I assume that most of my audience is familiar with what I mean by that term, but just in case, let me explain. The name comes from the original Star Trek series. When Kirk and Spock beamed down to a dangerous planet, there was often an unnamed security officer or two who went with them. When the monster attacked out of nowhere, it would kill one or more of those security guys, putting the main characters on notice that bad things were afoot on that planet. Star Fleet security personnel always wore red shirts in the original series (hence the name “red shirts”).

When I started preparing for this week’s blog, I thought about red shirts versus dead ponies and the differences between them. What makes some character deaths in a novel more troubling than others? Here are a few of my thoughts:

The primary difference has to do with the level of investment the reader has in the character. Those security officers in Star Trek sometimes were not even given names. They had no backstory, no relationship with the main characters, and nothing to distinguish them from the scenery. While their deaths were troubling (just as any death is troubling), there was nothing to disrupt the narrative or cast a shadow over the rest of the tale.

Dead ponies, on the other hand, have a strong connection with both the other characters in the story and with the reader. In the pony story I mentioned above, you agonize with the kid as he’s trying to save the pony and you feel for both of them – the kid and his pet. When the pony dies, the disappointment hits hard for both the character and the reader.

The line between red shirt and dead pony can be a thin one. In the Lord of the Rings, King Theoden’s door warden Hama starts out as a very minor character, but quickly crosses the line when he supports the heroes at the risk of his own job. I felt bad when he died, far more than I would have for a standard minor character.

Another difference between red shirts and dead ponies may involve reader expectation. When my family used to watch Star Trek back in the 1960’s, my father always called the red shirts “expendables.” As soon as they showed up in the scene, there was an expectation that something terrible would probably happen to them in order to facilitate the story.

Likewise, when a book or movie opens with an old mentor and a young hero, a reader knows not to get too attached to the old mentor. The expectation is that he will die before the story ends, sometimes to start the young hero on his journey and oftentimes while saving the young hero’s life. It happens so often that parodies have made fun of it.

The impact of a character death may also depend on when it happens. Character deaths near the beginning of a novel are often less troubling than those that occur later. At times, a fantasy novel will have a “shake-up” event at the outset of the book that propels the story forward. As a reader, I try not to get too attached to characters until after that time of uncertainty ends and the main characters are established.

Finally, the impact of the death may depend on how the other characters in the story react to it. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, I was less troubled by Theoden’s death than I was by Hama’s, even though Theoden was a far more significant character. Why? Because the other characters told us not to be upset about it — they all talked about how Theoden had done a great thing and kept his oaths, etc.

Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts. I’ve already gone on a little longer than I usually do in a post, so I should probably end here.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 9/10/2021

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