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Death by accident

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Gryphos, Mar 14, 2015.

  1. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    I'm wondering what the general consensus is on characters being killed off by complete accident. Something rather menial like tripping and falling off a cliff or over the edge of an airship.

    If you read a story in which a character died in an accident like that, would it annoy you as a reader? Would you feel cheated in any way?
  2. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    I think it depends on who the character is. If it's a major villain or heroic character, it would probably feel kind of...cheap. If it was more of a background character, it might work better.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I guess I would say there are no accidents in fiction. If a character dies "by accident" in a novel, it's because the author wrote it and the plot needed it to be accidental and not in some other fashion.
  4. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    Well yes obviously. I'm just asking whether or not readers could possibly feel cheated by something like this.
  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Well, it depends. Any type of important character, whether they're an MC or a supporting character, dying accidentally would really annoy me. I would likely complain vociferously about it in any kind of review I gave of the book. If it's a background character it might be ok, if the death had some sort of story value. Even an accidental death can serve the story if it's done to emphasize how dangerous a situation is or paves the way for a plot point or something. But if there were really no discernible meaning to the death I would still be annoyed even if it were a background character. Not as annoyed if the character was more important, but certainly annoyed.
  6. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

    The point is, serves the accident the plot or not.

    If it is a character your readers invested a lot of emotion in, you need a strong plot twist to excuse his death, accidental or not. When you make the story stronger by the consequences of the death, you would be fine (mostly).
  7. Panda

    Panda Troubadour

    If it's used as a deus ex machina, then yes, I'd feel cheated. If the death itself isn't a deus ex machina, though, then there's no reason not to use an accident. If the main character's orphaned before the story begins, it doesn't matter if his parents died because the bad guy killed them or because their airship crashed. I'd actually prefer the latter since it's less cliche. But you can't just have the bad guy crash his airship and then they all live happily ever after.
  8. ScipioSmith

    ScipioSmith Sage

    I think a lot of the time, what would be an accident in reality would seem like a bit of an authorial cheat if done in fiction.

    Imagine: the story of a handsome young lord and a beautiful queen newly crowned. She has many suitors, for she is virtuous and intelligent and beautiful and, of course, the queen of a great nation. But, in spite of the many who seek her hand, she has eyes only for the handsome young lord, much as her aged councillors dislike him.

    The only problem is he's married. His wife is dying, which puts him in the bind of attending to his queen or his ailing wife, but at least once she passes then the lovers will be free to marry, after a discreet period of mourning.

    And then the lord's wife is found dead, of a broken neck at the bottom of a staircase in an empty house. It is probably an accident, but even the suspicion that the lord may have killed his wife in order to marry the queen is sufficient to ensure the marriage will never happen.

    If you read a story like that, you'd probably feel the ending was a bit of a cheat, a manipulative way to get out of actually paying off the story that you'd just read.

    Except I've just described the abortive affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whose wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase, in a house that was apparently empty, with a broken neck. The point being: in life, sometimes things just happen. The same cannot be said of fiction.
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    The accident and the death must serve a purpose in the story. What does the accidental death show, what message does it convey? If it happens for no reason then why even have it?

    I played this video game called Borderlands 2 (Warning story spoilers ahead) and there's a side story where you go up against bumbling mad scientist and his legion of minions and monsters. As you cut a swath through his minions and monsters heading towards him, we get to see him progressively getting more nervous and freaked out. In the end after we defeat his last bad-ass monster, the mad scientist makes his appearance. He's all freaked out and standing at the top of some stairs. He's augmented himself with a laser cannon mounted on his back and is sort of ready for a fight. He makes a grand speech and then takes a step down the stairs and tips. He tumbles down the stairs and with each bounce his life bar decreases. When he reaches the bottom, he's dead.

    I laughed my ass off when that happened, and it fit perfectly in line with how the story unfolded and the idea of a bumbling mad scientist that in no way was ready to face off against a true hero.

    If someone in the story says, "Stay away from the water because there be krakens." and someone ignores that and accidentally gets grabbed by a tentacle, it serves a purpose. It shows what the consequences are.

    If there's a purpose to the accident then I don't think the reader will feel cheated. If it's just something random that doesn't impact the story, then the reader will probably have a WTF moment.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2015
  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I agree with this.

    Say for example, the death is completely accidental. One of the characters get mowed down by a stampeding mammoth escaped from the local arena. The death would be fine, as long as it still serves a story purpose. That may be nothing more than an example to surviving characters that life is fragile, and can be snuffed out at any minute. The story may then become what the surviving characters do with that new insight, and how they adjust with the loss.

    As with everything in writing, Gryphos...it's all in the execution.
    Legendary Sidekick likes this.
  11. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Maester

    It can be used as a shock to the reader. I remember an episode of Law and Order called Aftershock, in which the episode ends with Claire Kincaid dying when her car is hit by a drunk driver while she is driving Lenny Briscoe home. There was no foretelling that this would happen in that or any other episode. It can also be seen as very funny if it is done in the proper fashion. Usually some ridiculous manner like surviving a hundred story fall from a building, only to be killed by an escaped lion, (Naked Gun 2 1/2). Regardless, it helps if you have a reason for the death vs the character moving or some other means of removing them from being with the other characters.
  12. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Years ago, I read an SF novel by Andre' Norton that featured this as a plot device: a crime lord with plots spanning several planets books passage on the MC's ship under a false ID. However, the crime lord turned out to have a bad heart and perished right after takeoff. MC didn't think too much of it at the time, unfortunate, yes, but this sort of thing happens. But the plots set in motion by the dead guy - and people who really wanted to meet with the dead guy - dominated the rest of the book.
  13. AnxietyDragon

    AnxietyDragon Acolyte

    Depends how you play it - but I think that an arbitrary 'accidental' death could be a great device to use to see how that affects the other characters in the story!
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 18, 2015
  14. Fyle

    Fyle Inkling

    I personally like it and think there is not enough of it.

    I mean, death by accident happens every day. Good question...

    I would be annoyed if it was silly, like choking on a fish bone or something. So long as it was serious and there was no confusion it was intended as an accident and a random event in the world.
    TheCatholicCrow likes this.
  15. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

    I agree with the post above. Sometimes people just die without warning. Sometimes they get a scrape, contract an infection and die. Sometimes hospitals screw up. Sometimes we screw up. Sometimes there's no explanation at all and death comes to visit us in the quiet of night. We don't know when it's coming for us and drawing attention to this can make really powerful statement.

    I know there's a difference b/n novels and plays but I always loved the ending of Hamlet- you have several accidental deaths here (Polonius and the mother to begin with ... I think Laertes as well) and whether you'd call the rest an "accident" depends on your perspective. Technically Romeo & Juliet ends w accidents (though you could make the argument that suicide is very much an intentional act). Othello is another one where information learned too late results in hasty decisions & "accidental" deaths.

    Like everyone said before, I think it depends on how you play it.

    If you're going to have someone fall of a ladder and break their neck perhaps include a scene earlier on where he's climbing something and have someone tease him "you better be careful or someday you'll fall and die". Sounds super cheesy but if there's like 5 chapters in between you could try it as loose foreshadow - placing the danger & possibility of death and ladders together in the mind of the reader and when they hit the actual death it'll be shocking but not as abrupt. (less - oh-crap- I'll kill this guy to get him out of the way).

    If its something ridiculous like a slice of bacon got caught in the axle of the wagon and he veered off the bridge because of it only to fall into the river (where there happened to be a tar deposit) and there was nothing left of his corpse b/c it was consumed by flames... if the rest of it is serious I would be disappointed but if the whole thing is lighthearted and slightly absurd- why not? It can be funny regardless of how much we like/dislike the character.

    Like anything I can think of some great accidental deaths that I love and some not so great ones but it something I wouldn't mind seeing more of.

    But I guess it might also depend on you're motivations behind why you're killing the character and the nature of your work.
    Fyle likes this.
  16. BronzeOracle

    BronzeOracle Sage

    Warning: spoilers of Matrix and World War Z.

    I remember the use of accident in Matrix Reloaded, where a broken gantry swung down and killed a crew member and this caused the death of their comrades by the machines. This was making a statement about fate versus a higher purpose that pushes events forward in an unforeseen way. Car accidents are also used in dramas as a way of bringing tragedy into the characters' lives. In World War Z the big expert on the disease who was meant to solve the problem trips over and shoots himself. Expert dead, so the protagonist must now figure it out for himself.

    The thing about accidents is that they are no-one's fault. Its not violence or sickness, its not something that can be fought or fixed. We respond differently to death by accident compared to death by violence, which generates incredible anger, hatred and a desire for retribution. Death by accident we see more philosophically.

    So I think it could easily be part of a story, but probably not with the protagonist or antagonist as those characters have fates that relate to your story's theme - unless of course your theme is to do with fate and the chances of life. Even so I'd apply this very carefully to such major characters.
  17. Mark

    Mark Scribe

    I'd feel cheated if it was an important character. It just seems too easy. With a minor character it would be alright if the accidental death of the served the plot.
  18. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I haven't killed off a character just to get rid of them... then why would they be there in the first place?
    But things have got out of hand and headed way off story when I used an accident...
    I had a Mentor die in a street mugging that was just a random bit of crime type mugging. Wrong person, wrong place wrong time. He resisted and got stabbed in the struggle for his money - just one of those things that happens in dark alley late at night...
    For the rest of the story the MC was certain that it had been a targeted attack on her and her mentor... It made her far more edgy and protective [of a child], and eventually all but paranoid...
    I didn't see that coming.
    I hadn't thought through that [real or not] perception will frequently over-rule almost any logic and information that doesn't fit what a character thinks is happening.
    The more people tried to show her that the death was just a terrible accident/mistake/one-of-those-things, the more she became isolated - because she knew she was right...
    My plan had been to show that my MC was a strong woman and could act without her older male mentor to guide her. She didn't need him to help her within the story but she became nearly uncontrollable in her fears and reactions without him "around".
    I had to stop writing. I couldn't bring her back in. I still have little idea on how to pick things up...
  19. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    I'd say there are three things to watch out for:
    • Like people have said, keep fatal accidents away from characters that are important or that the reader has a lot invested in.
    • Don't let accidents change the plot too much-- especially, don't let them get people out of too much trouble. (Luck making things worse is all part of the writing game!) Or, put the accident early so it's understood that the story is how people deal with that.
    • Something Penpilot touched on: Look for ways that so-called "luck" is at least fed by conditions or character traits that are already part of the story. An average character falling down the stairs doesn't click the same way as doing that to someone who's careless or drunk (or maybe to someone near them who tries to catch him), or establishing it's a dangerous old house and then using that on whoever has a reason to be in it.

    The first two are limiting the accident's effects so there's still a story under it, and the third is partly justifying its causes. It's ignoring both that makes stories stop feeling like stories, and too much like the harder-to-follow side of real life.
  20. Vilya

    Vilya Scribe

    If you want this accident to happen, then I assume that you, as a writer have something to say about it.

    If it is just a minor character, then I wouldn't have a problem with it. For a character that is a little more developed, I would expect the death to mean something, either have some dire consequences, or go straight to something you want to convey thematically.

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