WARNING: This article contains plenty of spoilers.
As I turned the page, I felt the first trickle run down my cheek. It was followed by two more and then, I let myself go and a whole flood of tears gushed out, blurring my sight and threatening to dampen my copy of Me Before You. That was it. William Traynor, my all-time favourite book character, was dead.
The same had happened to me as I watched the blood seeping out of the inanimate though familiar face of well-loved Matthew Crawley on screen when Downton Abbey’s Season 3 Christmas Special, A Journey to the Highlands, first aired. Granted that this turn of events came about when Dan Stevens decided not to renew his contract, but it nonetheless seemed like executive producer Gareth Neame had embraced the chance to kill off the hero. Neame later said, “In a way, the best thing that could have happened to the story is for Mary to end up as a widow so that she had to start rebuilding her life all over again.” Meanwhile, as the film-makers rejoiced at the turn of events, the series’ female followers cried their hearts out over the loss of the knight in shining armour.
Above: Actor Dan Stevens potrays the character of Matthew Crawley
Fans were also outraged when Helen Fielding had killed off Mark Darcy before the start of the third book of the Bridget Jones saga, Mad about The Boy. Thinking about it rationally, with Bridget blissfully wedded and settled, living with the perfect man who kept her out of trouble, what could the author have done with the character best known for her blunders and dating dilemmas? You might hate me forever for saying this, but there would be no Bridget Jones 3 without Mark Darcy’s death!
And so it happens over and over, with novelists and scriptwriters killing off the likes of Severus Snape (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and Finnick Odair (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), all in the name of plot. However, writers often also get rid of villains at some point in their story. When it’s an evildoer that dies, our attitude is completely different. We feel relief and maybe also pity towards those characters that truly don’t deserve to live to tell their tale. Maybe that is why Rebecca never gets our mercy and Maxim gets away Scot-free in the much famed Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
It almost seems to me like authors, including scriptwriters, have a licence to kill. Whilst J.K. Rowling states that it’s hard to kill off her creations, George RR Martin seems to thrive on reducing his character cast each and every time. “Be thankful if your favourite characters have survived this far…” he tweeted on Thanksgiving Day of 2015.
So is it empathy, compassion, or interest that makes us care? It could even be that through a particular character, we’re allowed to live an alternate reality of our own. It all hinges on the author’s timing and the background provided for a character. A death at the start of a story does not affect us at all, because we’ve not yet had a chance to bond with the deceased. If, however, we’re allowed to enter a character’s life and watch it from up close, then we’re made intimate with that character’s traits and dreams, even the thoughts and feelings and the world in which they live.
My husband and I watched the same film, and both of us faced the main character’s death in the climax to the story. A little part of me died along with the man, whilst my husband got up from the sofa and walked back to his life unaffected when the credits rolled up. I know that characters aren’t real, yet having shared with them a bond of sorts, I’ll never stop mourning those that leave my pages or screen in untimely ways, regardless that we are literally worlds apart.