When a Character Dies

A few weeks ago my husband and I watched Guardians of the Galaxy which is a slap stick sort of movie about a man who is determined to be a hero and save the universe, no matter what. The movie itself was light, and between fights, explosions, and narrow escapes the hero, Peter Quill, struggles with his past. (**WARNING** there are spoilers in this post).

In the opening scene, Peter Quill is a young boy in a hospital room with his dying mother. It is his birthday. She beckons him to come closer to give him his gift. Through his father’s encouragement he does take it but cannot open it before she dies. He runs from the hospital distraught. In the next scene he is a grown man fighting the evil forces of the universe still carrying his unopened birthday gift in his go-bag.

What is it about this opening scene that has me in a bit of a twist? The dying mother. Why? As writers, some of us feel this need to have a person die in our stories and, in general, that is ok. It adds tension, emotion, action, a plot twist, but as writers are we all thinking about how this could effect our readers? Do we write in a death without considering what that death might mean to someone outside of the characters in the story?

Early in November I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It hit me like a blizzard of boulders. Every emotion, thought, and feeling about cancer lead me to death’s door. The inner anxiety was deeply palatable. “Will I see my children grow? Will I see my son become a renowned musician? Will I read my daughter’s first published book? I’m going to die! No, I’m not going to die! I can’t die! I’m not ready to die!” On and on this inner dialog went, unrelentingly frightening. Now, it is March and I am more than half way through chemo treatments, awaiting surgery and radiation therapy, yet the inner voices have calmed down and I know I will remain among the living for many years to come.

In the opening scene of the dying mother in Guardians of the Galaxy she has cancer. She bore the ultimate symbol of a cancer patient, baldness. This scene was so quick, yet it hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting. That could be me.  I have cancer and seeing a scene of someone dying from cancer was very unsettling. All of those emotions came rolling over me again and I asked myself, “Why couldn’t she have died in a car accident instead?” Yet, if she had died in a car accident, wouldn’t it hit someone else the same way and then they would have asked, “Why couldn’t she have died from cancer?”

My point is to ask you, the writer, to be aware of your reader and what tragedies may have touched their lives. When you add a scene of a dying mother, father, son, or best friend, be sure to consider the scene carefully. Think of your reader who may have stood by as their father tragically slipped away from Alzheimer’s, or a mother who lost the battle with breast cancer as her children helplessly watched. Bear in mind the pain and suffering that a loss brings in the real world, then when a character dies in your story give consideration to that death. Recognize that your character may have had a family, and give homage to their loss in some way. Peter Quill came to grips with his mother’s death and finally, after many years, opened his birthday present from her. By doing this the screen, the writers brought his mother’s death to a gentle and loving close. They honored not only the character, but the audience as well.

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