How to get readers to care about a dead character?

Touchebag 05/15/2018. 7 answers, 1.346 views
style plot narrative

My story happens as a result of one of the main characters getting murdered. I'm wondering how to get readers to care about someone who's not even in the story (as far as the readers know anyway) or at least sympathize with the other main character and their relationship other than "She was probably his girlfriend or something".

Her (their) backstory is not that interesting without the context of the current, post-death storyline so I don't really want to start with 5 chapters of backstory that will be boring for the reader until chapter 10.

I have an idea about doing some kind of flashbacks, something I later realised wuold be quite similar to what the "Arrow" TV series does, but I am unsure how to write this effectively without confusing the reader.

How can I write these flashbacks in a reader-friendly way? Or if anyone have some completely different idea of how to write something like this.


While several of the answers gives an interesting approach about basically not telling the backstory it is not quite what I am looking for so I thought I should give more information.

The backstory is not just about her. She and the main character have done a lot of things that are still affecting the future either directly or indirectly.

The main story will take place several years after the murder so he has gotten over the initial shock (i.e. he is not lying awake at night crying about her) but he still has to deal with the consequences of their time together.

An example would be that the main character might replace her with a android that they built together (not quite what will happen but easier to explain) and I want to both tell the background story of how they built that android as well as how said android differs from the real version (speech, personality etc.).

7 Answers

Kirk 05/15/2018.

You don't necessarily want or need flashbacks and you don't necessarily need the reader to like the character who died in an intimate way where they actually know who that character was. What you want is for the reader to understand what the lack of this character has done to the world and to see other people who for good reason miss that character.

An example: your main character used to make coffee for his girlfriend every morning. He wakes up and is tired, not quite there; makes two cups and leaves hers on the counter, takes a sip of his own and then remembers there's no one to drink the second cup. Here you see the main character cared enough to do something for this person, and you get to see his sadness when something simple and mundane falls apart. He can get choked up for a moment, doesn't have to melodramatic and just pour out the coffee and walk out the door.

Little things like that. Show where the connections used to be and are now severed. If there's a group, make sure there's an obvious empty spot in the room. Just add a bit of stress. Showing how the living liked and cared for the person who his gone and how they're diminished just a bit without that person in their lives is enough.

Flashbacks are often crutches. They're usable, but not necessary to simply impart a sense of grief, loss, and even likability for the dead.

It really depends on what you're trying to say as to which way you go. A character who was overly dependent on his gf might have relied on her a lot and been quite thankless while he had her around. You can make him really look like a jerk depending what examples of severed ties you use. But, a guy who did a lot for the gf is going to come across as more sympathetic, unless he literally did everything in which case you can get into overly codependent or sycophant territory again.

My recommendations for avoiding common mistakes are these:

  • It's likely going to be bad if your character cries at the end of multiple scenes/chapters because it likely won't feel earned. Not everyone is a cryer, for one, and for two crying is used regularly as a shortcut for more of a tell and less of a show. (Show Don't Tell; This one's non-obvious to some people because if novice authors show a character crying, but don't do the show of the emotional baggage behind it that really earns the moment)

  • Avoid the mary-sue. No one is perfect. Make sure the relationship and the people in them had flaws, even if they're endearing flaws. Don't make it totally flawed either. You're not looking for perfect balance, but you don't want to tip the scales into unbelievabality.

  • Less is more. Remind enough that the reader gets it, but if its not important to the active story a lighter touch is better. Every time you break for a moment like this it will throw a speed bump in your pacing. The longer the break, the more off track you'll get (you're right to worry about this); but you still need something.

  • People don't always agree about who other people were. They're rarely really far off, but it does happen. Keep in mind that not everyone will think the same thing about a person or have the same insights, but they'll all be shades of the same color. Based in the same events/facts, but different in how they were experienced. You don't need to go so far as outright hatred or outright love for everyone, in fact you shouldn't, but every person should have their own unique-but-similar reaction to the loss of the character. Intimacy-distance, Experience-Unfamiliarity & support-antagonism are all vectors you can play with and they can be different (and were) at different points in the past.

Finally, your characters all want things. It helps if the gf who is gone factored into what those characters wanted and whether they get to have them now. Its best when some of those things end up conflicting and other issues that seemed insurmountable suddenly become easier to do as the politics of life changes. Not everyone and everything should be affected, but a few goals here and there should.

Thomas Myron 05/15/2018.

I'm going to do something I swore I never would: I'm not going to answer the question. This is because I don't think you really need to get the reader to care for the dead character. Instead of answering, I'm going to explain why below. If I'm totally off on the wrong track, please let me know.

I once wrote a story similar to your situation. The main character's brother, while not dead, was captured by the enemy, and not shown until the end of the tale. The whole goal of the story was to get him back. I struggled with the same problem you have, thinking that as the goal of the story, some sympathy with the brother would be needed since he never showed up until the very end. As it turned out later, I was wrong.

The story is in fact about the main character (or MC). As long as you have developed your main character correctly (which I detail here and here), the simple fact that the MC cares about the dead character is enough.

The only time you might need to worry about creating sympathy with the dead character, is if things come to light which make him unfavorable in the eyes of the reader. Even if the MC still cares about him, the reader might start wondering why, and that logic, if left unanswered, can actually start damaging the reader's sympathy for the MC as well.

To avoid that, have some strength for the dead character come to light, preferably something which negates the bad thing we've discovered. He was a thief? He was remorseful and returned everything years later. He was selfish? Maybe he made the ultimate selfless sacrifice when it counted.

As I mentioned above, you don't need to create sympathy with the dead character unless there is something actively working against you. If there is something working against you though, and you do need to include the strength I mentioned above, how do you include it? In a backstory?

Probably not. While there's nothing inherently wrong with backstories, there is something wrong with writing more than you need. All you need in this case is to make the reader aware of the dead character's strength. In nine cases out of ten, you won't need a backstory for that. Take my two examples above:

  • You need to show that the dead character - a thief - was remorseful and returned everything he stole.
    • He mailed them just before he died, and his victims start receiving the packages when it is convenient to the story.
  • You need to show that the dead character - a selfish person - made the ultimate selfless sacrifice when it counted.
    • There's a host of ways to do this. Off the top of my head, maybe new forensic evidence is found at the scene of the sacrifice, and the truth is discovered.

Conclusion: Always ask yourself why a character needs reader sympathy. In this case, the simple fact that the MC cares for the dead character is enough. The MC is the Main Character for a reason: she's the one we want to win in this story, not the dead character.

The only time your dead character needs sympathy is when there is something actively working against him. Even then, don't be confused: the dead character does not need sympathy because the reader needs to be on his side. The dead character needs sympathy because, with the information the reader has, it is illogical that the MC cares about him the way she does. Supply the reason for why the MC cares about the dead character, and you're golden.

Best of luck!

White Eagle 05/15/2018.

You don't have to have a flashback for this to work

You could have the characters care the character who was killed. This in turn can lead to the reader caring. You could also use dialogue between characters as they reflect on their memories of this character to develop the dead character. You could make the dead character (or their absence) central to the story. There a number of stories that do this.

However, you could still use flashbacks. How you use flashbacks largely depends on the genre or feeling you are going for. If you a writing a thriller, a fast paced, confusing flashback could help keep suspend going. If you are writing a less intense story, you may want to focus on the relationship between the other characters and now deceased character.

Another thing is to have the still living characters go through the deceased character's valuable belongs. This can make the character more human and explain the character more to the reader.

Finally, I strongly recommend reading stories that do this well. J. Mark Bertrand's Back on Murder does a really great job making you care about character who are dead. It is also brilliantly written all around.

Jay 05/15/2018.

Have the other characters talk about the dead person.

Make the talk personal and realistic. The things that make us get emotional about someone who is gone are not things like how he surpassed the sales quota at his job or that he was a co-sponsor of legislation to reduce tariffs on bauxite.

It's the little, personal things. Like I saw a TV show once (episode of Babylon 5) where a character says how he misses his dead wife and talks about things like, I saw a story on the news and I thought, I have to tell Ann about this, she's interested in things like that. And then I realized that I couldn't tell her about it because she's gone. I liked Kirk's idea about someone close to the dead person making two cups of coffee. Done well, I can imagine a very poignant scene with him staring at the extra coffee cup, realizing she will never drink it. Or to give a personal example, not someone dying but when my wife left me, some time later I got a pay raise, and I remember looking at the memo about the raise and thinking, When we were married, this would have been cause for celebration. We might have gone out to dinner with the new money and talked about what dreams we had together that were now a step closer, and made plans together. But now, it's just, well, I guess this will make it easier to pay the alimony.

Like many things in writing, it's all about doing it well. If you make it too clinical and shallow, "It's hard getting along without Bob because he had a bigger credit limit", the reader isn't going to get very involved with the characters. But if you try to be very emotional and profound and fail, it can be melodramatic. Being profound is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. If you try to be exciting and don't quite make it, the story can still be somewhat exciting. If you try to be romantic and fail, the story can still be somewhat romantic. Etc. But if you try to be profound and fail, you usually aren't somewhat profound. Rather, you're lame and cloying.

Don't overdo it. Don't make other characters totally incapacitated by the loss of this person -- not unless that's an element of the plot.

MTA 05/15/2018.

Use diary entries.

As a substitute for narrative flashbacks, include short chapters interspersed among the main chapters that consist of diary entries written by the dead girl in first person present tense. If well crafted, the reader can quickly get into her head and become endeared to her. Provide diary entry dates that correspond to the timeline of the story. The existence of the diary doesn't need to be known by the boyfriend, though it could be if it furthers your narrative goals.

Kevin 05/15/2018.

Don't reveal that she's dead

At least, not at first.

Not sure if this will work in your story, or if it fits what you want to do, but you could try framing it in such a way that the reader doesn't realize that she is dead. One example that comes to mind is the Newberry Award winning Walk Two Moons

Snifkes 05/15/2018.

I am not a proficient story writer but I try to pay attention to the story line more than anything else when I absorb art. I will work with your latest edit:

An example would be that the main character might replace her with a android that they built together (not quite what will happen but easier to explain) and I want to both tell the background story of how they built that android as well as how said android differs from the real version (speech, personality etc.).

If you want to avoid falshbacks, you can work with what I think is called projections. Let's say if I would lose my loved one, I still carry her in my thoughts. I can see how this person views the world to the point that it becomes almost a dissociative identity disorder. Very harshly put, what I actually mean is that you can have impact from that dead character by having the living character mentioning what she would think, comparing her to the android, fearing/excusing-himself-through her reaction if she knew he would replace her with the android. This is a very smooth way, I find, to go to a flashback without doing it Tarantino style but simply as a literary tool (which I think is often used in stories).

However, this is only one option. Another option is to have a third character evaluating the living character based on the dead one. So the story will come out naturally through the living characters reminiscing.

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