Literary Characters Who Died Too Soon


Last week, we were struck by the news that J.K. Rowling had considered offing our favorite grumbling redhead Ron Weasley in one of the Harry Potter books. And why? For “sheer spite,” she says. Though we have to admit that we’re overwhelmingly glad that Rowling left Ron well enough alone, the news got us to thinking about literary characters that were killed off by their authors, especially those that passed a little too soon for our liking. Authors kill beloved characters for many reasons — to advance the plot, to evoke an emotional response, or just to prove that they’re Not Kidding Around — and though we understand all of these, we can’t help but have an emotional reaction every once and a while that is akin to a child being relieved of its favorite toy. Read our list of literary characters who, at least in our estimation, died way too soon after the jump, and be sure to chime in with your own favorite characters that you wish had stuck around a little longer. But be warned: as with any post about character deaths, spoilers abound ahead.

Boromir, Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Almost nobody dies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — at least, almost nobody we care about. We were tempted to put Gandalf the Grey here, seeing as we think his depth as a character was sorely diminished after his return from the grave, but Boromir’s death was the more distressing. After all, he is the only member of the original fellowship that dies, and for what? To prove the power of the ring? At this point in the books, we’re already well convinced of that, so as far as we’re concerned Tolkien could have let them have the extra sword hand. Sigh.

Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

When we actually looked back, we were surprised that Sirius lasted as long as he did — the fifth book, out of seven — because in our minds he was swept from the story impossibly early. In later books, Rowling kills off other characters about whom we care deeply, but Sirius Black is the first of these, and probably the one who has incited the most fan outcry (and fan fiction). It was all there at Harry’s fingertips — love, family, belonging, a cool godfather who was best friends with his dad and treated him like a grownup — but all that was slashed in one fateful step backwards.

Ned Stark, A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

To be sure, George R.R. Martin is the undisputed king of killing off characters you were just sure couldn’t die. “It keeps you on your toes,” he says. “I want people emotionally involved in my story. I want readers to be afraid to turn the page, not knowing who’s going to live and die.” Ned Stark was only the first of such deaths in the epic adventure series, but his is the one that still cuts deep several books later. Or as a friend of ours (who has admittedly only seen the HBO version of the books) wailed, “they killed the guy on the poster in the first season!” Yes, it still pains us too. Sidenote: Sean Bean really does not have any luck in this area.

Gavroche, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

True, Gavroche makes it almost to the end of the novel — he dies at the beginning of the last volume — but any death for him was too soon for us. Why kill the little kid, Victor Hugo? You get to kill everybody else we’ve ever cared a whit for, sparing only the young lovers, but all of their deaths make dramatic, tragic sense in the scope of their narrative. The death of Gavroche is just twisting the knife, and we protest.

Mercutio, Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

In the Guardian article, Sutherland crowns Mercutio as the “most likeable” character in Romeo & Juliet, which is fair enough, and considers his death ‘a blot on the play.’ We’re not so sure about the latter part — his passing definitely makes sense plot-wise, as it sets up the whole crumbling of the delicate balance between the families, and without his death, we might not have gotten the line “a plague o’ both your houses!” However, we agree that Romeo & Juliet has a dearth of really enjoyable characters (besotted teenagers are only slightly less irritating in Shakespeare than in real life), and Mercutio was one, so we deem him dead too early, if only for emotional reasons.

Sherlock Holmes, “The Final Problem,” Arthur Conan Doyle

In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock Holmes, complaining that the character kept his “mind from better things,” writing to his mother that he must kill the detective, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” So Conan Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes in this story, sending him over the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a death grip with Professor Moriarty. Fans were not having it. They eventually pressured Conan Doyle into bringing Holmes back from the grave, making this probably the only instance in which fans decreed that a character had died too soon and actually managed to do something about it.

Vizzini, The Princess Bride, William Goldman

If you haven’t read it, know that the book version of The Princess Bride is even more hilarious than the film version. Accordingly, Vizzini is also even more hilarious, and we felt a little sad when he died during the battle of wits with the Dread Pirate Roberts. We know he’s annoying, but we wanted more ludicrous diction! But then, when don’t we?

Helen Burns, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Poor Jane Eyre. She has been abused by the world and everyone in it right up until she meets sweet Helen at the Lowood School for Girls. It is Helen who comforts her when she is attacked and shamed by the cruel Mr. Brocklehurst, and the two have deep, sweet talks about the afterlife right before Helen dies of consumption, her arms wrapped around Jane’s neck. Too soon in so many ways.

Seymour Glass, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J.D. Salinger

The first time we meet the weird, enigmatic Seymour, he kills himself. Sure, he later appears in Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, all written after but set before his suicide. We suppose then, that at least in the Glass family universe, Seymour died as late as he could. After all, in the chronology of his life (though not, obviously, the chronology of Salinger’s writing about it) this short story is not the first time he’s tried it. Still, we miss him, and 31 is definitely too young to die.

Grampa Joad, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

All poor, lovable Grampa Joad wants is to stay in Oklahoma — he doesn’t care to set out for the so-called fruitful land of California. The family takes him west anyway, all hopped up on “soothin’ syrup” so he’ll acquiesce, but he dies at the end of the first day on the road, ostensibly of a stroke, but more likely just from change. As Jim Casy says, he’s “jus’ stayin’ with the lan’. He couldn’ leave it.”