Friday, 7 October 2016

The Problem with Killing Off Minority Characters in Fiction

Characters die in fiction all the time, especially in Fantasy, Crime and Sci-Fi. It's just the nature of the genre. But something that has recently come to my attention is that, for some reason, it seems like the person of colour always dies first.

This post is for the wonderful #CritYourFaves Challenge hosted by Read at Midnight. The purpose behind it is to analyse the books we love and acknowledge their flaws.

The death of minority characters in fiction is hardly a new thing. In fact, it's common enough for TV Tropes to have a couple of pages on it (see: Black Dude Dies First and Bury Your Gays). The tropes even have names. Scroll through them and I promise you - you're bound to see some of your favourites.

For some reason the minority character is, in many occasions, the first to go. Or at the very least, they don't make it out alive by the end.

By looking at the header image you might've been able to guess, but the book I have in mind here is the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. TOG is not the first culprit of this 'minority character dies' trope, nor is it the last. But it is one I think needs to be spoken about more.

The series has had a total of 2 POC (People of Colour) characters, both of whom die within the series. Not only that, but they died so the white people close to them could develop as characters. It raises the question: in a world as vast and magnificent as the one in TOG, it begs the question: why is everyone white? And why do the only characters who don't fit into the vast majority end up being the ones to die?

It's a common thing for fantasy where our protagonists and the majority of those around them are white, cisgendered and hetrosexual. The fact that TOG seemed to break this trend with a POC side character was something it was praised for. Until that character died.

There are a few other works of fiction that come to mind when I think of this trope. Two of my all time favourite TV shows - Person of Interest and The 100 - fall into it as well. The main difference is that with these two shows there are a few other diverse characters around, whereas with TOG there are no others (at least not explicitly stated).

But that doesn't make up for it. Having a few other diverse characters around doesn't change the fact that this is a highly saddening trend.

In my opinion, the main problem with this trope is not that a minority character died. It's that another minority character died. It's the fact that if I see a black person (for example) on my TV screen or in a book (particularly if they aren't the primary protagonist) I've started to expect them not to survive. It's a trope that's just building up that we shouldn't be ignoring anymore. We need more diverse characters in our books and on our screens where their purpose isn't to die. This is a difficult trope to break, but I think that with more representation in our fiction, we won't have kids finding the only characters they can relate to in the ones that don't last long enough to have their own story.

Sometimes it's hard to admit the things we love aren't perfect, but it’s worse to pretend these flaws aren’t there. Thanks to Aentee for creating this challenge! I am excited to read the other #CritYourFaves discussions people will be having this month.

What are your feelings about this trope? Are there any big culprits I missed out that you think people need to talk about more? Do you have any ideas on how we as writers and readers can tackle it?

(note: I used diverse and minority as umbrella terms, but I know that it's a lot more complicated than that - I just needed words to help illustrate the points I wanted to address)


  1. I've never thought about this before - but you're right it is a disturbing trend. In fact, if they're in the minority (like in ToG, where there's only two PoC characters), shouldn't they be statistically least likely to die? o_O
    Love this #CritYourFaves post! <3

    1. It was only something I myself realised when it was pointed out to me, and yeah, disturbing is a good word. The worst part is that I don't think it's intentional. And you're totally right about the unbalanced statistics. If people have got to die in a book then it should really be a logical ballance.
      Thank you :)

  2. I have actually noticed this in a favorite TV show of mine, The Walking Dead. All of the important black people in this show have died. There is one on the show and I am going to call bulls**t if she is the one that dies in the beginning (someone is going to die for sure).
    I didn't catch it in the reading of this book (and if you read on in the series, you'll see she is a really important character, although still dead). I think it is sad that minority/gay characters die so often in books and shows. Great post!

    1. I haven't watched The Walking Dead, but I have heard from others that this trope comes up a lot in the show.
      I haven't read Empire of Storms yet, but from the previous books, I think the character is super important. It just sucks that in order for her to serve a purpose to the movement of the story she has to die. Especially since she quite literally seems to be one of the only ethnically diverse characters in the Throne of Glass universe (as far as we've seen).
      It's a really sucky trope but hopefully with more discussion about it, we'll start to see a change.

  3. I haven't read ToG, but I agree with you! Minority characters are often included to make the main characters seem more open-minded and including, and so, once this is achieved, those same minority characters can (and often are) killed off. It's a strange trope to me, both becasue it wouldn't be that difficult to have another character's death act as a change maker, and also because it makes it seem like writing minority characters is so difficult it can't really be done for a whole book or for a whole series.
    Great topic, Helia!
    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    1. Definitely - it's often that these minority characters aren't there as their own characters with actual story arcs but simply there to move the story of other characters. A lot of books have these characters, but the fact that often it is a minority character that fills this role becomes a problem, because it suggests that writers aren't willing to expand their understanding of what makes these people different to themselves in order to write them successfully, hence them never seeming to last a whole series.
      And that leads to a discussion of how people are intimidated by writing characters different to themselves because they don't understand them/they're scared they won't do them justice etc. Which is a shame since with a bit of research into different cultures it's so simple to see that we aren't all as different to each other as labels and stereoypes suggest.
      Thanks Lexxie :D

  4. Ohhh interesting topic, this has been something often criticised in tv all the time but I am not surprised that books do it too. Maybe this is something that started off as racism in the industry then grew to be an unconscious thing ? It became to common not to stop? I'm not sure really but I definitely agree that this needs to be changed and minorities need to bee seen as strong, heroic and capable like they truly are. Excellent post!

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    1. I guess with TV it's easier to criticise since people seem to forget character ethnicities in books (like how when Rue was casted in The Hunger Games people disputed her race when it was literally a thing established in the books).
      I'm also unsure as to why this is a thing because I'm almost certain it isn't outright racism. I think it's partly because of lack of understanding of different cultures/lives/etc. and also just adding them on as a token minority when anyone could take on the role of 'person who dies to move the story' (which is actually a trope I hate, no matter if the character is diverse or not). Plus if it's subconcious then I don't know how we fix it. But a step would be to having a ton more diverse characters in fiction that can serve or even lead a story without them being pushed to the sidelines.
      Thank you very much! :D