This article is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time.
Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger)
I just saw this series on Netflix called Resurrection, a Turkish series. And one of the main characters, Halime, who became the wife of the main character Ertuğrul—she’s in 80 percent of the series, and toward the end she dies. It’s a very subtle thing, she’s nurturing her child, leaning over, and she just quietly—she just dies. You don’t want it to happen, but after you’ve seen so many people get their heads chopped off … those didn’t bother me so much as her passing in such a poetic way.
Read an interview with Charles Burnett about the death of Harry in To Sleep With Anger.
Scott Z. Burns (Contagion)
This is gonna be an obscure and strange one. There’s a book called Platform by Michel Houellebecq. There is a death at the end of that book, which is a very dark and twisted book that you would never think would pack the emotional punch it does after wading through some very sordid landscape. And I was just gutted by it. It’s a really fucked-up, twisted book, twisted story, that is sort of consciously unemotional, and then all of a sudden it really got me in the gut.
Read an interview with Scott Z. Burns about the death of Beth Emhoff in Contagion.
Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)
There’s quite a few and they hit for various reasons. For example, Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones was especially insightful to me as a writer. The books and the TV show never recovered from the loss of Joffrey as an organizing malefactor. I always thought that it would have been smarter for the show to have kept a post-poisoned Joffrey around for another season as a slowly dying derange-O rather than plucking him out of the story altogether.
At a more emotional level, there’s the senseless death of Joseph Li-Chin Shing in Octavia Butler’s Dawn (a post-apocalyptic neo–slave novel par excellence). This one requires a bit of plot background. Humans destroy themselves in a nuclear war and the survivors are “rescued” by an alien race who plans on breeding with the survivors in order to improve themselves. Let’s just say most of the surviving humans are opposed to the Trade but the aliens of course insist. Anyway, Joseph is one of the survivors, a Chinese American brother who is this clear-minded, positive soul, a rare person and a beautiful partner for the novel’s protagonist Lilith. She’s forced to work with the aliens and Joseph tries to help her navigate this impossible situation. In the end he is murdered by other humans for being a traitor to the race. Butler doesn’t ever pull punches, but this death was extra horrible, and it was never clear how much Joseph is targeted for his alien affiliation or simply because he’s Asian American.
But the deaths I’ve never gotten over, which continue to haunt me to this day, 30 years after I first read the novel at university, were those of Hagar and Pilate in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. There’s so much to be said about these twin tragedies and the terrible patriarchal complicities that led to them, but perhaps it’s better just to read the novel (if you haven’t), which happens to be one of the best books ever written in English. If you have to be haunted, let it be by Morrison, by the best.
Read an interview with Junot Díaz about the death of Oscar de León.
Kris Johnson-Salazar (“Darkly Dreaming Scooby”)
Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer means a lot to me, because you think she’s just a pretty blond homecoming queen, but she’s so much more than that. You realize how much she’s helped people and she had best friends and was a victim of sex trafficking and drug addiction—she was an actual living person. You don’t get that immediately because of how the show is an investigation. Her death is what starts everything. But she’s such a detailed character.
Read an interview with Kris Johnson-Salazar about the death of Scrappy-Doo.
Eric Kaplan (Futurama)
The death of Werner Ziegler, the nerdy German engineer in Better Call Saul. The show is towering, a towering work of art. I can’t tell that much without spoiling it. It’s about … a man who is a total innocent, who has made a huge mistake. No, I’m spoiling it!
[Slate: Well, this whole package is nothing but spoilers.]
OK, OK. He is building a secret drug lab, and it needs to be, you know, secret. And at some point he leaves because he misses his wife. And then a guy who’s basically a good guy has to kill him. And the guy who has to kill him says, “What did you think was gonna happen?” And he says, “Well, I thought I would say that I made a mistake, and because you’re my friend, you would have been like, ‘OK, you made a mistake,’ and then we would have a nice laugh about it.” It’s really heartbreaking.
Read an interview with Eric Kaplan about the death of Seymour the dog.
Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise)
The one that immediately springs to mind and still stays with me, because I just remember the first time I saw it when I was a kid, of just being absolutely, completely devastated, is Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Just the sense of injustice. It just killed me. It still does.
Read an interview with Callie Khouri about the deaths of Thelma and Louise.
Stephen King (It)
The murder of Marion Crane in Psycho shocked me. The death of Walter White in Breaking Bad felt like losing a friend (a bad friend, admittedly). In books, Gus in Lonesome Dove. Randle McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest. And although Winston Smith isn’t dead at the end of 1984 … he really is. As for my own books, I was sorry when Tad Trenton died in Cujo.
George Pelecanos (The Wire)
The death of Judd (Joel McCrea) at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country is the one that has haunted me for years. After being betrayed and then joined in battle by his friend Gil (Randolph Scott), Judd is mortally wounded. He absolves Gil for his past sins, and then asks him to leave. Gil complies. Judd, left alone to die, looks back at the California high country, then falls out of frame, into eternity and time. We hold on the majestic mountains. Peckinpah’s ode to friendship, redemption, and the end of the frontier is a stunner, as is Judd’s proclamation of a life well spent: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
Read an interview with George Pelecanos about the death of Wallace.
Richard Powers (The Overstory)
When I was in my 20s, I was struck by the death of Bergotte in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Bergotte, an accomplished and celebrated author, despite a severe illness, decides to risk his health to go see a special exhibition that includes Vermeer’s painting View of Delft. Feverish and dizzy, he reaches the gallery and stands in front of the immense painting. The colors and forms come alive to him, and the writer is filled with second thoughts about his own life’s work. The desire to go beyond a certain aridity in his style and to find new colors leaves him weak and delirious. He staggers through the crowded room to a nearby chair, sits, tells himself he is merely suffering from indigestion, then keels over onto the floor, dead!
As an old man, I find the scene a little histrionic, in a charming and archaically modernist way. But I still think of it, for a reason that goes beyond the book. The story goes that in the last few hours of his own life, knowing that he was dying with his massive book still unfinished, Proust asked for the manuscript passage of the death of Bergotte. Filled with writerly second thoughts, he is said to have asked for another chance to revise the scene, now that he had a better sense of what he was talking about.
Read an interview with Richard Powers about the death of Mimas.
Annie Proulx (“Brokeback Mountain”)
The 1945 Bosnian-Serb Nobel Prize winner The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić. Read of the impalement and you will never, ever forget it.
David Simon (The Wire)
As heroic deaths go, Jimmy Cagney’s Rocky walks toward the electric chair with a sneer on his face, and only pretends to cry, to help reform the Dead End Kids in Angels With Dirty Faces. Saw it as a kid on Sunday afternoon TV and never forgot a single frame of it ever after. Savage.
Norman Stiles (Sesame Street)
Randle, in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has two death scenes. The one where he walks into the day room after the lobotomy has killed his identity. And the mercy killing that set him free.
Read an interview with Norman Stiles about the death of Mr. Hooper.
Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury)
If I’m completely honest, and this is going to kill you, the one I’ll never forget is the death of Jenny Cavilleri in Love Story. Got me in both the book and the movie. But I wasn’t alone. The whole audience was sobbing, uncontrollably. When I left the theater, there was a long line of women outside the restroom waiting to fix their makeup. Ironic, as Jenny had no such problem as she lay dying, beautifully, of cancer. Her makeup was perfection.
Read an interview with Garry Trudeau about the death of Andy Lippincott. And read the rest of our articles about the greatest fictional deaths of all time.