If one or more of these apply to you, I’m afraid I have some bad news.
Maybe you’re a fan favorite, someone viewers have wanted dead since you first stepped on screen, or just some random minor character nobody cares all that much about. Regardless, if some of the following sound familiar to you, you should probably start preparing your goodbyes:
1. You promised to come back alive.
“We’ll talk later.” “You can’t get rid of me.” “I’ll be right back.” “Don’t worry.” All of these statements are code for “hold my beer, I’m about to go skewer myself on the nearest pointy thing.” If you made a statement of this nature to appease an anxious significant other or especially a child, all bets are off. I’m afraid you just signed your own death warrant, friend.
EXAMPLES: Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon (Game of Thrones)
2. You are the Most Important Person to a character in need of a heavy dose of angst.
Significant others (wives especially) are the most common targets, but parents, children, siblings, and mentors can all also succumb to this incredibly dangerous condition. Look at it this way: you’re just too good at what you do. You make this other person very happy, but the plot requires said person to not be happy anymore—and, unfortunately for you, the plot does not require you alive. You’ve got a decent chance of coming back in heartstring and/or plot twisting flashbacks or as a ghostly apparition to torment this person, though, so at least there’s that.
EXAMPLES: Rachel Dawes (The Dark Knight), Mal Cobb (Inception), Leonard’s wife (Memento)—almost everything Christopher Nolan’s ever done, really—Shmi Skywalker (Star Wars), Grace Shelby (Peaky Blinders), Magneto’s mother/family (X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Apocalypse), Tracy Mills (Se7en)… this is a really, really popular one.
3. You have just told us all about your future.
Or, in other words, all the reasons you want to live—you’ve got big dreams, a family to get back to, etc., etc., etc. While I certainly understand, dear soldier in a trench, why you are waxing poetic about the girl waiting for you back home and the pretty white picket fence your future home will have—oh, and look, you even have a picture, isn’t that sweet—you have pretty much just guaranteed that white picket fence will never exist outside of your imagination. Look at it this way—why would the audience need to know about what you’re going to do if you’re going to be around for them to see you do it? …Exactly.
EXAMPLES: Robb Stark (Game of Thrones), Andrew Henry (The Revenant)
4. You have just told us all about your past.
Perhaps you’re usually more of a peripheral figure or just not the most talkative of individuals, but you’ve just given a rather long and enlightening speech about your backstory and why you are the way you are. It’s almost as if you’re trying to squeeze in addressing any and all questions the audience might have about you while you’re still around to answer them… hmm.
EXAMPLES: Yoren (Game of Thrones)
5. You are the mentor of a budding young hero.
Don’t blame me. Blame Joseph Campbell. It doesn’t explicitly state in The Hero With a Thousand Faces or other sources laying out the Hero’s Journey that you have to die, but it’s pretty implicit. Like with #2, you can almost take it as a compliment—you’re just too good at what you do. If you were around with all your knowledge and skill and wisdom, our designated hero would never get to do much hero-ing because you’re just so much better at it. Besides, if you did stick around, you’d probably keep our young hero from making stupid life choices—which, logically, sounds like a good thing, but considering that’s where about 80% of the adventure in most adventure storylines comes from, you and your sage advice must come to an end.
EXAMPLES: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Han Solo (Star Wars), Dumbledore (Harry Potter), The Ancient One (Doctor Strange)
6. You are the hypotenuse of a love triangle stuck in a stalemate.
You and Person A both love Person B. Unfortunately for Person A, you got there first—perhaps even put a ring on it. Kicking you to the curb without due cause would be out of character for Person B, and you have no intention of giving Person B due cause. However, very unfortunately for you, the powers that be totally want Person A and Person B to end up together, meaning you have got to go.
EXAMPLES: Lavinia (to make way for Mary/Matthew, Downton Abbey), Neal (Emma/Hook, Once Upon a Time), The Mother (Ted/Robin, How I Met Your Mother)
7. You have outlived your usefulness.
Whether you have outlived your usefulness as a henchman to the villain (or just more generally plot-wise), do not be surprised if you are paid for your troubles with a bullet to the head. If you reach the point where viewers start wondering “what are you doing here?” the answer might be that you won’t be around much longer.
EXAMPLES: Most of the Joker’s henchmen/associates (The Dark Knight), Bane really likes this one too (The Dark Knight Rises). James Bond villains also approve of this strategy.
8. Your redemptive arc needs a checkmate.
The later along in the storyline your redemptive arc appears, the less likely you are to survive it. Odds are you will survive for a little while after switching sides to provide a source of tension for our band of heroes (there’s always at least one of them that will not trust you). However, if the powers that be intend for the moral of the story to be that you are really a good person after all, you will need to prove it, and nothing says “I am one of the good guys” like a heroic sacrifice. Taking a killing blow for one of our heroes is quite common (see #24), but just dying more generally for the cause is also an option. On the bright side, there’s a good chance your death scene will be a show-stealer. Not a dry eye in the house. And that one guy who never trusted you will probably feel guilty—or, at the very least, admit to being wrong. Score one for ghost-you.
EXAMPLES: Nux (Mad Max: Fury Road), Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Boromir (The Lord of the Rings), Detective Will Dormer (Insomnia), Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale)
9. You are on a Very Dangerous mission… and the most disposable of the fellowship.
You are on a dangerous adventure, and in order to prove that this quest is truly treacherous, somebody has got to die to set the tone. And not just some redshirts either—a real character, with an actual name and everything. Sadly for you, out of all your companions, your death would be the biggest that would not require a major swing in the narrative.
EXAMPLES: Wells Jaha (The 100), Boromir (The Lord of the Rings), Thoros of Myr (Game of Thrones)
10. You are friends with a bad luck charm.
In this dialed-up-to-eleven version of #2 on this list, you have befriended—or even worse, started dating—one of those characters who is followed around by Death like it’s their loyal pet dog, but is somehow immune. You, however, are not—and yet, you are standing well within the blast radius. IT’S ALMOST LIKE YOU WANT TO DIE, YOU FOOL.
EXAMPLES: Don’t kiss Elizabeth Swann (Pirates of the Carribean). Or date Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time). Or sleep with Sam Winchester (Supernatural). Or marry Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones). Or mentor Harry Potter.
11. You just went to investigate a weird noise. In the dark. On your own.
To be fair, if this is the end for you it really is your own damn fault.
EXAMPLES: Most of the horror genre.
12. You are likable but disposable, and the Big Bad needs to establish his street cred.
In this companion to #9, it is not the general situation or adventure that needs to be proven dangerous, but the evil being (human or otherwise) that our surviving characters will have to face. In order to demonstrate that the Big Bad should actually make the audience feel nervous, he needs to prove his ability to kill likable characters of some importance. Sorry, Barb.
EXAMPLES: Barb (Stranger Things)
13. You just figured out the plot twist.
Go, you! You totally figured out that huge secret! Unfortunately for you, there are a lot of people out there who would like it to remain secret, and/or the powers that be would like some other characters to flail in suspense for a little while longer (how will they ever learn if they don’t figure things out for themselves?). The place where “curiosity killed the cat” meets “dead men tell no tales.”
EXAMPLES: Robert Angier (The Prestige), Ned Stark (Game of Thrones)
14. You are the bad guy… and standing on the edge of a cliff.
Disney might have this down to an art form, but they don’t have a monopoly. That said: if you find yourself in an animated land, facing off against a sweet, innocent young girl capable of talking to animals, and would like to actually win, avoid mountains, canyons, or anywhere else that features a significant drop-off. Or at least watch your step. You’d think after eighty plus years of this someone would think to add it to the curriculum at the Villain School of Cheekbones and Mustache-Twirling, but I digress.
EXAMPLES: Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Clayton (Tarzan), Charles Muntz (Up), Gollum (The Lord of the Rings)
15. It is the final shoot-out, and you are not top billed.
Second billed has a hope. What if your name is not even on the poster, you ask? Well… it was nice knowing you.
EXAMPLES: Just about every Western ever, along with Tarantino’s everything.
16. You are being played by one of those actors.
You know, the ones who never fare very well. And while Sean Bean might be the most meme-able, he is far from alone.
EXAMPLES: According to an article over at Nerdist back in 2014, John Hurt holds the record for most screen deaths (43), followed by Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and then finally Sean Bean. However, if you look at the deaths-per-film average, Sean Bean and Bela Lugosi tie for first with 0.32 deaths/film (though this was back in 2014, so with more recent projects included, Sean Bean’s personal death rate might be slightly lower), shortly followed by John Hurt and Mickey Rourke with 0.31 deaths/film.
17. You are being played by a big actor who nobody realized was in this film and/or seems like they would be beyond the film’s budget.
Especially if said actor does not appear or has very limited appearances in promotional materials. From the perspective of a viewer, it usually ends up going a little something like this: “Wait what, Guy Pearce is in The Hurt Locker? How did I not kn—never mind, I get it now.”
EXAMPLES: Sergeant Matt Thompson (The Hurt Locker), Bill Murray (Zombieland), Lor San Tekka (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Ryan Reynolds’ unnamed character (A Million Ways to Die in the West)
18. Things have started moving in slow motion.
It’s a battle and things are moving very fast. They need to be slowed down so that the audience can see with absolute certainty that it is you who is dying, not Redshirt McCannonFodder the 25th, and that you are in fact dying. This is not a drill. ‘Tis not just a flesh wound.
Examples: Boromir (The Lord of the Rings), Bonnie and Clyde (Bonnie & Clyde), “Priest” Vallon (Gangs of New York), Sergeant Elias (Platoon)
19. The score just got really dramatic, sad, or quiet all of a sudden.
Movies and television shows like to tell—or at least, strongly suggest—the audience how to feel through sound. Or lack of sound. Often paired with #18, because while nothing says “feel the despair” like a slow-motion scream, the actual sound of someone screaming slowed down just sounds ridiculous.
EXAMPLES: The “Death is the Road to Awe” montage in The Fountain might be the ultimate this-is-heavy-handed-but-holy-shit-it’s-so-beautiful-I-don’t-even-mind example of this, on the other end Finnick’s death in Mockingjay – Part 2 is a this-is-so-heavy-handed-I’m-not-even-sure-you’re-taking-it-seriously-anymore kind of example.
20. You are the youngest/most innocent/lovable one. In a war film.
War is hell. As there are usually no puppies around a war zone, killing the most puppy-like human to prove the absolute horror and depravity of war will have to suffice. Which, in this instance, means you.
EXAMPLES: George (Dunkirk), Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Apocalypse Now), Petya Rostov (War & Peace)
21. You just started coughing. In a period piece.
Penicillin is still a twinkle in the eye of a moldy loaf of bread. Goodbye.
EXAMPLES: Satine (Moulin Rouge!), Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Finding Neverland), the majority of novels written in the Victorian era and their respective adaptations.
22. You’re the anti-hero (or flat-out villain) protagonist and it’s the series finale.
In all of the finales of seasons past you managed to weasel your way out of near-to-certain death through cunning, daring, ruthlessness, and no small amount of luck. You had to, after all—you are the only thing holding your criminal empire together, and the series was not over yet. But there are no more seasons left. You are more than smart enough to figure out what I’m getting at here.
EXAMPLES: Walter White (Breaking Bad), Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire)
23. It’s a dark or “edgy” comedy and you are a cat.
Why can’t the dog get it? I don’t understand it either, Whiskers, but unfortunately for you that’s the way it is.
EXAMPLES: Grand Budapest Hotel, The Boondock Saints, Reno 911!
24. You took a blow for someone else.
Though not dying would likely be your preferred outcome, it would also undermine your big heroic sacrifice. That’s not to say it never happens, just that it’s very unlikely. Usually, they will leave you just enough time to share heartfelt dying words with the person you saved, so make sure to have something good prepared.
EXAMPLES: Mary Watson (Sherlock), Pietro Maximoff (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
25. You are really damn old.
Every once in a while, characters actually die of old age. It doesn’t happen particularly often—the Cinemorgue Wiki, which as it turns out is a thing that actually exists (and yes, is exactly what it says on the tin) features fewer deaths scenes from old age (445) than burning (1,834), decapitation (1,094), being eaten alive (511), electrocution (650), and monster attack (805)—just to name a few—but it can happen.
EXAMPLES: Peggy Carter (Captain America: Civil War), Aemon Targaryen (Game of Thrones)