By the way you make your descriptions poetic or factual, you can manipulate reader reactions. By giving the facts of a gruesome scene, you can inspire disgust or horror. By glossing over those facts, you can inspire a more abstract emotion having to do with the way the scene impacts the character– such as sadness, fear, or more tension. Factual representation gives you an emotional response to those facts, very real and certain. Abstract representation gives you an emotional response to what this means to the character. (I covered all this with examples and pitfalls in my post Writing with Style.)
What does this mean for a character death? In fantasy and science fiction, people die all the time, but the description of that death varies in style. Sometimes it’s poetic, only showing the gun firing and the character’s battleaxe clattering to the floor as if in slow motion. Other times it’s very matter-of-fact, showing the gun shooting the character and then moving on. It isn’t that the factual representation isn’t glossed over– it just isn’t poeticized, shot in slow motion with a tint on the camera and never showing the blood. It can be gone over in gory detail, or it can be stated and passed over. All of these styles create a different reaction from the reader.
The poetic style creates, as I said, the question of what this means for the main character. If Bill’s crossbow-wielding sidekick (Dave) dies, the implications might be manifold: the villain can only be killed by a crossbow quarrel, or Dave was responsible for pulling Bill out of a deep funk earlier in the book, or both. When Dave dies, Bill must feel terrible– how can he ever find the Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse without Dave? Dave saved him, Dave buoyed him up, Dave had far better aim with the pivotal crossbow than Bill ever had. Dave’s death has implications both for Bill and for Bill’s quest.
But imagine if Dave’s death was described in a few sentences: Bill and Dave are talking around the campfire when suddenly…
Gunshots split the air. Dave slumped forward, blood staining his shirt red. Bill jumped up, drawing his penknife and whirling to face his attackers.
A few things happened there. Dave had a one-sentence send-off, no emotion at all. He’s been such a big part of this quest, and now he’s gone– and nothing happens. That’s the other thing: Bill doesn’t mourn. Since the reader enjoyed having Dave around, he’s expecting sadness from Bill, creating sympathy. Instead, Bill jumps up and begins to fight without a thought. Sure, it moves the plot forward, but the emotion isn’t there.
But what reaction does the reader get? They get shock, a little bit of disgust. Dave’s death feels very cold through Bill’s eyes– instead of the emotion they expected, they get that quick sentence and Bill goes on to fight. Sure, Bill might be a seasoned fighter, not sparing the time to mourn, but that isn’t sympathetic. No matter how seasoned he is, Dave was important to him (at least, he should have been if there was any sympathy up to this point); he should at least have a moment of shock. That moment of shock would be given by poeticizing the description, slowing it down as if in slow motion.
Gunshots split the air. Dave started, the grin fading from his face. He frowned down at the hole in his shirt, already creeping with warm red liquid. He slumped forward.
“Dave!” shouted Bill. A bullet split the ground next to his hand and he whirled, whipping out his penknife.
This sequence accomplishes the same plot purpose as Dave’s death before (poor Dave, dying so many times in the same post), but with emotion. The reader feels the same shock and emotional impact as Bill does, which builds sympathy, instead of passing over it coldly. This improvement, combined with a weepy moment later in the story, does wonders for the emotion of the story.
However, there are times when you want to pass over a death coldly and quickly. If Bill led an army into battle alongside an army sergeant and the sergeant is the first to be gunned down, his death would be out of place very emotionally (unless Bill is a really emotional guy). Instead of describing it in slow motion, you can tell the facts and go over the death. There are emotional points elsewhere in the story, probably elsewhere in the scene– but pulling on the emotion here and then demanding more emotion later desensitizes the reader. By skimming over the shock and emotion of the death, you make the battle more real while leaving emotional contrast for later.
The poetic or factual nature of your description can accomplish the purpose your character death is supposed to achieve. (After all, characters shouldn’t die without a purpose.) If the character’s death spurs the main character on to new heights, it should be emotional and therefore poetic. If the death is going to spur the character on at all, in fact, it should be poetic. If the death is just for the sake of reality, as in a battle, and you don’t want to take too much emotion, so you present the facts and move on. It depends on your purpose. However you choose to use your character’s death, make your description work toward that end.