I was watching a movie last night which began with a guy meeting a bunch of other characters. One character was clearly younger than the rest. The moment he spoke, I thought to myself, “He’s gonna die.”
And he did.
By the end of the film, he died like storytelling clockwork.
How did I know he would die? Is it because I’m a genius?
Well, I’m sure that’s part of it. 😛 But it’s a trope I’ve noticed over and over again. If there is a supporting character who fulfills the “pure believer” archetype, he usually dies by the end of the film.
Who is the “pure one”? I’m still not quite sure how to define this archetype. Often, he’s the youngest of a group. Or he could be a “less-human” character, simple and closer to nature. He’s not necessarily “pure” in the sense of “innocence”; he maybe criminal or a murderer in a story about mobsters. He’s just the most “pure” out of all the hero’s supporting characters. As far as I’ve observed, he’s always a supporter of and believer in the hero, at least in the sense of supporting what the hero needs to learn. And often the main character supports him in return, perhaps being a mentor to him.
The pure one might die near the beginning of a story to serve as a catalyst for the hero’s journey. (“Noodles, I slipped.” Dominic in Once Upon a Time in America. The kid brother in Road to Perdition. Carl’s wife in Up.) If this happens, there will probably be reminders of him throughout the story to remind the hero of what he lost, such as an old photograph. The pure one might die at the midpoint or somewhere in the second half of a story to raise the stakes and remind the hero what he’s fighting for. (What Blake Snyder would call a “whiff of death”, perhaps?) Lastly, the pure one might take a martyrdom beat right before or as part of the climax. (Or right after the climax. I think that risks making the beat much weaker, but it’s been done.)
And, of course, the pure one’s death might be only symbolic in nature; actual death is too weighty for certain sorts of stories. And the pure one might be “reborn” after his brush with death to continue aiding the hero. For example, in Jurassic Park, the child Tim is resuscitate after he’s electrocuted and stops breathing. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Samwise almost drowns as he wades out to Frodo to join him on his quest to Mordor, and is saved just in time. (On a side note, it’s also a trope for these sort of rebirths, whether it’s the hero or a supporting character, to involve emerging from something, especially water; it seems to evoke something very primal, the sense of water bringing new life. Baptism, anyone?) In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is shown a potential future in which Tiny Tim dies and decreases the surplus population. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the hero is shown an alternate reality in which his children are never born. These aren’t really “deaths” in the traditional sense, but they serve the same purpose: the hero must internalize (or become, or find, or learn, or whatever) what the pure character represents for him.
As I noticed this trope of the death of the pure one, I was of course reminded of its parallel trope: the death of the mentor. When the character has an older and wiser mentor supporting and believing in him, he often bites the dust as well. Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore being some obvious examples. And there are plenty of stories in which the death of a parent or some supportive older character launches the hero on his journey. It seems like mentors and pure ones are kind of two sides of the same coin. They believe in and support the hero, but the hero needs to learn to internalize what they represent before the story’s end.
And I suppose that’s why they need to die. Because the hero has to find them in himself, as cheesy as that might sound.
As a dying pure one once said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”