Tragedy has long been a key element in storytelling, it brings conflict and drama to a story. One of the most common forms of tragedy in literature is the death of a character, which (should) have a profound impact on motivations and actions of characters in the story. Reading through books and watching shows of late has increasingly highlighted how much death and tragedy gets used as a motivating factor in media.
Death is such a common theme in popular books, movies and television and it is often used to motivate characters in stories. And it’s something we all understand, the impermanence of ourselves and of those around us is something we all deal with at some point, soemtimes earlier than others and some feels the effects more strongly than others (or at least are more receptive to the feelings whereas others are more suppressive of the feelings). This commonality is why it gets used so frequently in fiction, especially as a motivating factor for characters.
Death has a few ways of acting as a motivator for characters, the first and most obvious is the the loss of a loved one, be they sibling, parent, mentor or friend. Deaths like these can shape the motivations and actions of the main character as they seek to honor the memory of their loved one or seek revenge, or just flee from it all, if only to return later as in “The Lion King”. Sometimes deaths like these can even be breaking points for characters, completely realigning their original trajectory such as in “Arcane”.
Sometimes the death can even be more tangential, like the death of Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that so greatly affects Scout and introduces her to more complexities of race and prejudices in her world. This is where it becomes less motivator and more character developmental as the loss of a loved one can change and shape a character’s motivations, personality, and worldview (as with Scout). The fear of death can also motivate characters to take risks and make difficult choices, as they seek to protect themselves or the ones they love.
Or if you flip the paradigm and have the protagonist take the bullet, their death can serve as a catalyst for action, as other characters seek to avenge their death or carry out their legacy.
Of course death alone seldom makes a good motivation, usually it’s blended with other common motivators, such as love, revenge, and the desire for power or success. For example, a murder mystery protagonist may seek revenge for the death of a loved one instead of merely seeking to know why they were killed, or a political drama protagonist may be driven by a desire for power or success in order to protect or honor the memory of someone they have lost. So many of the deaths in “Game of Thrones” serve to provide a motivation to the characters son or daughter or spouse in this way, coupling themselves with the characters other desires.
Regardless of the circumstances death is a powerful and often-used (sometimes over-used) element in storytelling, serving as a motivating factor for characters, whether it is the death of a loved one or the death of the protagonist, the impact of death on characters can be profound; shaping motivations and actions in meaningful, and potentially extreme ways. The problem is that not all deaths are equal and what resonates with some readers may not resonate with all.