Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a book character only to lose them throughout the course of a novel doesn’t need me to tell them that there are some epically sad character deaths in literature. When you begin a novel — and even more significantly, a series — you’re making a commitment to invest in that story’s characters and the world they live in; you fall into heartfelt, sometimes conflicted relationships with your new fictional friends, celebrating their successes and mourning their pain, and in the end you want to know that once you’ve closed the novel and walked away, the characters you’ve dedicated a roller coaster ride of emotions to are going to be OK without you. Except sometimes, that’s not exactly the case. Call me crazy, but I have, on occasion, mourned the deaths of fictional characters as deeply as I’ve mourned the deaths of real people — sometimes I’ve understood the characters themselves even better than real people, so it makes sense that their loss would feel just as equally raw. Right? (I’m talking about you, Fred Weasley.)
Now, before we begin: this is your one and only spoiler alert. I cannot be held responsible for any spoiled plots beyond this point. OK? Ready? Here are 11 of the saddest book character deaths ever.
1. Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
Now, I know this might be a controversial opinion, but I’m just going to put it out there. Professor Snape’s death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was hands down THE SADDEST of all the Harry Potter character deaths, and is probably also up there as one of the saddest book character deaths of all time. There, I said it. Yes, I know, Snape was a villain (albeit misunderstood and the most nuanced character in the series) we're all still pretty much supposed to hate him. But honestly between his unrequited love and his dying wish to look into Lily’s eyes one more time, I get sad chills every time I think about it.
2. Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Tom Robinson’s execution in To Kill a Mockingbird just breaks my heart and makes me mad over and over again — for reasons not least of which include the fact that the racism that permeated American culture and law back in the 1930s is still fracturing the country today. After fighting the legal system for so long, and only doing what was right, I don’t know which was more heartbreaking: Tom Robinson’s shooting, or the disheartened spirit that led him to try and escape prison in the first place.
3. Bruno & Shmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
One thing that is so devastating about Bruno and Shmuel’s deaths in John Boyne’s Holocaust novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas , is the fact that despite the horrors of life inside the concentration camp, Shmuel’s presence there, and Bruno’s proximity to it, neither character ever really stopped being a little boy. Sure, Bruno maintained a naïvete that was stripped of Shmuel the minute he arrived in Auschwitz, but even at the very end when both boys were forced into the gas chamber together, and Bruno tells Shmuel that he is his best friend for life, readers are so aware of the fact that both of these characters are still young children. Devastating.
4. Fred Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
Fred Weasley’s death is another heart-breaker courtesy of JK Rowling, especially considering the fact that it neither advanced, nor elevated, nor deepened the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at all, whatsoever. Sure, Rowling apologized for clobbering her readers over and over again for entirely no reason after the fact, but that won’t bring Fred back. Of all the deaths in Harry Potter, I really think this is the one readers could have done without.
5. Dobby in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
OK, last Harry Potter death to make this list, I promise. Of all the reasons to hate Bellatrix Lestrange, murdering Dobby in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is definitely number one. Sad as this was for readers, the sweet, honorable Dobby who wanted nothing more than to save Harry Potter’s life over and over again probably could not have imagined for himself a better way to go. So there’s that consolation, at least.
6. Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Oh Lennie. Poor, childlike Lennie who doesn’t know his own strength and loves petting soft things even though he unwittingly kills them by loving them too much. Even though Lennie’s death was essentially a mercy killing, conducted by his best friend George in order to save him from the much more painful death in his future, it’s hard not to love Lennie, so this one still tugged at the heartstrings.
7. Algernon in Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Character deaths in science fiction aren’t always the saddest — at least in my opinion. Between Frankenstein-type experiments and all that genetic dabbling conducted by Doctor Moreau, at some point you do kind of expect to lose a character or two. But for some reason the loss of Algernon, the little white lab rat in Flowers for Algernon , was different. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is this book is just so disappointed at the end, or maybe it’s because Charlie just loved Algernon so much, but the loss is entirely crushing.
8. John Coffey in The Green Mile by Stephen King
Another prison execution that never should have been, John Coffey’s death in The Green Mile is especially sad because he is yet another example of an innocent man being wrongfully executed for a crime he didn’t commit, for reasons at least partly based on race — and even though it becomes clear before John’s death that he is innocent, he still chooses to die because he is tired of the cruelty of the world. Sob.
9. Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
When a novel is set in a pediatric cancer ward, you know you’re going to be shedding some serious tears before it’s over. But what’s even more sad about Augustus Waters’s death in The Fault in Our Stars is the fact that everyone — including Hazel — thought that he was actually much healthier than he was. Nobody was expecting him to die! Plus, they were just so in love.
10. Old Yeller in Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
There are a lot of books featuring the premature deaths of beloved dogs in this world, but one of the originals is Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller . Yeller is kind of like the dog version of Dobby the elf — he saves the life of his beloved master Travis and those of Travis’s family time and time again, and is ultimately killed in the line of duty. Sort of, anyway. Old Yeller is actually infected with rabies while protecting the family from a wolf and Travis is forced to shoot him, but that’s really just too sad to relive here.
11. Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It really makes me sad when characters die as a direct result of the sacrifices they make for unrequited love — which is exactly how Jay Gatsby ends up being on the murdered side of a murder-suicide plot. And Daisy, as much as Gatsby loved her, honestly didn’t deserve that kind of unwavering commitment.