Let's say that you are watching a movie, and that the world is plunging into chaos. Of course the world is going to hell, but throughout all of it the main character's friend is still as hopeful and optimistic as ever. Eventually the main character feels that there is no hope left, and that the world is essentially over. How do the creators of the movie decide to show this? Well, sorry good buddy, you are about to be killed.
Essentially, this boils down to when a creator wants to convey some symbolism, and in order to do so someone either dies, is severely injured, falls ill, etc. It can apply to any character who happens to symbolize something. Insane character sacrifices themselves, means sanity is restored. Optimistic character falls into a coma, means optimism is wearing very thin, and so on. Death is often a popular option, due to being a somewhat safe bet to make an impact while not requiring being totally original. The character may die in the Crucified Hero Shot, often when their death represents something positive. It seems like whenever symbolism needs to be conveyed, someone simply has to be attacked or killed.
Examples often symbolize something of the work or an aspect of it, be it an event, change in character, or even the franchise itself, though it can reach outside these boundaries. They are deliberate as well, so don't look too far into works lest you find faux-examples as in What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic? They are meant to be fully intentional and occasionally Word of God can confirm so. Rule of Symbolism may be employed in order to convey the symbol, especially in more abstract works.
See also It's All Junk, a very similar trope relating to the destruction of objects.
As a Death Trope, expect some unmarked spoilers.
- End of Evangelion Really, all of these are up to anybody's guess, but Kaworu's death possibly represents the death of Shinji's sanity, Asuka's death could mean the death of Shinji's hope, Misato's death could represent the death of Shinji's love (Gendou might count), and the god-like Rei's death at the end is symbolic of who knows what. This movie is virtually the definition of Mind Screw, so you may have a different interpretation.
- Slightly more literal in Axis Powers Hetalia - the characters are the nations, so the death of a character is the fall of a nation (e.g. Rome). If the nation gets into dire straits (economic crisis, social strife etc.), the nation gets sick.
- In Bleach, Aizen tries to kill Head Captain Yamamoto (regarded as the history of Soul Society) to symbolise the defeat of the Gotei 13. He fails. However, later on, Yhwach succeeds where Aizen failed and does indeed kill Yamamoto to symbolise the defeat and destruction of the Gotei 13.
- An in-universe example: In the Empath: The Luckiest Smurf mini-story "The Only Begotten Son", Tapper points out the similarities between Empath's "death" as an infant and Jesus' death on the cross in that both deaths have resulted in bringing forth many to become adopted children — with Jesus' death, the humans becoming adopted children of God, and with Empath's "death", his fellow Smurfs becoming adopted children of Papa Smurf.
- Spock's death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is supposed to symbolise that to Take a Third Option in a hopeless situation can still have dire consequences, in the film's continuing deconstruction of The Kirk.
- In Junebug Ashley losing her baby marks the end of the underlying tensions in the family. The death prompts repressed emotions to come out - and Johnny asks Ashley if they can try again, symbolising how their old High-School Sweethearts romance is gone but there is a chance for them to start over.
- Night of the Living Dead (1968) killing off Tom and Judy marks the start of the zombies overpowering the protagonists. Other characters start dying soon after.
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: The Death of the Brachiosaurus represents the end of Isla Nublar, the setting where the original Jurassic Park took place.
- Padmé Amidala's death at the end of Revenge of the Sith symbolizes the end of the Republic and the dawn of the Galactic Empire ("So this is how liberty dies"). It also symbolizes the 'death' of Anakin Skywalker; upon learning of her death he fully embraces his Sith persona of Darth Vader and it's no coincidence that Anakin's mutilated body being placed into the Vader-suit is juxtaposed with Padmé dying in childbirth.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: The death of Sansa's direwolf Lady signaled the loss of Sansa's innocence, and foreshadowed the cruel life she would soon be forced to live within King's Landing.
- The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf's sacrifice to save the party marks the nadir of the hero's morale, his death symbolises the progress of evil forces in Middle Earth, and his resurrection and color upgrade (from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White) announces the necessity, at the end of the opus, for the hero to go meet death at the Grey Havens.
- Lord of the Flies:
- The makeshift society gradually goes into chaos, and when Simon dies, it represents the death of the innocence of the kids on the island.
- Even more powerful is Piggy's death. Simon's death was sort of an accident. Piggy's death shatters any remnant of civilized order among the boys and represents the death of reason.
- In Camber of Culdi, Cathan MacRorie, Master of Culdi and Camber's heir, begs his king to release the human hostages taken after a tyrannical Deryni lord is murdered. Cathan is Deryni, but he argues for the common humanity and innocence of the hostages. Later, Cathan is literally stabbed in the back.
- Harry Potter:
- Hedwig's death is supposed to represent the death of what remains of Harry's childhood.
- Harry's sacrifice itself is a symbol of Jesus' death, if the series is compared to Irish Catholicism, which J.K. Rowling is part of.
- There's a pretty direct example in Clocks that Don't Tick. Guess what happens when Hope (The girl) dies? Hope (the concept) dies as well.
- Don Quixote: The titular character's death signifies the death of Chivalry.
- Gone with the Wind: Scarlett arrives home after fleeing the burning Atlanta to find that her mother has died and father has lost his mind because of it. This marks the true end of Scarlett's pampered, privileged life and how she'll have to take charge to provide for Tara.
- A Little Princess has Sara being given news that her father has died of Brain Fever. This results in her losing all her wealth and being reduced to working as a servant. It symbolises the end of her childhood too, as she begins to grow up throughout the story.
- Game of Thrones':
- Viserys's death in early Season 1 is what starts Daenerys's Character Development from a weak-willed abused girl into a powerful queen.
- In Season 1 the deaths of Jory Cassell, Septa Mordane and Syrio Forel are used to symbolise the destruction of the Stark house, and the loss of protective adults for the Stark girls foreshadows the deaths of their parents and older brother.
- Shireen Baratheon being burned at the stake is what marks the point where Stannis Baratheon's war efforts completely fall apart.
- In the sixth season, in a desperate attempt to make time for Bran and Meera to escape from the White Walkers and Wights invading the Three-Eyed Raven's hovel, Bran's direwolf Summer charges the White Walkers and wights, but dies fighting. With summer gone, winter has come, and with it, everything takes a turn for the bleak.
- In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Banquo is more conscientious than Macbeth and tends to point out what Macbeth ought to be doing. After Macbeth Jumps Off The Slippery Slope, he has Banquo killed; this represents the loss of Macbeth's moral conscience.
- King Lear features a major character death in Cornwall at the end of Act 3. It symbolises the kingdom slowly unravelling through the madness that has ensued, as it coincides with Edmund taking charge, the two sisters turning on each other and Albany finally standing up for himself. Cordelia also returns to the play after this scene.
- In Metal Gear Solid 4, Solid Snake's advanced aging and terminal illness (ending the game knowing he will die in a few months) is used to hammer home the creator's message that the series is a Franchise Zombie.
- Final Fantasy VII - the shocking and sudden death of Aerith at the end of the first disc symbolises the destruction Sephiroth will cause to the planet if he is not stopped.
- Final Fantasy IX:
- The massacre of Cleyra - a pacifist town full of innocent refugees - by Queen Brahne summoning Eidolons. Before she was just a ruthless Queen. After this it marks the point where her own daughter has to flee for her life, her trusted general turns on her, and her war effort begins to fall apart. It's after this that Garnet embraces her gifts as a summoner (she had been afraid of them beforehand).
- Further symbolism comes from the death of Brahne herself at the end of the second disc. It divides the game in half - where Garnet goes from an adventurous princess to a more dignified and powerful queen.
- Garland's death at the end of the third disc coincides with Kuja going into Trance and succeeding in destroying Terra.
- Final Fantasy XII - having to fight and kill Vossler in battle symbolises that Ashe really will have to lead La Résistance on her own if she wants to become queen.
- In Red Dead Redemption John Marston's death is there to reflect the end of the Wild West and the inevitable turn towards civilization.
- Red Dead Redemption II: Arthur Morgan's slow demise from tuberculosis in Chapter 6 mirrors the Van der Linde gang's similar decline as the surviving members are left divided and awaiting the inevitable. As soon as Arthur bites the dust, the gang is all but destroyed.