This one is the cumulative conclusion of yesterday’s and three previous rules, as cited below…
I pointed out before that money is too generic of a motivation unless we know what the character needs to buy. Likewise, a character’s death has no meaning to the audience unless we know something specific about them. Cheating on a spouse that the audience has gotten to know is going to seem far worse than killing a spouse that we haven’t met.
And please don’t try to replace quality with quantity! There’s nothing more annoying than the writer who says, “Nobody seems to care that my villain has killed three characters we haven’t met, so I’ll have him kill a whole stadium full of characters we haven’t met!” Nope, we still don’t care.
You’ve created your own world from scratch, which is separate and distinct from the world in which your audience actually lives. You have to invest your characters with value before you can upset us by killing them or victimizing them in any way.
In real life, each human being has inherent value, and when someone is killed, it can always be argued that they’ve been robbed of a potentially-bright future. But the characters in your story are just ephemeral phantoms until you imbue them with life. They have no inherent value, beyond what you invest in them, and no future, beyond the plans we actually see them make.
This is very hard to pull off without seeming manipulative. We all roll our eyes when a soldier talks about the big plans he has for after the war, because we know that he’s about to get killed. But it’s become a cliché for a reason: the alternative is worse. The trick, as always, is to build up your victim’s value subtly enough that we don’t see the tragedy coming.
Think about the seemingly-random drug-related killings on the local news, then compare that to the death of a certain character at the end of the first season of “The Wire”. The writers endowed that character with so much potential before they took it away that it was emotionally wrenching to watch him die. That’s writing at its most powerful.