Sometimes there’s a character that the writers don’t know what to do with, or who's hit a dead end. What do you do with this superfluous character? How do you up the ante? Kill them. And then have them come back evil (or good), with new powers, or deeply troubled. Here are the 10 characters most improved by death.
Since this list is all about characters dying, there are going to be spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
1. Rory Williams, Doctor Who
It’s not that Rory was a bad character before he died. It’s that he really came into his own afterwards. Rory’s return as an Auton was unusual, and the struggle between his Auton programming and his human memories and emotions was critical to the story. Coming back from the dead this way also transformed him into the “Last Centurion.” The image of him guarding the Pandorica with Amy inside for centuries is very poignant, and it couldn’t have happened if he hadn’t died.
2. Fred, Angel
Although Fred spent most of the show as a relatively normal, if very smart, human being, she became something totally different once she died. Infected with the soul of the Old One Illyria, Fred died when it became clear there was no cure. Only she kind of didn't — since Illyria stayed and took on Fred's memories, emotions, and personality traits. So she became a sort of Fred + super demon, making her a wholly new and fascinating character.
3. Elizabeth Weir, Stargate Atlantis
Similarly to Rory above, Weir wasn’t a bad character before her death. It’s more that the writers seemed to have more interesting things for her to do after she died. She was the leader of the Atlantis expedition in seasons one through three, but sacrificed herself for it in season four. She was brought back as a Replicant copy, saved the Atlantis team, led a rogue faction of replicators, tried to ascend, failed, saved Atlantis, decided her own faction could no longer be trusted, and led them through the Stargate into space.
4. Laura, American Gods by Neil Gaiman
When the protagonist Shadow finds out his wife has died, he tosses a magical gold coin onto her grave. And, oops, she comes back as an only-sort-of-alive creature. Now, she’s capable of tracking Shadow down and saving his life. And killing. She’s also really good at killing now. At the climax of the novel, she even impales Loki and kills him.
5. Alex Millar, Being Human (UK)
Alex started as a love interest for the vampire Hal Yorke, which led to her being captured and killed. She returns as a ghost and helps save lives and defeat evil. Since ghosts are created by unfinished business in Being Human, Alex also deals with trying to figure out what that was. The confusion she feels after learning that what she thought was her unfinished business wasn’t, also added new layers to her character. Death was especially good to this character, who went from a recurring character to a main castmember after her death.
6. Duke Roger, in the Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce
Duke Roger is a pretty standard villain when he first appears. He's a member of the royal family who wants the throne for himself — which he plans to accomplish by killing his cousin, the crown prince. He fails, is discovered by Alanna, and she kills him in a duel. Except her brother Thom brings him back, and he sucks the magic from Thom. As is so often the case for the resurrected, he comes back crazy. He doesn't want the throne anymore, he wants the whole realm destroyed in a magical earthquake. Points for originality, there, we guess.
7. Owen Harper, Torchwood
Owen doesn’t have a lot to do in the first season of Torchwood. He's basically introduced as a guy who uses his access to alien artifacts to get women to have sex with him. And his character doesn’t really see all that much growth after that. But in season two, something really interesting happens to Owen: he dies. When he's resurrected by Jack, his body stays in a state of death. Suddenly, Owen is faced with being unable to enjoy food or sex but also unable to feel pain. This gave the character a lot more depth than he had before.
8. Chuck, Pushing Daisies
The fact that Chuck has died fuels a lot of this series’ ongoing plotlines. She’s conflicted about whether to tell her aunts she’s alive. Olive thinks she faked her death and is constantly snooping, which could end up revealing the whole secret. Mostly, it also generates the conflict inherent in her and Ned’s unresolved sexual tension — since him touching her would kill her again.
9. Duncan Idaho, Dune
Duncan Idaho starts the series as Duke Leto’s ambassador to the Fremen. By the end of Dune, he’s killed holding off the enemy while Lady Jessica and Paul escape. Idaho returns as the ghola (essentially clone) “Hayt” in Dune Messiah. This version has a much more complicated, and interesting, life. He’s a pawn in a number of plans, some of which involve destroying the emperor and some of which involve currying favor. At the same time, he’s recovering the memories of his original self, including, horrifically, the moment he died. Over the course of the series, gholas of Idaho show up a lot, all with much more interesting stuff to do than the original.
10. Castiel, Supernatural
Look, this whole list could have been populated with ways Supernatural characters died, came back, and were changed for the better — but Castiel may be the best example. When we first meet Castiel, he's a stern and somewhat ruthless angel who plucks Dean out of Perdition, and he winds up playing into the other angels' plans to bring about the Apocalypse. Dean starts to raise doubts about this dreadful mission in "Cas" — but it's only after Castiel faces an arcangel and gets splattered all over Chuck's apartment that he starts to think for himself. And that's also when he starts to become the funny, zany, conflicted soul we've all grown to love. (And we still don't know why Cas keeps coming back from the dead!)
Thanks to Charlie Jane Anders (especially for the information on Castiel), Rob Bricken, Annalee Newitz, and Meredith Woerner for their input.