This article is the first in a three part series dealing with the demise of characters in fiction.
One of the main literary movements of the last century, Realism, holds much of the modern literati in its thrall. Along with Naturalism and a resurgent Romanticism, this school of writing insists on killing off at least one character to make the narrative “realistic.” As the above note from Timothy Zahn and others makes clear, however, there are legitimate problems with this plot point as it is understood and used today.
There are good reasons to remove one or more characters during the course of a story. Final Fantasy VII would not be the tale it is if Zack Fair and/or Aerith Gainsborough lived through it, while Star Wars would never have worked if Obi-Wan had not faced Vader in that fatal, final confrontation. Cyrano de Bergerac would suffer if the titular character survived, and The Robe would not be half so powerful if Marcellus and Diana avoided martyrdom. So there are solid means and motives for allowing fictional characters to take this path.
Where this author, like Timothy Zahn, draws the line is at having someone die at random just to distress the audience. As those who commented on Zahn’s quote stated, authors who try to shock their audiences in this manner just waste their readers’ time. Do people die unexpectedly in the real world? Yes, sadly, they do. Is that a good reason to yank protagonists out of the narrative for “shock value”? No, it is not.
So-called “shock value” has a very limited effect in fiction since the trick has been pulled so often that it has lost whatever power it had. By now everyone in the audience is prepared to grieve the loss of at least one character during the narrative they are enjoying. Sudden death is no longer an effective means to deepen the fictional experience for most people anymore, if it ever was. It only frustrates and angers them.
Another reason why killing off characters for “shock value” no longer works is that the remaining protagonists almost universally react to the loss in the same way. They blame themselves for the loss of their friends, even when there was no way to save their compatriots or they had no part in the secondary/tertiary characters’ deaths. Protagonists in modern media do not simply mourn a deceased comrade before picking up and moving on, as adults would. Still other survivors become crusaders determined to die in order to atone for the loss of their friend/mentor/random tertiary character.
While this tack may appear less juvenile on the surface, the fact is that it is no less childish than the previous one. Consider Daisy Johnson’s death wish in a later season of Agents of SHIELD. It does not add to her character or explore the depths of the human psyche, although the writers clearly believe this is the case. Rather, her death wish only makes her appear younger than she actually is, not to mention extremely self-centered. She takes responsibility for a heroic choice someone else made to save her and the world, blaming herself for his death and events over which she had little to no control.
Her self-flagellation is entirely counter-productive to her growth as a person. Instead of recognizing and honoring her friend’s sacrifice, she wallows in self-pity. In order to “redeem” herself, she becomes a vigilante whose stunts put her health at risk. This also puts her friends in peril as they are obliged to arrest her even though they simply want to convince her to return to the team. Just what, exactly, does her irresponsible attempt to find “redemption” do to expiate her ‘sin’ or help those who care about her?
None of this is to say that characters cannot go through such mental torment and become better people. This reaction has its place in fiction, just as everything else does. However, overusing this trope is not realistic in the slightest. Two people do not have the same reaction to a specific event, whether it is happy or sad. So why should an entire swath of fictional people all have the same or similar reactions to the death of a loved one/comrade/mentor?
Star Wars’ original three films have a much more realistic take on “sudden” expiration. During the evacuation of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke loses his snowspeeder co-pilot Dack to a stray blaster bolt. In a universe where Wedge Antilles lives through two Death Star attack runs, Admiral Ackbar survives the Battle of Endor, and Han Solo avoids dying several times, one could be forgiven for believing that only faceless Rebel foot soldiers would perish. It would seem that even the tertiary characters are not fated to die unexpectedly in Star Wars.
But ESB makes it clear that this is not the case. Unlike Biggs, there is no hint that Dack is going to die. The shot that ends his life and leaves Luke in sole command of the snowspeeder is entirely unanticipated. With most of the main cast’s friends or supporting characters transfering from A New Hope straight to Empire, one has to wonder at this sudden change in trend for Dack. Of course, the reason Dack dies in such an arbitrary manner is to remind audiences that death is a thief. No one ever knows when he will be called from this life. It can happen instantly or after years of time in this world. Dack, unlike Biggs and Obi-Wan Kenobi, was taken suddenly and without warning.
What is interesting about this event, especially in contrast to the modern day, is Luke’s reaction to the loss of his comrade. He is clearly affected by the abrupt death of his friend, and when the speeder crashes he does try to take Dack’s body with him. Forced to abandon this effort, the hero does not stop to berate himself for his failure or his friend’s death. Nor does he reprimand himself for circumstances out of his control, since even a fully trained Jedi Master or genius general would have been unable to save his co-pilot.
Luke mourns for Dack after he has disabled the AT-AT, protected the evacuating Rebel leaders, and successfully abandoned the base on Hoth. He also does his grieving in a mature manner. Rather than curse his continued existence, Luke Skywalker carries on living and fighting to honor Dack, along with Biggs and Ben Kenobi. In short, he does not try to kill himself with theatrical lamentations and self-imposed punishment for factors outside of his control, as Daisy Johnson does. Instead he renews his commitment to fight for the ideals for which his friends willingly sacrificed themselves.
Now some may say that people like Dack cannot knowingly sacrifice themselves when they are so unceremoniously yanked from this life, despite being caught up in a war. In this the critics have the situation backwards. When someone signs up to join the military – or, following our above example, a rebellion – they are essentially volunteering to be expendable. They are choosing to go to the most hazardous places within their reach, where the threat of death is constant and unwavering. By signing up physically, verbally, or in writing they automatically volunteer to risk their lives on a daily basis and acknowledge that they may pay the ultimate price for doing so. If they are not willing to put themselves in this kind of peril then they stay home.
Dack did not stay home. He disagreed vehemently with how the Empire ruled the galaxy, and he chose to put his life on the line to change the galactic order so as to make his part of the cosmos a better place. Ergo, by flying with Rogue Squadron and taking a freak blaster bolt to the chest, he sacrificed himself for Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebellion.
What reasoning adult is going to denigrate that choice, tacit though it may have been, with groveling self-flagellation? There was nothing Luke could have done to prevent Dack’s death. It was the luck of the draw. Crying and wailing over his loss while trying to die in ‘reparation’ is not a mark of respect for his friend. It is a selfish pity party meant to make the survivor feel better about getting through the battle alive.
Once again, characters can endure this type of pain without detriment to the story. It is when this trope is used universally that there is a problem. Most of the authors who have their characters react to the loss of a friend in the manner that Daisy Johnson does have them do so under the mistaken impression that they are being realistic. In fact they are using a highly narcissistic, juvenile view of death – one that is injurious to them, their protagonists, and their audience.
A third manner in which authors misuse this trope is when they kill off a character to “prove” that none of their protagonists are safe, thereby demonstrating that they are willing to play hardball with the fictional people in the narrative and the real ones in the audience. For instance, in the 1990’s animated X-Men series the show writers introduced a new character named Morph to the franchise simply to kill him in the first episode. They did this to reveal their dedication to telling “serious” stories that were “realistic” and “true to life.”
Fans were so enamored of Morph, however, that the studio was compelled to resurrect the character. While this was not damaging to the story or protagonists per se, it is a decidedly embarrassing moment for the studio and franchise. It did not enhance their image with either the writing community or the audience. Thus they had to backtrack and appease the latter while giving the former more reason to take them lightly.
Clearly, this modern trope has many drawbacks. Yet authors today feel compelled to resort to it whenever possible in order to add gravitas to the narrative they are weaving. Having been taught that it is the best – or perhaps the only – way to “write a real story,” they cannot see any other method to maintaining tension in the tale. What is scarier for an audience than the potential death of their heroes?
The proper answer to this question is: nothing. There is nothing more worrisome than the risk of death in a story, just as there is little more that is frightening to men in real life. What writers today have been taught to forget is that the threat can sometimes be more terrifying than the actual event.
Zoids: Chaotic Century illustrated this fact throughout its run. As youtuber Kohdok stated in his review here, the threat of death was ever-present in the show. Background characters died during the course of the series, and several secondary characters appeared to perish as well. But the series’ writers would eventually reveal that these secondary protagonists had survived their apparent final battles. The method works well for first-time viewers and left quite the impression on this author. She still vividly recalls her immediate reaction to these “deaths” while watching the show for the first time.
By “faking out” the audience in this way, Chaotic Century’s writers kept or raised the story’s tension without actually sacrificing a character on the false altar of Realism. This gave them plenty of time to develop “surviving” protagonists’ personalities. It also allowed the authors to open up and travel down avenues that would have been closed to them if they had discarded these fictional people to alert the greater writing community that they were “being serious.”
The fourth manner in which “shock value” destroys a good story is more insidious than the above factors. Whether they are conscious of the fact or not, many writers today utilize abrupt character deaths in order to undermine their protagonists’ heroism. Because it tends to focus on the visible and tangible senses, Realism often ignores the spiritual side of man, since this aspect of humanity cannot be quantified objectively. This leads large numbers of Realism’s students to hold spirituality in complete contempt. Because the sacred is almost impossible to measure scientifically it must not, they believe, be truly real.
As the ultimate expression of a man’s devotion to something – or Someone – greater than himself, heroism in an intensely spiritual quality. A man who stands up to evil because he believes in the good, the true, and the beautiful is a hero. By breaking a protagonist’s belief in this item or Person, the writer crushes his heroism and leaves him a broken mechanism in an uncaring, clockwork world.
Transformers: Armada illuminates this point well. During the series’ finale a united army of Autobots and Decepticons take on the chaos demon of their creation legend: Unicron, the Devourer of Worlds. Optimus Prime and Galvatron enter the giant Transformer’s body to destroy his heart and end the threat forever. In the process they learn that it was Unicron who actually created the Autobots, Decepticons, and the Minicons so that he could feed off the negativity generated by their consistent warfare.
This revelation shatters Optimus Prime’s moral compass. Discovering that he and his comrades were meant to war perpetually with the Decepticons, when Galvatron turns on him after they have accomplished their mission the Autobot commander can only feebly protest his betrayal. The two duel until it becomes clear their battle is restoring Unicron, whereupon Galvatron heroically sacrifices himself to end the conflict. This leaves the audience with a brief view of an emotionally broken Optimus Prime, who renounces his claim to the Matrix of Leadership, an Autobot relic conferred only on their best commanders. Though he continues to function physically, Optimus has morally and spiritually died.
Chaotic Century adroitly sidestepped this trope. Not only did they redeem several villainous secondary characters, they did so by giving them undeniably heroic “deaths.” For example, when Rosso and Viola “die” midway through the first season, they do not physically perish. Instead, they die to their old, iniquitous selves and are spiritually reborn as protectors of peace and justice. Their corporal survival does not negate their change of heart; on the contrary, it enhances it and gives their continued existence a new and higher meaning.
It is not hard to see why this author has chosen to eschew “shock value” when she gives a character the axe. Contrary to popular opinion, giving a protagonist this type of exit does nothing to improve a writer’s standing among his fellows. If anything, taking out a character in this manner is a surefire path to embarrassment.
If your story hinges on the demise of a character, or if several inevitably perish during a series you are creating, then there is probably no way to pull them back from this path. But if you are simply doing it to be “realistic” or impress the literati, future writers, then you may want to stop and reassess the idea. Arbitrarily killing off a hero is detrimental to both the author and the audience; it upsets the latter and tends to box in the former so that they have only a limited space to tell their story.
You do not want to limit yourself in this way, future writers. Nor do you want an irate, abused audience. Don’t cut yourself off at the knees to be “realistic” or make an impression. Just do what the story requires and see what where that takes you. You might be surprised at where you end up.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have appeared in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, and her poetry will appear in Organic Ink Volume 2 this December. Order them today!