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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

When Death Becomes Cheap

George R. R. Martin.  Joss Whedon.  Shakespeare.  Sean Bean.

All of these writers/directors have one thing in common: they are notorious for killing off beloved characters.

And we all know how it feels to have our favorites die.  It's not fun, and we might consider writing a rather angry letter to the author. 

This is probably the quote that George R. R. Martin has on a post-it on his computer monitor. 

And we also know how it feels to have our favorite characters "die", but they're not actually dead.  "Pulling an Aragorn", this is called. We think they are, but then they are either revived, or the author simply reveals that they were, in fact, not dead.  (By the way, spoilers abound in this post.  For a few different things.)

Though we're happy that our beloved character is alive, we're mad.  And more than a little cheated.  Because isn't that what a fake death is?  The author, who is pulling the strings of both the characters' lives and the readers' feelings, has all the power.  He/she "kills" the character, and causes pain for the readers.  Then the character comes back.  And so, in a sense, the readers have suffered for nothing. 

To clarify: this particular situation is not a "suffered for nothing" situation.  The fandom suffers, yes, when they aren't shipping mugs.  But they do it for John.
This is why I feel like death has become so cheap in fiction.  It's so easy, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, to find ways to bring the characters back.  Some people (like me, for example) get to the point where when a character dies, we don't even care.  We know that it's probably not a real death, so we don't get too worked up.  We only feel anything at all over it when we know the dead character will stay dead.

This sounds awful, but I actually prefer it when fictional death is final.  Yes, it isn't fun, but it doesn't make me feel cheated.  I don't feel like the author was just doing it for the reaction.  I don't feel like the death was played for the emotions, and then negated for...wait for it...more emotions.  Or simply the convenience of having that particular character around.  The death is cheap--it lacks any real depth. 

Joss Whedon is promising "death, death, and more death" in Avengers 2.  If he kills Loki, well, Loki's army might just have to mobilize.  Not that Loki hasn't already been "killed off" once.  Oh, I know it's tempting but PLEASE, DON'T DO IT!
The other thing with fakeout death is that it's no longer a surprise.  Especially in fantasy.  (If it ever was a surprise.)  Most readers of fantasy are, well, readers of fantasy.  Meaning we've read quite a bit of it, and it gets harder and harder to surprise us.  We know all too well how easy it is for magic to revive people, to create illusions of deaths that never happened, or whatever else an author can come up with.
The thing writers have to do is ensure that our characters' deaths are not gratuitous.  If they die, it had better be for a good reason.  If they come back, it had better be an incredibly good reason.  Otherwise:
I love how desk-flipping has become a completely acceptable thing in internet culture. 
To clarify: "good reason" does not mean the death has to be heroic, or even a "good death" (whatever that means).  One of the major characters in my book (a protagonist and close friend of my MC) dies, and it isn't heroic.  The death is the final straw for my MC.  He needed to reach a low point before he could make his redeeming decision.  George R. R. Martin kills off lots of characters for good reason without heroic deaths.  In fact, the more noble the character, it seems, the less honorable the death.  Ned Stark, probably the most honorable character of the whole series, got his head lopped off.  The infamous Red Wedding robbed us of both Lady Catelyn and Robb Stark, and neither really had a chance.  (And Grey Wind.  My thought process was "Seriously?  The direwolf, too?  That's just mean.")    
A well-placed death in a novel, providing it fits with the tone of the book, can be used to great effect, and is an excellent character development tool.  (I said it.  Death is a tool in fiction, everyone.  Especially if you're Markus Zusak.  So sue me.)  The Avengers, anyone?  The Avengers couldn't really start working together until the wake-up call and fangirl sobfest that was Agent Coulson's death.*  The team needed it.  And they also needed a way to establish the fact that people without superpowers can also be heroes.  Case in point: Coulson, and also that guy in Germany that stands up to Loki.  
'I Just Can't Wait To Be King' is Disney's rather evil version of foreshadowing.  Just...think about it.  I thought I'd throw that in, even though it isn't a fakeout death.
Your readers will know if you throw in a death just to make someone die.  They'll be able to tell the difference--trust me.  And if you have a fakeout death, it's often a good idea to foreshadow the fakeout a little bit.  Not enough to make it obvious, but enough so that when all is revealed, your reader will say "How did I not see that coming?" 
In short: fakeout deaths can feel really cheap, like you're cheating your readers and pulling their strings in a non-subtle way in order to force emotion of out them.  Fakeout deaths should be used with extreme caution, and only with very good reason.  Just like any fictional death.

 *Okay, okay, so maybe this wasn't a legitimate death either, as one quick look at Clark Gregg's Wikipedia page shows that Coulson is in that new S.H.I.E.L.D. show and apparently Not Dead, and the closer you look at it, the sketchier the death actually is.  See this awesome article: "Agent Coulson Isn't Dead, Yo".

PS: THERE IS A THOR 2 TRAILER.  Yes, I know!  It's exciting!  And LOKI!  (Yes, we've established by now that this is what I was watching for in the trailer.)  Can we all take a minute to look at his hair and say "Um...what happened?"  Are there no barbershops on Asgard, or is Loki trying to be Skrillex or something?  I'm sure Tumblr is probably imploding right now.  Here's some awesome fan reactions to the hair.  Anyone feel like discussing this trailer with me?  And I'd just like to point out that, while Asgard probably doesn't have magazines, they seem to have given Real Power some reading material in his cell.

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  1. I totally agree. This trope has become so common that we actually expect characters to come back. I was watching Star Trek (the 2009 movie) the other day, and when Captain Kirk dies at the beginning I wasn't sad, bc I simply assumed he'd come back. I didn't realize until later that he was actually, finally, dead.

    BTW, why is this called 'pulling an Aragorn?' Sounds more like a Gandalf to me...

    1. It could also be "pulling a Gandalf". Aragorn, at one point (in the movies), falls over a cliff, washes up on the banks presumably dead, and then is revived by a random kiss from Arwen that probably has some explanation I'm unaware of.

  2. My God his hair 0_____o
    Also, side note, I feel like Darcy needs some more screen time. She's kind of awesome :D

    1. I KNOW! And Thor's hair has also gotten longer. Both their hair was longer in The Avengers than in Thor, and now it's even more so.

      I've heard that Darcy gets a bigger role in The Dark World. Apparently she becomes less comic relief and gets a more substantial role. Yay!


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