Things That Need to Go Away: Killing Characters as Drama

This blog post–someone dies! Is it Jesse? Is it Dave? You’ll have to read on to find out!

Now before I get a call from Dave’s lawyer for making threats or something, I’m simply making a point. Threatening to kill characters is a pretty big grab for attention in media. In most types of stories, we expect characters to go through the wringer in one way or another, but on the whole, characters can overcome or recover from their misfortunes. Death, however, is the big one. In just about all settings that are not Dragonball Z, death is rarely if ever conquerable.  Once a character is dead, they’re not coming back, which means that the story dynamic is changed irrevocably. Also, most major and important characters tend to die in memorable ways, so it tends to force us to ask not only who is going to die and how that will alter the story, but how they’re going to die. It’s all very compelling, and it draws us in. In and of itself, character death isn’t a bad thing. People die in real life all the time, and in the hyper-realized world of fiction even moreso. The problem arises when death is used not as a culmination of character arc or theme, but as a cheap stunt to simply draw in readers or viewers. Character death as a source of drama is, you guessed it, something that Needs To Go Away.

Certainly the amount and severity of death in a story will vary based on the kind of story it is. A story where kids explore a magical world and learn about it will probably have a much smaller body count than a slasher movie or a war story, and this is fine. As I said above, death in a story should relate first to the story’s plot and characters.  Does a character death serve as a capstone to their personal development, or force those around them to perceive the world differently, to grow more mature perhaps, or fall into despair? Does it serve to remind the readers that life is short and precious, that some things are worth dying for, or that nature is cruel and merciless? These are only a few possible ways to make death work, but it must be organic, and frankly, the death of a major character should always have some sort of weight to it. Whether one character in a story dies or all of them do, it should mean something other than “Another Shocking Twist!” (I have a whole rant about shocking twists and sexy results, but that’s for another day)

Some people make the argument that they enjoy stories where no one is safe, because it prevents them from being able to guess where the story goes, and to a certain extent I can understand this, but I disagree. I don’t want characters in stories to be immortal, mind you, or feel no risk of failure, and I don’t think every story should end with a perfect happy ending all around. I like many tragedies, and I enjoy unpredictable stories as well. But every character in a story should serve a purpose, and if that purpose goes unfulfilled or we’re forced to question what the purpose was after they died and we have no answer or indication that there was indeed an answer at all, then their inclusion feels hollow and frustrating. Good examples of stories where characters seem to die at random include Lost and 100 Bullets. It’s often endemic of stories that promise greater meaning than they deliver. Even if a death is unpredictable, it should still make sense.

Sometimes death is used to show how powerful or evil a villain is, and while I wouldn’t write this off completely, it’s very easy to overdo. We often expect our badguys to kill people, and we want to care about at least some of the people in question. Still, if every new villain who comes along has to provide at least one death (I’m looking at YOU, superhero comics!), then pretty soon, the impact is reduced and before long people groan and sigh in frustration at yet another dead character at the hands of yet another new big bad. It’s easy to forget, but there are plenty of ways a villain can prove they’re a serious threat besides a random murder. Just off the top of my head, capturing loved ones, being able to get inside the hero’s head with pinpoint accuracy, winning over the populace to their side, taking away some advantage the hero assumes they have, corrupting an ally, or forcing the hero to break his or her moral code are all ways a villain can be scary without another ratings stunt death. That way, when the villain does commit a murder, it counts for something rather than just creating a law of diminishing returns. Good examples of this are The Joker from The Dark Knight, who prefers assassinating symbols of public trust and hope to just gassing kindergartens, and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7, whose shocking murder of Aeris makes perfect sense in retrospect because she could have stopped him on her own.

I shall brace myself thusly for the counterargument that random death is realistic: truth is stranger than fiction, they say, because fiction has to make sense. Sure, in real life, death is pointless and unfair, striking without warning or meaning as often as not. In real life, Alexander the Great died at 32 of a fever instead of in battle or by treachery or old age. But fiction is not real life and should not attempt to approximate it exactly. Fiction should not strive for realism. This sounds like a bad argument on my part, but consider. Real life is vast; absurdly, obscenely, unknowably so.  It is also full of false starts, anticlimaxes, contradictions of logic and motivation, failure, complexity to the point of convolution, and inner workings to which absolutely no one is privy. Humans have learned a lot about the universe, but there’s plenty we don’t know, and more than that, there’s probably plenty that we don’t even know we don’t know. To strive as a writer for true realism in our fiction is madness, not only because it tends to make for a lousy story, but because we will invariably fail. So does that mean we should toss out any concept of believability from our work, making it entirely absurd or glaringly full of artifice? Of course not. Instead of realism, however, what we should strive for is verisimilitude. For those who didn’t pay as much attention in English class as I did, verisimilitude is the art of making the unreal seem real.  How does one do this? Well, that’s the question, of course, but the best answer I can give is that we must grab onto some aspect of reality, because while we humans can’t always see the big picture, we can grasp facets rather well.  This isn’t to imply we’re dumb; it’s just that trying to show everything usually means that we’ll ultimately show nothing. Picking one thing, however, or even a few, means we will be able to highlight some piece of the grand truth, and perhaps even get it right.

It’s for this reason that I don’t believe death in fiction should be random, unless the story calls for randomness. We as authors have to accept the notion that we are the ones in control of the world. Oh, sure, authors often say that stories take on a life of their own, and I can say that there is something to that. Sometimes, it is possible to create a world and its characters well enough that their actions surprise us, even if they make perfect sense. For this reason, a story can pull away from where the author initially intended it to go, but I don’t buy the idea that creativity is just some magical force we have absolutely no control over. No matter what, the author is always at the wheel and shapes the world accordingly, and as such, must take responsibility for the events of their fictional worlds, including death.  Much like fictional characters, authors should have a sense of agency, the idea that we are not merely puppets of fate, but that our actions lead us to our fates, both fair and foul.

I think what it comes to is that death in stories should parallel death in life only in that it matters. When confronted with death, most of us are affected by it. If our loved ones die, that loss has significance to us. If an acquaintance dies suddenly, it can force us to think about the fragility of life. If someone we think is evil or we hate dies, we may be forced to ask if it makes us happy, and what it says about us if we do. We may even feel sympathy for such a person, because though we may often wish unpleasant things on others, having them come true is another matter. For all that, I don’t think it is right to use death to wring out cheap drama and pathos. That devalues death, and with it, life itself. Not to say I think people who write stories where characters die unsatisfyingly are the equivalent of murderers or the like, but as someone who believes stories matter, and are not just lies, we should try to tell those in as honest and sincere a way as possible to help us understand reality better and be better human beings.