[Hello friends. This post has the word ‘dying’ in the title. Spoilers abound beyond this point.]
Within fiction there are certain codes, ingrained enough in our collective psyche that, hypothetically, if we were to end up stranded in a made-up world, we as geeks and fiction aficionados (I wonder if anyone just rocked back in their chair and went “Ooooooh, that’s where her blog name is from!” ?), we’d sort of know what to do to stay alive.
Because let’s be frank, the fantasy world is a dangerous place, filled with high drama, magic and robots, and overseen by the cackling form of some distant author. And you know those people are crazy. You also know, however, that you’ll make it to the end of your adventure if you’re lucky enough to be the hero. Right? Simply act your good-est and you’ll be fine, since the good guys always win, and they certainly always last until the end.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that may not be the case—in many story worlds, it seems to be the go-to to spectacularly kill off the most quintessentially good characters within. Every time you make a heartfelt mention of honour, justice or chivalry, you may just be stepping closer to your untimely and dramatic demise.
Case Study One: Fate/Zero’s Lancer
The summoned spirit of Ireland’s legendary chick magnet, the Lancer class champion of the seven-way magical war that forms the plot of Fate/Zero is really quite a charming, dedicated fellow. Feeling rather guilty about stealing his liege’s girl (or rather, being stolen by her… isn’t that sweet?) in his previous life, Lancer is out on a quest for redemption, eager to prove himself as the most loyal, knightly, gallant figure ever to bend the knee to a snobby power-hungry mage. He’s a stand-out character in the midst of a cast of conniving, underhanded fighters, assassins, sneaky secret alliances and serial killers, and is one of the most basically likeable people in the group.
Naturally, he’s one of the first to meet a horrible end.
It isn’t even a spoiler to announce his death, seeing as the nature of the all-out war he’s in leaves it a bigger twist if a main player doesn’t end up murdered by the end. His ending, however, is one of the most graphic and heart-breaking in the series, made only worse by the way that it not only ended his life but broke his spirit, leaving our lovely, sparkling knight who ‘harbours no hatred for anyone’ crying bloody murder and dissipating as a vengeful spirit. Visually, it’s terrifying. Emotionally, it’s gut-wrenching.
Now, would the scene have had the same effect if he’d been less of a loveable, honour-obsessed figure? Ponder that as we move on.
Case Study Two: Sayaka Miki
Ah, Magical Girls! What genre better to settle into for some light, fluffy, girly fun? I’m afraid to say that if this is what you’re looking for, you may have wandered down the wrong path with Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and the character of Sayaka is a perfect example of why.
Her story arc plays out as a perfect tragedy from step to step, her downfall into mental unhinging, transformation and death started when she leaps out into the magical fray with a mind for being a hero of justice. She gives up her ordinary teenaged existence for the one of a monster-slaying magical warrior by exchanging it for a wish—a wish she uses not for her own benefit but to heal the boy she’s in unrequited love with. Such a noble martyr already, and it only gets worse as she gives up everything she has including her health, her friendships and her sanity to pursue her goal of being the ideal hero, defeating evil and saving the day.
It’s also her storyline that hits the viewer in the face with the twist that Magical Girls become the monsters they’re sent to hunt, and the honourable, hopeful Sayaka warps before our eyes into a shapeless, mindless monster that then has to be defeated by her remaining friends.
Are we seeing a trend here?
And last, but definitely not least…
Case Study Three: Eddard, Robb and Catelyn Stark
Woe it is to bear the family name of Stark in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy world… quite possibly because, funnily enough, they’re one of the few sets of characters who are trying to be genuinely good people. Eddard has a strong moral compass and sticks out like a sore thumb in the corrupt, decadent nest of the royal court, Catelyn is one of the few voices of reason crying for peace in the midst of war and most of her character centres around being a devoted, loving mother, and Robb takes after both his parents in being an altogether capital lad.
In case you hadn’t heard the screams of the internet, these three are now all horribly dead.
Eddard met his demise at the end of the first book/season, shocking out of their seats everyone who thought a main character or a big actor like Sean Bean couldn’t possibly be killed off (really, they should have seen it coming all along), and Robb and Catelyn have recently reached the terrible end of their televised lives at the tail of season three due to violent betrayal.
What gives? Why are we killing off all the good guys? Isn’t that the kind of behaviour we want to encourage, not scare viewers away from for fear of getting their heads axed?
There are several obvious reasons for this trend: first of all, writers are clever assholes who run their magical business by tying audiences to made-up people with real emotions. Especially in suspenseful, dark series like the three I’ve mentioned all turned out to be, the hook to continue relies on fear for the characters. That is the purest nature of suspense, and when you make it clear that there’s no contractual immortality for the so-defined ‘good guys’, it immediately makes that fear for every beloved character all the higher, and increases the desire to keep watching to see if they’ll be okay.
Second, the concept of heroism is a fun one to toy with. It’s a theme that appears strongly in each of the mentioned series, and it’s an ideal that is quite often dashed on the rocks. Which hooks audience interest again, because it’s not what we expect. What if all the things that make a good guy a good guy are flawed concepts? Sayaka’s pursuit of a delusional ideal of true, blind justice is what ruins her personally, and Eddard’s unwavering faith that honour and truth would win out blinded him to the dangers around him.
Before he died, he was made to confess that everything he’d been trying to prove was wrong, and in the eyes of the public he was executed as a traitor, and after Catelyn is murdered she is brought back as a horrifying subversion of her former, loving self. There it appears again, that extra, juicy, heart-rending element of tragedy that destroys everything a character is before (or as part of) their untimely death. If them being killed isn’t enough of a sucker punch to the heart, adding the element of them dying broken and disillusioned and so unlike everything they wanted to be will certainly do it. Fiction is always in the business of roping us in heart and mind, and providing horrifying twists like that is a sure way to go about it.
The world of recent fiction enjoys turning the tropes we trust on their heads—the golden hero is no longer guaranteed to survive and save the day, in fact, in series with the slightest fleck of grit they’re the one most likely to die. Bonus points if they’re a mentor character or a beacon of all that is good in the world—all the better for the emotional impact when they’re cut down, proving that the plot structures we cling to can no longer support us. In that, of course, it creates new tropes that we can lean on and make predictions with, but that’s another story.
So, basic advice? Don’t be good. Be bad. You’ll be as emotionally messed-up as the next Lannister, but you’ll be alive.