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, would sort of know what to do to stay alive.
It’s a dangerous business being a fictional character. As if life wasn’t hard enough, you’re caught and contracted into the business of propelling along a story, and that means having constant drama flung at you by the godly hands of your writers. They’ve got to keep the audience invested, see, whether that means piquing their curiosity about the future of your love life or scaring the bejeezus out of them with life-or-death suspense. My understanding of television writing comes down to this: it’s a group of people in a room with some pens and paper and a whiteboard, rubbing their hands together and going “Okay, team. How can we mess around with everyone’s lives this season?”
Not even kidding there. I listened to a seminar on it at a writer’s festival I went to, but that’s an irrelevant detail except that it allows me to waft around the fact I visit writer’s festivals and am clearly a deeply cultured human being. The point is, screenwriters are in the biz of cramming as much drama into their characters’ lives as they can to make their creations as engaging as possible. In any long running series, it’s inevitable that at one point or another they’d have to start running out. After all, there are only so many times you can raise the stakes before it gets ridiculous. When scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel with a creative spatula, writers are often faced with the option of the ultimate dramatic device: kill off a main character.
If we’re talking about anything set in the real world, this can be a serious move that many executives, team members and fans would rebel against in terror. But if your show resides in a universe where the supernatural is putty in its writers’ hands, then you’ll find there’s much more leeway, and, as the hero, much more of a chance you’ll be horribly murdered. Because they can bring you back.
Case Study One: The Doctor
Probably the best example of a character killed off here and there without abandon, seeing as the nature of the star character of Doctor Who gives the writers the ability to do this at any time they feel the need. When a leading actor wants to go onto other projects, or the fans are getting tired of the persona, or they really need a big heart-punching piece of shock material in a climax, they can just off the guy then and there. Because poof, right after the fact our time and space hopping friend will just jump back up again played by a new guy.
This is, of course, one of the reasons Doctor Who has been able to go on for so long. The show is as immortal as its main character. Which is nifty, since it’ll never end and it will just keep getting more gloriously convoluted. Matt Smith has announced that he’s leaving the show soon, prompting a whirl of speculation about who the next Doctor is going to be played by and how Eleven is going to meet his end. It’s got to be something spectacular, since not only is Steven Moffat flying this mad science-fantasy boat whooping gleefully, but simply killing the character off won’t be enough of a shock. The fans expect his death and know that he’ll just come back. Does it remove some of the emotional pull? Hold that thought.
Case Study Two: Sam and Dean Winchester
Sam and Dean Winchester have encountered their fair share of undead terrors, and they’ve also had a taste of it themselves. Between them, they have been shot, stabbed, impaled, struck by lightning and ripped up by hellhounds, not to mention the times they’ve sold their souls, been to Hell and Purgatory, and starred in one delightfully traumatic Groundhog Day-esque episode where Dean dies in a new creative way every timeline reset.
This kind of thing is to be expected, I suppose, when you deal with the supernatural (who’d have guessed?) for a living—ghosts, demons, ghouls and vampires all imply an evasion or diversion of the entire death process, so it’s only natural that those chasing after them and getting embroiled in their world should get a touch of the same. It happened to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She came back to life too, funnily enough. In the right genre, death just isn’t a big deal.
Now, this is all well and good. I mean, the more you traumatise characters the better for emotional drama, yes? This has been established. However, you reach a point somewhere in your long haul through, say, eight or nine seasons, and you realise that your characters are so battered, traumatised and unstable that to conserve any taste of reality they should be PTSD-racked shades of their former selves who really just need a bit of peace and rest. I mean, they’ve died and been brought back. Several times. That can’t weigh nicely on the psyche. But nay, they’ve got to keep going on adventures and pumping up that viewer engagement by undergoing yet more suffering.
In shows where characters can be brought back from the dead, death becomes somewhat cheap. That’s a generalisation, so let me clarify: shows where characters are killed off willy-nilly because it’s the best thing its writers can pick for plot and drama remove the weight of death. It might shock the audience the first time, and have them rejoicing when their beloved hero returns, but if it’s done enough times they get numb to it. Oh, there he goes. Well, no worries, we know he’ll come back in a few episodes.
And by numbing the impact of death, the great terror and fascination of humanity, they’ve killed the emotional hook and the sense of tension created by fear for the characters. So, to make more drama they have to go bigger and better and more horrifying. And that can create a horrid mess. As Being Human did, it may be better to pop a new, fresh set of characters at one point, leaving your spectacularly messed-up cast at peace after inflicting them with all the horrors they could believably stand (bonus points for that series, in fact, seeing as two of the main characters were already dead/undead at the start, so they could only up the ante from there).
Sure, if it’s all part of some great symbolic death and rebirth as part of the protagonist’s character development or heroic journey, that’s actually pretty neat. But if killing off your leading cast becomes simply the go-to for character drama… well, that destroys the poetry of it a bit.
So, if you find yourself stranded in a fictional world, basically just… try not to stay there too long, because as the stakes rise and the powers that be grasp for ideas, chances are they might just come grasping for your neck.