Killing Your Darlings: On Main Character Deaths, Or Not

"People die if they are killed"

Except when they don’t

Hush little audience don’t you cry, you knew your favourite character was going to die…

Well, that’s an unnerving little lullaby isn’t it? The fact is, the author giveth and the author taketh away, and the characters and worlds creative professionals breathe life into are often at risk of having that life sucked right back out of it. Yes, friends and loved ones, I’m talking about character deaths again. An excessive amount, or a lack thereof, both of which seem to be trending across popular TV series at current, and both of which have some iffy implications.

Game of Thrones, for example, has by now a stellar reputation for sticking an axe into everyone you love, or, in less weepy terms, its writer assigning no contractual immortality to the ‘good guys’. One of the most popular anime series at the moment, Attack on Titan, runs a similar operation, as does the Fate franchise which has spent the better part of this year putting my heart through a pepper grinder. Supernatural is not much better. In the sphere of YA The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are well worthy of note, with fans everywhere lamenting the loss of their favourites in whatever context. Suzanne, George, J.K. and their kind have earned their place in the hearts of many as the harbingers of doom.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Steven Moffat, who, as much discussed in the wake of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special, has a general aversion to actually killing characters off. Which is fine, on one level, since not every series has to contain a warzone’s worth of death if it’s not actually set in a warzone. But what our champ the Moff does is fake out deaths; kill Rory and bring him back so many times it becomes a running joke, displace people in time so they pass away quietly off-screen, or just smack the literal giant reset button and make everything okay again. As a side note, there is an actual website where you can press a ‘make everything okay’ button, which is really cute, but as a writing technique it’s… rather dicey.

The many deaths of Rory Williams-Pond

There he goes again

At one end of the tightrope, you have Game of Thrones watchers joking that they’re hesitant to get attached to new characters since they’ll probably just get killed off, at the other, all tension and sense of fear for the Doctor and his crew is pretty much evaporated due to their writers’ discomfort with the idea of killing anyone permanently. Neither of these is really a position your show wants to be in.

First of all, both instances remove the weight and impact of a heavy and impactful topic. It’s death, you guys. I know they’re made-up people, but the key to success in writing is creating an empathetic connection with your audience and making them feel for these characters the way they would for real people. Thus, when you kill off a character, you want it to have the same power behind it, and have the audience grieve for them, or at least be shocked and saddened, the way they would for an actual person. Perhaps more so, since we can know fictional people far better than real ones on many levels, but that’s a discussion for another day.

That said, though, you don’t want to just knife a beloved character for the sake of getting a reaction. Anything violent that befalls a character should never just be done for shock value. For one thing, it’s insulting, for another, well, you’ve just made one of your stars very dead, haven’t you? Unless of course you pull a Moffat after pulling a Whedon and bring ‘em right back, and that’s just adding insult to injury quite frankly, unless you can conjure up a really legitimate and good reason for it. Which, more often than not, the collective ‘you’ in question can’t.

Characters should not just be killed off for the sake of being killed off. Every death should mean something, impact the plot in some way. And for the love of all that is good and nice in the world, the rest of the cast should not forget about it an episode later.

Character ends must have meaning and weight, they must say something or change something. Maybe their death leaves the team short-handed in the lead up to the climactic fight against the Big Bad, creating the question of what’re they gonna do now? Maybe the character represents a concept that the series philosophises and plays with, and them getting killed demonstrates and symbolises how it’s a flawed or out-of-place ideal in that story world.

Ned Stark about to be executed

The moral here is not to get into politics

Maybe their demise leads to someone else’s character development, maybe it leaves them orphaned or alone and sets them off on their Hero’s Journey, maybe it forms the crux of a revenge arc. Maybe it’s simply there to show the horror of war or revolution, and that these things bring out the worst in human beings, and nobody is really safe, and we are all mortal, even the ones that the fanbase adores the most. People die when they’re killed, guys. It should be a powerful and heartbreaking message, carried with a sombre tone.

Except of course that people don’t always die when they’re killed, and well, that’s all well and good as a plot twist, but without a plausible reason behind it, and if it’s done frequently enough, it becomes a hell of a problem. For one thing, it reveals the writers’ nervousness with the concept of consequences, and makes the plot and character development a little stagnant for all the reasons I talked about a coupla paragraphs ago.

Especially if said character is brought back simply because of a fandom outcry or so they can appear in a spinoff, like Agent Coulson from The Avengers who was, well, what they came together to Avenge. He was also the only person the villain of the piece actually killed himself, arguably his most villainous act, and now all of the emotional importance behind that has kind of been wiped away. But we got Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D out of it, so… hmm.

Having characters bounce back from the dead willy nilly not only makes any character reactions and development to do with it moot, like, say, the team of superheroes actually banding together and quitting their bickering brought together by their grief for an innocent and adorable agent, but kind of removes the tension too. Suspense comes from audiences fearing for the characters, caring about them enough to hope they’ll be okay, and if they know they’re going to be okay even if they do die, well, that kind of shoots that thematic horse in the face.

Agent Phil Coulson

Nobody tells me when to stay dead, not even Joss Whedon

Shows that bring characters back from being dead (if, of course, they were proper dead with some sort of sci-fi or magic involved and not just faking it, or literally immortal) also usually don’t touch on the trauma inherent in that. How often is it addressed in depth the kind of horror you would feel having died? That’s a whole new level of PTSD and a whole lot of other awful things that TV rarely looks into properly to begin with, let alone following through the psychological consequences of their death-defying plot twists.

There it is again, consequences. For a story to continue to move, they are needed. Action and reaction. Things cannot stay still, and characters have to develop and move the plot along. And having that bounce all over the place due to deaths and undeaths is not going to work. The same way you’re going to get hindered by too many character deaths, or random ones pulled for shock points. It should be part of the story and it should be treated with respect, lest we all become horribly desensitised or just… subjected to lazy, lazy writing.


Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

3 responses to “Killing Your Darlings: On Main Character Deaths, Or Not

  1. I don’t mind character deaths when, just as you point out here, they’re actually meaningful as opposed to done primarily for shock value. I tend to loathe the whole ‘oh wait, they’re secretly alive!!’ plot twist though, regardless of whether the character death was a trick all along or else whether some form of magic is used to bring said character back. It’s become something of a pet peeve of mine, but especially in anime.

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