Oops, I’m talking about villains and anti-heroes again.
I read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but was never really a die-hard fan at heart… nonetheless, the group that is are always interesting to watch, and one of the areas I note they’re most divided in is the case of Severus Snape. Half of them burst into tears at his very mention and mourn and praise the tragic unrequited love story between him and Lily Potter, the other half recoil at the concept and are in absolute denial that Harry named one of his kids after the sometimes-villainous professor. Both sides have their valid points, but looking at this crevasse-like opinion split I do have to wonder whether JKR succeeded in her attempt to make Snape a likeable, sympathetic and morally interesting character by giving him tragic feelings over a pretty girl.
Which, as discussed before, seems to be a bit of a go-to if you’re looking for emotional growth, motivation explanation or the excuse to get your hero weeping on his knees figuratively or otherwise. Now, when done well this can be fantastic and poignant, when not, it falls a little flat. There’s some genuine pathos and poetry in a tragic love story that the hero must mourn (perhaps leading him down the road to become a villain, even), but as with all things it’s about execution. There’s a difference between setting up a tragic loss in a character’s backstory or current adventure to give him (and I’m using ‘him’ because this post is discussing male heroes and their often but not always female love interests/cute little sisters/doting dead mothers etc.) motivation, conflict or just some emotional depth, and throwing it in there as a hook for sympathy and a quick attempt to humanise a character that does awful things.
Snape’s love for and loss of the woman who shaped his life is sad, yes, and you feel bad for the guy learning all of that as he dies, but does it redeem the past seven years/books worth of bullying and evil deeds? Again, some believe so, some refuse to. At least that was considerably thought out, as far as I remember, and Lily Potter was an important character in her own right and didn’t just exist to die for Snape’s look-he’s-crying-he’s-not-totally-evil redemption. By all means, kill off characters to create a story via cause and effect, but don’t do so in a way that cheapens both parties.
Watch Dogs, as far as I know, employs this tactic to give their main character his reason for doing what he does, in his case a dead cousin. Again, that’s quite tragic, but whether it justifies going on a game-long criminal rampage is another question. And what do we know of the cousin herself? Or is it niece? I can’t actually remember (the only concrete knowledge I have of the game is how it reportedly disappointed everyone, and that it used memes in its advertising), and that’s not great even considering I haven’t gone anywhere near the game. If her relationship with the anti-hero becomes a moot point as long as her death made him sad-mad-bad enough to kick off his villainous ways, you’ve struck out short as far as I’m concerned.
But skimping on depth where the dead character is concerned isn’t the only way you rob this device of its credibility. Think of the anti-hero himself—is he actually soul-rackingly upset by his loss, or does he kind of mention it a couple of times, make broody faces and continue on his way until none of the audience/players can even remember what the dead relative/love interest looked like at the end? If you’re using his pain as his motivation, you want to actually demonstrate it. Think that arc of Boardwalk Empire where Jimmy learns how cruel Chicago gangland can be and is forced to grow as a character and person and face the harsh reality of life on his own… a developmental ephiphany brought about by the scarring and death of a lover who everyone seems to have forgotten about two episodes later. There’s a time and place, obviously, and he was pretty busy shooting people, but you’d think his display of grief would at least be consistent given the event was meant to have such an impact. Nucky shows more emotion over his tragic backstory wife, and Nucky’s a self-described asshole. I digress.
Despite its fridge full of ladies on his torment’s behalf, Fate/Zero actually does this bit right with its main character—yes, Kiritsugu is a broody, black-clad, smoke-puffing grizzly ball of moral ambiguity and escapist badassery, but he’s also hugely emotional and actually shows that as opposed to swallowing it behind a supposedly masculine (?) bravado. The character of Natalia exists to propel his story along by giving him the training he needs to become the badass and also the heartbreak to be broody, and her death serves as a demonstration of the pain of pursuing his needs-of-the-many-over-needs-of-the-few-yes-even-if-the-few-are-the-people-you-love philosophy as well as Tragic Backstory™ revealed in flashback episodes. But, I think what I enjoy about the delivery of that crucial scene aside from its background problems, is that Our Grizzled Anti-Hero doesn’t grit his manly jaw and soldier on to be a closed-off, cruel badass, but instead bursts into ugly tears.
It’s not the first or the last time we see this, either (especially in the novels, which contain 100% more Emiya tears and also hugging), and Kiritsugu remains tormented about his past (and future) and a squishy ball of emotions underneath his charred exterior. He could cut himself off from his feelings because they are dumb and should be hated but it’s shown that he’s ultimately emotional and needy with a huge capacity for love, and this manages to coexist with the stoic badass side of him. People die for his development and ideals, and though Urobochi has a great time fleshing out all the nasty details, it’s pretty consistently shown that that sucks. Thus, actual sympathy is achieved through human feeling, both for the anti-hero and for the characters who die for him (in a meta sense or literally). Come and be amazed.
And, in the end, it’s him being the right mix of pragmatic badass and loving crybaby that saves the day and ensures the sequel, because it’s the loving crybaby that rescues the protagonist of the Fate/Stay Night. And lo, being a loving crybaby isn’t frowned upon in a storytelling sense. Rest in peace, first love, mentor, wife and mistress, at least you all had an impact that was actually explored. If you’re going to pull the man-pain-as-motivation card, you have to play it for keeps otherwise it comes across as flat. Sometimes Bruce Wayne is written as a complex emotional being that shuts himself off and puts himself in danger for blame of himself and love of justice, sometimes he just figuratively yells “MY PARENTS ARE DEAAAD!” when anyone asks him why he does anything that he does. You dig?
Fictional characters do things we never would, like shoot people and wear dark capes and hack computers while doing parkour, and so to create a connection sometimes we grab at straws to find a device for sympathy. You run into trouble where you toe the line between wanting to keep your anti-hero sufficiently badass yet likeable and sympathetic, so the proverbial widespread ‘you’ leap for a tragic backstory that doesn’t physically affect him but immediately makes the audience nod and feel. Whether you explore it fully or just drop it in at the start (or at the very end, in Snape’s case) is up to you, but let it be known that it can send any emotional credibility plummeting.
So step one: try having the character that dies, be they a mother, sister, love interest or other, be their own character before they’re a device to break the anti-hero’s heart. And once you’ve done that, step two: actually show the heart breaking and the grief, and continue to do so. It does pull the rug out from under the ‘emotional pain as motivation’ thing if you don’t actually demonstrate that pain, whether because you forget or are too afraid of having it come across as unmanly or distracting from how escapist and badass your anti-hero needs to be. Choose your poison. A three-dimensional and flawed character is 100% more likely to garner my sympathy than one who just points to his dead girlfriend/cousin/niece?? as justification for his unlawful and awful actions.
And also, step zero: ask yourself do I need to actually do this? before you do. If you’re going to throw Gwen Stacy off a roof in 2014, stop and consider the implications, its place in the story you’ve created, what the death means for her personal character arc and whether it robs her of her agency, and the fact that you’re now breaking up Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield as an on-screen couple. And also, that there are other ways to springboard a character’s emotional growth or move a plot along without killing a perfectly innocent cast member and contributing to a culture of violence against women for the sake of men. Shocker, I know.
All the underlying sexism in this cliché aside, really it just comes down to writing fully-developed characters that you aren’t afraid to give flaws and weak points and roles outside of a plot device. Because frankly, having your supposedly gritty and morally interesting lead go “But my wife/mother/sister/cat is dead!!” as an excuse for being a terrible human being is both insulting to that character’s integrity and the dead one’s. If you fail in your attempt to make the character sympathetic, the audience is just going to get bored and leave, or sit watching whispering “yes, look broodily out the window some more, your man pain pleases me”, and that’s probably not quite what you were going for.